When a bridge is more than a bridge | Durham County | Indy Week

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When a bridge is more than a bridge


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"The ceremony is going to take place on the Lakeland Street side of the bridge," Amy Blalock says over the telephone. Blalock, senior public affairs specialist for the City of Durham, is giving details of the Sept. 16 dedication of the R. Kelly Bryant Jr. Pedestrian Bridge, which spans the Durham Freeway near Alston Avenue.

A visit to the bridge the next day adds a poignant irony to Blalock's essentially correct description. There are actually two pieces of Lakeland Street, one on each side of the bridge, and it's apparent—from the street's amputated stub, barely 50 feet long, on the northeast side—that Lakeland used to enjoy an uninterrupted run across what is now a dash of high-speed traffic along Highway 147. And that, in turn, is a reminder of the damage inflicted by that road, built in 1970, on Durham's once thriving, historically black Hayti community.

In 1973, a pedestrian bridge was built over the freeway, but early-1970s public architecture often appears to have been focused on preventing riots and other mass uprisings. The planners wanted to keep people from throwing things from the bridge onto the freeway; as a consequence, its most notable feature was its enclosed, boxlike design, which had a number of ill effects.

First, the hulking thing rusted over time and came to look like a large piece of industrial scrap metal. According to R. Kelly Bryant, the city neglected the bridge, never cleaning or painting it, nor replacing its burned-out bulbs.

Second, because you couldn't see into the structure, it became by many accounts a haven for crime. And, according to Bryant, it further abetted criminals by providing them a footway over 147 when they were pursued by police cars, which would lose chase. In 1995, the bridge was closed to pedestrians, rendering it not only ugly but useless as well—a total failure of public works.

Third, and perhaps most egregious, the bridge loomed as an ugly reminder of what had happened to Hayti, affixed there like a censor's bar covering a history no one wanted you to see. It was a sorry welcome to Durham for drivers arriving from Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Finally, in 2003, the Parks and Recreation Department discovered unused freeway funds, according to City of Durham Manager of Stormwater and Engineering Ed Venable, and hatched the plan to replace the bridge. The $2.2 million project (80 percent of which was paid for by N.C. Department of Transportation funds, the rest by the City of Durham) met with the usual bureaucratic delays that tend to gather around government efforts, but the bridge is finally finished, posted at each end with another contribution of harried bureaucracies: signs that read "Motor Vehicals Prohibited."

The new bridge is appealingly simple, a single arch that lights up at night in "Durham blue," as Venable calls it. Close-set rails keep debris from escaping onto the roadway. But a closer inspection of the bridge reveals a good deal of thoughtful design.

"The abutments frame the bridge on either side and are an important aesthetic element of the design," says Iona Thomas of Raleigh-based Stewart Engineering, which undertook the project. "We wanted to reference the iconic brick of downtown [Durham]. We kept coming back to the chimney stacks. As a subtle reference to the brick corbelling that is so abundant throughout downtown buildings, we introduced a dogtooth band of brick where the column transitions from a taper to a flare. It is just enough detail to make it interesting, but not enough to make it fussy."

And what about R. Kelly Bryant Jr., the man whose name graces the bridge? He has lived just a few blocks from the bridge for decades. A forthcoming and valuable repository of Hayti history, he remembers when the whole neighborhood was unpaved; he was on the planning committee for the new bridge. The City of Durham's naming resolution gives an impressive summary of Bryant's civic contributions and adds this description of his character: "Rather than just sit around and tell younger people how things used to be done or share stories, Mr. Bryant rolls up his sleeves and offers real work."

Bryant grew up in Rocky Mount, graduated from Hampton University and moved to Durham in 1941. "While I was in college, my class in business came to Durham to see black people sitting at typewriters, black people operating businesses. We found out that Durham had something different from most communities—and certainly from most black communities: high incidence of home ownership, our own banks, insurance companies." (Bryant worked for N.C. Mutual Life for 36 years before retiring in 1981.) "It was a godsend," he says, his voice lively and astute.

"The Lakeland Street side of the bridge," to which Amy Blalock referred when describing the ceremony's location, borders a spruce neighborhood—the heart of old Hayti—a pleasant contrast to the rather rundown northeast end near the railroad tracks and the Durham Green Flea Market. Burton Magnet Elementary School is here, and a city park is just down the Lakeland hill.

So is the T. A. Grady Recreation Center, where the post-dedication festivities will take place, with free hot dogs for the first 100 attendees and music by DJ Piddipat. Mayor Bill Bell is scheduled to speak, as is the articulate, energetic, history-spanning R. Kelly Bryant Jr. You'd never guess he turns 93 next week.


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