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Gary Kueber: Preserving Durham

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Gary Kueber, the intrepid blogger who documents Durham's historical preservation—and destruction—at Endangered Durham (endangereddurham.blogspot.com), generally eschews catch-all phrases like "blighted property," "urban renewal" and "gentrification."

Instead, Kueber, a former doctor who now works as a developer at Scientific Properties, views demolitions, re-zoning ordinances and construction in the broader context of the city's past missteps and its architectural beauty.

Kueber was frustrated by the inability to influence changes in city and county development policy, so he founded the blog, he says, "to get my voice out there, and stand up for what I thought was an ongoing mistake."

The mistake, Kueber argues—in urgent, well-researched prose, backed by thousands of photographs and archival materials—is the decision to destroy Durham's historic properties. In nearly 800 posts, most exploring the history of a single parcel, spread over dozens of Durham neighborhoods, past and present—Kueber forces us to consider our development choices, and the way we view the Bull City.

"To understand why this is a bad decision, to understand why it has so much gravity, requires understanding how the city has been diminished from what it once was," he says.

On the site, Kueber mixes fascinating histories of houses that no longer exist—and the biographies of their notable tenants—with up-to-the-minute reporting, mapping and data. As a result, readers are confronted with an invaluable—if troubling—perspective.

"I feel so comfortable pointing people to Gary's site, because I know they're going to get good historical information," says Lynn Richardson, the North Carolina Collection librarian at the Durham County Library.

Richardson, who says she has worked with Kueber since he began "wandering into the North Carolina room and asking questions about buildings," insists that Endangered Durham's best asset is providing readers with a well-informed perspective. For example, Richardson says Kueber ably demonstrates why revitalizing a low-income neighborhood and preserving the city's architecture are "not oppositional" ideas—and how preserving old buildings is more environmentally friendly than building green. Whether documenting history or advocating change, Kueber writes with both accuracy and passion, Richardson says.

"It's a stunning resource," says John Schelp, president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association. "Not only is it read, on a daily basis, by folks in Durham, what's amazing is that future generations will be able to come back and see [...] how beautiful homes have been replaced by convenience stores and vacant lots. It's sobering."

Kueber's recent march down Fayetteville Street, in which he used archival photographs to piece together, plot by plot, the vestiges of Hayti, the flourishing African-American neighborhood, impressed Schelp.

"Here you are looking at the house of C.C. Spaulding, who started off as a dishwasher and ended up as the president of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and his house is now a convenience store, with an old truck and a pile of trash out back," Schelp says of a recent post, one of 75 Kueber has written on the neighborhood. "It's bitter medicine, but we have to take it."

Kueber, who arrived in Durham to enroll at Duke University in 1988, worked in the Triangle as a general practitioner, resident physician and researcher over the past 10 years. After completing medical school in his hometown of New Orleans, he began his first medical residency in 1997 at UNC. But, his passion was neighborhood preservation.

"I started to conceive of a path that I might be able to follow out of my day job, to something that was a little closer to what I was passionate about," he says, citing research on the connection between urban environments and public health.

Two master's degrees—in public health and urban planning—and another residency later, Kueber was tapped by Andrew Rothschild, president of Scientific Properties, to work on environmental sustainability and community solutions as a developer in the company.

"It was really becoming clear to me that publishing research, while it allowed some interaction with what I wanted, was not as active as I wanted," he says of his career change.

Through Kueber now dedicates hours of his free time each day to researching and posting at Endangered Durham, he also uses the site to advocate for neighborhoods and get people talking about preservation.

Schelp calls Endangered Durham "a place for conversation," while Eleni Vlachos, a founding member of the Cleveland-Holloway Neighborhood Association, puts it this way: "People wake up, have their morning coffee and see what Gary posted."

Schelp points to Kueber's efforts to save historic properties slated for demolition by inspiring citizens to question ordinances, advocating for public bidding on abandoned or neglected houses (as he did in Cleveland-Holloway), or coordinating the home's move to another site, such as the "Tate House" in Trinity Heights.

"That's an example of a neighborhood organization working out these agreements, and Gary reinforcing the efforts of a neighborhood on his blog, which generates more interest, and more engagement from the community," Schelp says.

For Kueber, tearing down houses, even in financially troubled neighborhoods like East Durham, is rarely the solution.

"If you demolish those buildings, you've lost the economic development potential, lost the character and history of the city, thrown away tax credits—and you haven't created any more jobs," he says. "You haven't solved the problem."

Instead, Kueber says that the city's most successful economic development has come through historic preservation. Projects like Brightleaf Square, American Tobacco Campus and West Village urban loft apartments have succeeded because they maintained the character and vibrancy of a once-booming industry.

But while the cigarette factories remain, many of the houses that once surrounded them are gone. Kueber estimates that nearly 90 percent of historical Durham—large swaths of entire neighborhoods, including Hayti—have been destroyed, making the preservation of the remaining 10 percent even more vital.

"You're looking at a very small subset of what was once here," Kueber says. "People [who don't] see the continuum of tearing stuff down, from mostly the 1950s onward, don't see one building being torn down as getting it down from 10 percent to 9 percent left. They see it as a brand new thing, or a single event."

Not so, for Endangered Durham readers. Thanks to Kueber's work, an informed citizenry is taking decades' worth of history and applying lessons of the past to Durham's ambitious future.

"People who don't know I do [the blog] will say to me, 'Did you know this used to be there?' I don't know if it's because they read my site, or somebody else read my site, but just the notion that that's out there is very rewarding to me," he says. "The notion that, perhaps, we are valuing this stuff more, is very rewarding."

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