It was trash day. This is traditionally the best time of the week to find discarded letters, to-do lists and other leavings that have escaped the waste bins on their short journey from the curb over and up into the garbage truck.
On a July morning last summer, I came upon these scraps of blue paper woven in the grass. I gathered all that I could find, and returned the next day to sift through the grass some more. While piecing them together, it became clear there were two sheets of paper, and that I was assembling two jigsaw puzzles at the same time.
We are at our rawest and most vulnerable in the late night/ early morning. Free of societal niceties and expectations, it’s when we feel emboldened to tell the truth.
When I worked at the INDY, I wrote a column—or I should say it wrote itself—called Urban Archaeology. It consisted of found objects, overheard conversations and other ephemera that documented life’s small moments. The column became quite popular; when people met me, they often said, “Oh, you’re the person who picks up stuff off the ground.”
Yes, that’s me. And I’m still finding gems like this. I stumbled upon it on Halloween in Durham Central Park. Scroll down for more links to other prosaic discoveries.
Forty-six years ago, the residents of Scotland Neck, North Carolina, could not walk downtown on a sunny day without carrying an umbrella. They could not hang their laundry on the line. The cacophony of cawing was the soundtrack to 1969.
A couple of years ago as part of the Center for Documentary Studies’ Anytown project, I made a film about how Scotland Neck coped with a persistent blackbird invasion—not just 1,000 birds, but 6 million that decided to encamp in the trees of this small town near the Virginia border.
Last night, this short documentary—8 minutes and change—screened at the Strange Beauty Film Festival in Durham. It continues today at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. with more inventive films that look at the world through an odd lens.
I have to say, I was dreading this part: Noisy highways, strip malls, concrete and asphalt. The only respite was to be a trek along a segment of the Al Buehler Trail. Instead of realigning the trail, as originally proposed (and which would have horrible), the light rail line will be elevated over part of the trail and the Duke golf course. To accomplish this, GoTriangle will have to acquire 5.6 acres of Duke Forest. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement says there will be “negligible effects related to visual and noise conditions.” (See page 4-121 at the link above.)
I find this promise of “negligible effects” very hard to believe.
The construction and maintenance will likely damage the flora and fauna in the area, caused by a loss of trees and understory.
Duke biologists, chime in.
From here, the line cuts to Cornwallis Road, near the Jewish Community Center, the JCC Day School, Carter Charter School and Western Boulevard/U.S. 15-501. Here, GoTriangle has considered building the ROMF—rail operation maintenance facility—at a former Pepsi plant. It would require a rezoning of the land but with less bureaucracy than other sites.
Not so fast, said the JCC. Several JCC members and leaders are concerned the facility would also gobble up 2.5 acres that the Jewish Federation owns, and has plans for building recreational areas.
“I am also concerned with the potential impact on synagogue activities,” wrote Pam Barth, a JCC board member to GoTriangle. “Placing a 24-hour maintenance enterprise adjacent to a house of worship is likely to have an adverse effect on the atmosphere and intent of our worship services.”
“Imagine a worship service, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, or even a funeral, interrupted by the clanging of tools or the squealing of wheels as a rail car turns into the ROMF for maintenance.”—Pam Barth, JCC board member
And it’s worth mentioning that there’s an imbalance of political power when it comes to siting these types of facilities. DATA’s bus maintenance facility is on Fay Street, near a largely minority (52 percent African-American, 40 percent Latino) and low-income ($21,463 annual median household income, well below the $50,000 AMI for Durham) neighborhood.
Contrast those figures with the $79,000 AMI, 80 percent white demographics in the Cornwallis neighborhood.
Thus, Farrington Road area (80 percent white, $86,000 AMI) is the (very controversial) ROMF choice for now. However, Councilwoman Diane Catotti said a couple of weeks ago that she still wants Cornwallis to stay on the table.
The line continues down Western Parkway, paralleling U.S. 15-501. Someone is building a storage facility along this stretch, probably biding his/her time, collecting some income, until he/she can sell the land for more when the line is built. We pass the old Herald-Sun building, and as I write this, I wonder, “Why not build the ROMF there?”
