Visitors from Wake or Orange County, or even Woodcroft, might not have known that this particular mess, the reconfiguration and facelift of downtown Durham, was anything new and different: "Isn't Durham always a mess?" I could hear them ask. In their relief and surprise not to find themselves shot and robbed on every corner, they might not have noticed or thought that this is what Durham is always like. No wonder they passed all eight bonds, eh?
But those of us who do live here do know it's a mess, and it requires not a small leap of faith to imagine how wonderful it might turn out. "I sure hope they know what they're doing" my son mutters every time we go to the Y or the library, a sentiment shared I suspect by even this renovation's staunchest supporters. To my more wordly eye, it resembles many of the developing countries I have visited; to him it just looks like a mess, albeit with bulldozers and hopeful building materials here and there. But, having eaten many lunches in the early '80s at the Ivy Room in the shadow of an abandoned warehouse that is now Brightleaf Square, having known the absolute wreckage that is now the phoenix called the American Tobacco Campus, having lived through a kitchen renovation, I know that with hard work, money and vision, miracles can happen.
It was great to see all the art that is being made, but for me the most wonderful thing was to see a downtown full of people, a sight one of my companions well remembered from her 1960s Durham childhood, before the demise of the tobacco industry and the arrival of South Square Mall. They have a lot to answer for, those malls, and the thought that Durham might bustle again like that is a hope worth working for. Any resident of much duration in Durham of course knows we have been just on the verge of a renaissance and rediscovered greatness and prosperity for about, say, 25 years, but it really is looking more hopeful, let me count the ways, probably due in large part to our tolerance for the mess and change that accompanies new life, or life, period.
And Durham is all about the wide variety of life and its knobby, smooth, weird, argumentative, contentious and beautiful aspects. My brother, landing here from his drowned New Orleans, a city that could well absorb and celebrate the human range, said succinctly, "I like Durham. It's not too precious." And I like that too. I like standing between Market and Corcoran streets, one featuring the sleek Bull City Business Center as it gazes across at old plate glass windows with a sign proclaiming "We Want Oprah!" That seems to me one of the symbols of the many ranges that comprise Durham, (in)famous for its quirks, its fights, its connections, its hopes and realities, its contradictions, its history. I am not romanticizing this range; sometimes it takes more guts, patience and humor than I have on a given day to appreciate it, but precisely for that range I do love it and believe in it.
There is a collection of bumper stickers and T-shirts circulating these days that encourage Durham to love itself, rubble, crime, great architecture, people, art, mess and all. You've got to believe there's a swan growing in this funky ugly duckling, but you know, in Durham we really do love the duckling as much as the swan, something our neighbors can't quite believe. Sitting outside Blue Coffee (former home of Wilma's Country Kitchen, where I know for a fact that the secret ingredient in the creamed potatoes was Miracle Whip), we watched people come and go in the soft, sunny afternoon. One exuberant artist, passing with her friends, chose to look over at the café scene on her right, as opposed to the rubble strewn landscape on her left, and said in a happy voice, "Isn't this great?!" And it is. In Durham, we will just throw the picnic blanket down in the middle of the kitchen renovation and invite you over. It is like life, you know--don't wait for it to be perfect. And hey, maybe Oprah will show up.