Paxton Media, which owns the H-S, has been trying to sell that building for at least a couple of years. It could be torn down and a ROMF built in its place. A ROMF requires 15-25 acres, and the H-S site is only eight. Adjacent properties could bring that total to about 12. But there are condos behind the old H-S building. In that case, never mind.
A man limped in short stutter steps as he pushed an empty wheelchair onto the sidewalk along busy Erwin Road between LaSalle Street and the Duke Medical Center.
“Do you need some help?” I asked, only then noticing he had only prosthetic legs. He seemed unsteady, unwell, as if perhaps he should still be under a doctor’s care. His white medical bracelet read “Favio,” and listed his birthdate as 1960.
“I’m looking for a Mexican grocery,” he replied in English. He was fluent, but he spoke haltingly, as if the words were floating above his head and he had to catch them. “Someone told me there’s one about a mile up the road.”
I didn’t remember a tienda being in either direction, but began checking for one on my phone.
“Are you sure you’re OK?”
He showed me his right arm, which although apparently healed, was crooked and could not be extended. The side of head, asymmetrical in shape, also looked like it had been injured in the past.
“May I ask how you lost your legs?”
“In Mexico, my wife took my children and I decided to kill myself.”
“Did you jump?”
“No, I sat on the train tracks, and then …” He made a sweeping motion with his arm.
“I’m very sorry that happened to you.”
I gave the man $2, enough for a bus trip to downtown and back. I pushed him in his wheelchair across the street to the stop in front of Duke hospital. On the way, a pedestrian was nearly hit by a car that was turning into a parking lot.
“Seis o once (the 6 or the 11)” I told him when we arrived. “Buena suerte.”
One impetus for the light rail line is to connect Duke, particularly the medical center, to UNC, particularly its medical center.
There will be two stations along Erwin Road, one at Flowers Street, near the John Hope Franklin Center, and the other farther west, at LaSalle.
If you just travel down (the very congested) Erwin Road, you might think the only apartments are for ramen-eating graduate students or well-heeled doctors and medical faculty. But north of the VA and the hospital lies the historic Crest Street area, formerly known as Hickstown, named for landowner Hawkins Hicks. (Open Durham has an excellent history of this area.)
In the 1970s and 1980s, this modest, predominantly African-American neighborhood, endured great upheaval at the hands of transportation gurus who built the Durham Freeway through the heart of the area. After a federal civil rights lawsuit, the state transportation department had to come up with a mitigation plan: Sixty-five houses and their residents were relocated; others were demolished and rebuilt. The New Bethel Community Church and the W.I. Patterson Center, which abut Crest Street Park, remained. Graves at the church’s cemetery were dug up, then reburied in other Durham cemeteries. So obviously, GoTriangle and the city have to take great care in ensuring the low-income neighborhood—it now has a larger Latino population than African-American—benefits, not suffers from the light rail line.
Candace Mixon, her dog, Jelly, and Matthew Lynch were spending a perfect fall afternoon sipping beers at a picnic table outside Sam’s Quik Shop. (To clarify, Jelly was not drinking.) They looked young and metropolitan, like people who might know which end of the regional day pass to stick in the card slot.
It turned out they were ardent public transit fans, and using our own code, we traded observations on buses and trains in the way that regulars and commuters do.
“The 400 and the 405 used to take forever, an hour just to get to Chapel Hill.”
“It’s better now that they don’t go to New Hope Commons.”
“I take the bus to Cary.”
“Is that the 100 to the 300?”
“I sometimes take the Amtrak to Raleigh. And I used to commute to Greensboro on it.”
And so on. It’s not that they or I oppose cars—we each own one—but driving has become a drag.
“15-501, I despise driving it.” —Candace Mixon
“The roads aren’t set up for bikes, There needs to be an option besides driving.”—Matthew Lynch
Once the train leaves Buchanan Boulevard for the Ninth Street station, the rail line will be no longer run along a street but will be elevated instead. It will climb through a forest—part of which will need cut—behind the Center for Documentary Studies, swing in front of the Hillside Convalescent Center, two institutions already accustomed to trains. (In my previous coursework at CDS, audio/video recording occasionally had to stop while a train passed.) It will continue over Swift Avenue to the Ninth Street station, where people can take an elevator from the platform to the street level, right across from Sam’s Quik Stop.
(I admit I waxed nostalgic for a future chilly fall evening, sitting for a spell with a book I will have just purchased from The Regulator up on Ninth, sipping a bottle of Porter and waiting for the train to arrive. More likely though, it will be a blazing hot day in July 2025, I’ll have gulped the last of my water and be sweating it out on the platform, only for the train to be late.)
I wonder how the station’s placement south of Main Street will help or hurt the businesses up on Ninth. I also wonder how or if the train will co-exist with the Bull City Connector, the free bus that goes from Golden Belt to the medical center. The routes are similar, as is the timing—about every 17 minutes—and I could see the BCC cannibalizing the train ridership.
On one hand, the train could help alleviate some of the Ninth Street neighborhood’s parking issues. On the other, it could further buttress the Great Wall of Erwin Road, the underpass that if not for Sam’s, few would traverse. But for a six-pack of beer, people will cross a nasty intersection beneath the Durham Freeway.
The question is, will they cross that intersection for pancakes at Elmo’s Diner? (I would.) The latest issue of Mental Floss? (Ditto.) Some flowers or a tchotchke? (Double ditto.)
A lot of people will live near the Ninth Street Station. While Duke University housing encompasses most of the neighborhood south of the station—thus, precluding any significant development there—to the north, it’s a housing bonanza if you have a grand to drop on a one-bedroom. Nearly 1,500 apartments have recently been built or are in the pipeline, and that does not include all the seasoned single-family bungalows in Old West Durham.
There is still room for development, though—a Duke parking lot on Hillsborough Road, for example—and some workforce/affordable places sure would be nice for the workers at Harris Teeter or any of the Ninth Street businesses.
Here are the census figures for the block group that includes much of Old West Durham (Source: Durham Neighborhood Compass)
Total population: 1,963 Latino 15% White 69% African-American 7.6%
Median age: 28.7, which is much younger than the county average of 37
79% of residents are renters, and of those, 54% spend more than a third of their household income
on housing and housing-related costs
Note: The public comment period on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement ends Oct. 13. You can comment via www.ourtransitfuture.com .
Near Brightleaf Square, an eerie stretch of West Pettigrew Street parallels an active rail line. Part of the “street” is gravel, and more closely resembles a cowpath. It then crosses Gregson, and curves past the remains of an old, brick house, its lot strewn with trash. Beneath some leaves, I find a woman’s bracelet.
Pettigrew Street dead-ends at the Duke University transportation center and impound lot, site of the future Buchanan Boulevard station. For now, though, buses await their scheduled maintenance, garbage trucks nap between routes and discarded parking lot booths transform into terrariums as vines climb inside them. Cars, having violated Duke’s strict parking rules, have been jailed until their owners bail them out.
The line originally was to run near Smith Warehouse, but considering the building’s historic significance, the railway was deemed too close. So now, it runs a tad south, through the Maxwell Street parking lot, parallel to the Durham Freeway. As planned, the station would be couched off the street, and take out an old, brick warehouse, emblazoned with a mural of Pauli Murray, the Episcopal saint and civil rights activist.
But Durham Area Designers, a volunteer group of urban planners and architects who’ve scrutinized the proposed plan, believe the warehouse can be saved and reused. They submitted public comment, complete with drawings, showing a different proposal that not only preserves the building but also provides more space for transit-oriented development and better connections with the neighborhoods.
These neighborhoods—in particular, West End and Burch Avenue, and less so, the already tony Trinity Park, which borders Duke East Campus—are vulnerable to the effects of gentrification: Displacement of low- to moderate-income residents and local businesses along West Chapel Hill Street that have stuck by this neighborhood through thick and thin.
“We’re seeing changes in neighborhoods now. Now is when the planning is happening. Now is when decisions are being made.” —Selina Mack, director of Durham Community Land Trustees, a nonprofit that preserves and creates affordable housing
At Durham CAN meetings, residents have been focused on how to preserve affordable housing around station areas, including the West End and Burch Avenue. Affordability is very much at risk. Mel Norton of the Durham People’s Alliance analyzed 10 years’ of sales data in these neighborhoods, which shows home prices have increased more than 100 percent.
“There will be a significant increase in rents and property values. It’s happened nationwide. We want the benefits of light rail but not the displacement.” —Patrick Young of the Durham City-County Planning Department
As for renters, a UNC study released this year (see page 36 at the link below for this particular neighborhood), indicated that 78 percent of dwelling units within a half-mile of the station are rentals. Forty-five percent of dwelling units are considered to be affordable; however, very few are subsidized, meaning that increases in property values could compel private landlords to increase rents beyond their tenants’ reach—or flip the houses altogether. The study is here: affordablehousing_possiblesites
This is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city, home to the annual Our Lady of Guadalupe parade, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, the Islamic Center and Joy of Tabernacle storefront church. It sustains the Durham Co-op and the Taiba Middle Eastern Grocery. It’s certainly worth protecting.
Total population 584
Youth under 18 13%
Median household income $24,943
Percentage of residents who are renters 83%
Percentage of renters who spend more than 30 percent of income on house 64%
On a recent Saturday afternoon, a woman and her two young daughters stood on the sidewalk along Pettigrew Street, waving in the direction of a small incision in the Durham County jail.
The family had brought their pit bull, Mr. Big, who strained at his leash to sniff and greet me.
“That’s my baby,” the woman said, pointing up at a window.
I could not see her loved one among the anonymous slits in the wall. But she could, which was all that mattered.
I’m one of the few Durhamites who favor the jail—while architecturally hostile as warehouses of human misery tend to be—being located downtown. When we sweep our social issues to the boondocks, we can forget that our problems—and the people caught in them—exist.
However, I’m admittedly in the minority. Many, if not most, Durham residents oppose the siting of the jail, especially considering its proximity to the Durham Performing Arts Center. But the jail was there first, built in 1996 when downtown was desolate. DPAC opened next door in 2008, when the downtown renaissance, while tempered by the recession, began.
The duality is almost poetic: DPAC, with its glass exterior, creates a fantasy; the jail, impenetrable and opaque, presents reality. I’d argue there is room for both.
However, apparently there’s not room for a train station here. GoTriangle has proposed the downtown stop be located at the current bus station, which gives the project points for connectivity. The agency opposes building another station near DPAC, though, not only for financial reasons, it says, but also because the extra stop would slow down the train.
(Fun fact for newcomers: An old freight depot, its side painted with an American flag, used to be along Pettigrew in front of DPAC; it was torn down in 2007 as part of the center’s construction.)
“This location … would create a highly visible gateway, unlike the proposed location at the bus station, which is far from the center and far from walkable.” —Durham Area Designers
Durham Area Designers, a volunteer group of architects and urban planners, disagrees.
A station at Mangum and Pettigrew streets is necessary to serve DPAC, which broke records last season with nearly 444,000 attendees. Yet nearly two-thirds of DPAC audience comes from outside Durham County. Those from Chapel Hill could ride the train; those car-bound from Wake County could not, because regional connectivity to the east has become a victim of politics.
A DPAC station then, needs to deliver more. DAD says it does. A City Center station at Mangum and Pettigrew, DAD says, would also close the downtown service gap between stops: DPAC, the jail, City Hall, the old county courthouse, and several blocks of the central business district lie beyond the quarter-mile “catchment area”—the distance most people are generally willing to walk to a stop—in this case, the Dillard Street and downtown stations.
“An opportunity would be missed to align the light rail system with the geographic and symbolic heart of downtown Durham,” DAD wrote to GoTriangle. “In short, it would miss the mark.”
Transit researchers have found the optimal distance varies, depending on a city’s walking culture. (We see more people on foot now, but I’d still give downtown Durham’s walking culture a C; further out where sidewalks are scarce, an F minus.) Those living near transit will walk a half-mile; people working near one have a lower threshold, a quarter-mile.
And consider this DAD idea: GoTriangle should move the downtown station about a block west to the vacant Greyhound station. GoTriangle already owns that property. A station there could connect with the Brightleaf District, DAD says. This site also addresses the bus-train-car-pedestrian axis of evil that already plagues the Pettigrew/West Chapel Hill Street intersection.
This importance of connectivity between the north and south sides of downtown can’t be overstated. Downtown already has linkage issues because of the Downtown Moat, er Fifth Circle of Hell, er Loop. The existing railroad, used by freight and Amtrak, creates a psychological barrier that only the come-hither of the Durham Bulls, DPAC and American Tobacco Campus has managed to overcome.
Earlier this year, DAD persuaded GoTriangle to ditch a plan that would have created the Great Wall of Durham. The light rail line originally was to be elevated, over Pettigrew Street, rather than in the street as it’s proposed now. (Buses and cars have their own travel lane, one-way east.) There was great concern that an overpass would essentially act as a force field between the two parts of downtown. And the Goodmon family didn’t pour bazillions of dollars into the Bulls and American Tobacco Campus—and the city, DPAC—to see a rail line keep people from these money machines.
So GoTriangle got creative. They did it once. They can do it again. And again.
The intersection of Dillard and Pettigrew streets, the future site of a light rail station, is notable not for what’s there, but for what isn’t. From this spot, I try to imagine the street at its peak in the mid-20th century: The air heavy with the aroma of fried catfish from Best Seafood. The clean scent of detergent and lint floating from the laundry. The sidewalks teeming with African-American visitors leaving the Hotel Biltmore or lining up for a movie at the Regal Theater. I wonder what the street sounded like, at 12:30 on a humid June morning in 1970 when a bomb exploded in the Your Own Thing Theater.
This street belonged to the Hayti neighborhood, which was upended and destroyed by the construction of the Durham Freeway and other urban renewal projects of the 1960s and 1970s. Now it’s nothing but parking lots, a lonely stretch that not’s quite downtown but not yet East Durham.
it’s a desolate, albeit thankfully brief walk to Fayetteville Street, where you need to take out extra life insurance to cross the intersection. For several reasons, including geography, the Venable complex has yet to live up to its promise. It includes no restaurants, as originally planned, but bioscience companies, city offices and federal bankruptcy court, where, as a reporter, I’ve heard many a tale of woe.
When I moved to Durham nine years ago, the 305 South Anti-Mall, a music and performance venue near Dillard and Pettigrew streets, represented the city’s grit that I quickly fell in love with. Unfortunately, it closed in October 2007 after the city determined it didn’t have enough bathroom stalls. I would argue that regardless of where you go, there are never enough bathroom stalls.
At the time, the Anti-Mall was in a no-man’s land dominated by acres of cars for sale. Bull City Ciderworks was years away. Golden Belt was still in its infancy. Neither the Durham Performing Arts Center, the new courthouse or the new Human Services building had been built.
Now, though, the Dillard Street station “neighborhood,” extending north to Main and south to Mangum, is considered to be ripe for development. If used for good—racially and economically diverse, with attractive urban design that encourages community—this could help connect downtown and East Durham.
Most of the action—foot traffic, in particular—is north of Dillard. Food trucks cluster around the busy Human Services Building. People live in the Main Street Townhomes, which provides 43 units of affordable housing. On nearby Ramseur Street, Ponysaurus Brewing, Honeygirl Meadery and a proposed small arts venue could be generating the momentum to become the next Central Park/Geer Street District. However, the site of proposed new Durham Police Headquarters, in my view, this is a squandering of four acres that could be used for affordable housing or small businesses.
With momentum will come great responsibility to ensure the developments are well-planned and racially, economically and socially inclusive. For example, across from the proposed Dillard Street station, the old Hendrick Chevrolet dealership has been demolished, awaiting up to 308 multi-family apartments, a mixed-use development and office space. The word “affordable” has not been uttered.
So what is possible here? What city- and county-owned property could be transformed into a higher use? There are more than 11.4 acres of public land, consumed by buildings, but also parking lots and storage. nstead of providing census data, which would probably be skewed because the block groups encompass neighborhoods well beyond the Dillard Street station, I used GoMaps to see who owns what where. A list is here: Dillard Street area properties