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Writing about a changing city in 27 Views of Durham

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I moved to Durham a little more than a decade ago. I had been living in quiet isolation in rural Orange County, but the need to be closer to people and employment pulled me to the Bull City. I liked the way 1920s bungalows and simple frame Victorian houses with wide porches tumbled into downtown, where there were old brick warehouses and trains frequently rumbling through. It seemed to have grit, to be something real.

"Welcome to the City of Medicine," a friend emailed me. "And crime!"

Indeed. I moved into an apartment in Old North Durham, a subdivided house on a rapidly improving block of Mangum Street. Next door was a halfway house, with battered but friendly old men often sitting on the stoop. Across the street was the "Bull Durham house," which appeared in the 1988 movie as the residence of Susan Sarandon's character. A gay couple at the corner were the key neighborhood movers and shakers. They often were the cool heads on the ill-tempered neighborhood listserv, and their landscaping skills, which they generously contributed to neighborhood beautification efforts, turned their house into a gem at a time of heavy real estate investment. Before they left the state, they also made loud demands for their union to be recognized by the state; despite their lawsuits, it took another decade and Republican malefaction for the issue to be placed on the public agenda.

But a few blocks up the street, amid a warren of low-rent slum housing, there was a hideous multiple homicide, which seemed to have been perpetrated by criminals moving along nearby I-85. My own house suffered a pair of break-ins. People moved out, others moved in. I went to the animal shelter and got a credibly large dog, whose creaking bones now heave contentedly in the next room as I type. I joined the dysfunctional, dying food co-op. I read Endangered Durham, Gary Kueber's remarkable blog that excavated Durham's social and architectural history (and which has since evolved into opendurham.org).

But as I've unexpectedly turned into a Bull City old-timer, I've seen the city transform from a struggling, post-industrial shell into something conventionally desirable, a place to which we're told people want to move, with repurposed warehouses, a booming farmers market, a 2,800-seat performing arts theater, a welcoming business start-up culture, a diversity of bars and restaurants and food trucks.

Happy as I am to reap its benefits, the resurgence comes encumbered with an occasionally disagreeable strain of boosterism, such as the campaign to "marry" Durham. I've generally tried to resist too much excitement over the Portlandization of Durham: After my initial immersion into the moshpit of gentrification, I moved from Old North Durham to a street farther east that is generously included in Duke Park. My neighbors thre aren't part of the renaissance—mostly African-American, people are hanging on to their long shifts at Duke Hospital, or their jobs with the city, or working for their churches. I don't think they read this newspaper. I suspect that life in Durham has not changed on my street in decades ... well, now the bus stops have seats and shelters.

But, as Steve Schewel, the Indy's departing founder and majority owner, reminds us with admirable candor in his introduction to 27 Views of Durham, the latest collection of community writing from Eno Publishers, there is more to Durham than the creative-class appeal that sees the city listed in those rankings produced by business magazines. "Juxtaposed with the cool is the persistent reality, present and past, of poverty and discrimination," writes Schewel, who is serving his first term on Durham's City Council. "Urban futurist Richard Florida recently ranked cities according to their wage inequality, and Durham came in fifth in the nation. White flight is resegregating Durham's public schools. One quarter of Durham's children live in poverty," Schewel continues.

A recently unearthed map of Durham from the 1930s underlined this rather starkly: In those Jim Crow days, the cartographers stated matter-of-factly which neighborhoods were black, which were white and, intriguingly, they included a note that says "a few white people live in Negro communities and vice versa." Not to put too fine a point on it, but in many Durham neighborhoods today, the racial composition has barely changed.

The tensions between Durham's aspirations, successes and failures are admirably accounted for in 27 Views of Durham, which continues a run of titles that has also published 27 writers apiece from Hillsborough, Chapel Hill and Asheville. If the aim of the collection is to build a multilayered portrait of a community as it exists through time and space, it succeeds remarkably.

What may distinguish this collection from the others is its willingness, or eagerness, to focus on the town's warts and gaping wounds. While a certain nationally publicized scandal of a few years back is avoided, there's an admirable willingness to admit fault—none more frankly, or bitterly, than crime novelist Katy Munger when she writes:

As the years sped by, the dichotomy of Durham continued to fascinate me. How could a town that had wrapped itself around the golden granite towers of Duke University also contain such poverty and deprivation? The enigma drew me in, its contradictions blinding me to the obvious: Durham was that way because enough people in power kept it that way.

The poor of Durham, the people who do not go to farmers markets and baseball games, are part of the Durham that needs to be acknowledged, and it is here: Oral historian David Cecelski (who has a new book out from UNC Press this fall, called The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves' Civil War) contributes a sad history of a humble mountain woman who found refuge in a Durham AIDS shelter after a lifetime of suffering. Carl Kenney offers a unfortunately plausible street-dweller in a fiction contribution, while Rodrigo Dorfman meditates on his neighbors—undocumented immigrants—who disappeared one day. His reflections on the complex social boundaries between natives and vulnerable Latinos are highly illuminating. Poet-musician Shirlette Ammons makes a not-unrelated point in fond verse dedicated to her father, who's showing off a new ride: "How many Durham's darkies/ been hauled to heaven/ in this chariot?/ I ask,/ my eyes crawling through the trunk."

Intertwined throughout are the city's roots in tobacco, baseball, blacks, whites and the blues. While several pieces offer pleasant enumerations of the city's modern amenities, like the Beaver Queen Pageant, the multicultural meeting ground that is the downtown (but not the American Tobacco) YMCA, and community supported agriculture (now we know what happens if you don't pick up your share in time), for me the book's greatest strengths are in its evocations of the past—the endangered Durham.

Unavoidably, some of the most vivid pieces in this collection address the racial balkanization of the city. An excerpt from Lewis Shiner's 2008 novel, Black and White, reminds us of an older Durham, where a thriving African-American culture existed in Hayti, independent of white folk. It's 1964, and Robert, a timid white architectural draftsman, is cajoled into a trip to the dark side of the city, where Charlie Shavers is playing at the Wonderland Theater.

The idea of it stirred something in him, memories and longings, a sense of formless possibility, a tang of the forbidden. The libertine atmosphere of Hayti magnified the risks—not only the physical danger that lurked there, but the loss of control that beckoned from darkened doorways. It was, Robert thought, something like Havana before the revolution, a place where you check your inhibitions at the door.

This episode may be the fancy of a white novelist, but it's still a seductive evocation of bygone Durham, working in the same way that Mad Men indulges our nostalgia for the sexy parts of the past that we imagine we discarded along with the bad parts. As with Mad Men, a white reader will want to have been in Hayti for a jazz show. (The real Wonderland Theater, which sat on East Pettigrew Street, was demolished in the late 1970s—the space is now a parking lot for Rick Hendrick Chevrolet, according to Kueber's research on his blog.)

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that a different bygone theater serves as another powerful setting for racial confrontation and reconciliation in a contribution by Kirsten Mullen. This time it's the Center Theater, which was built as a premium addition to the Lakewood Shopping Center in the mid-1960s as Durham was being integrated by law if not always by fact. Mullen offers vivid recreations of seeing movies in Southern theaters with black audiences. After describing a screening of the 1958 Sidney Poitier/ Tony Curtis film The Defiant Ones, she fast-forwards to 1992 and describes the ecstatic experience of Malcolm X. It was something of a last hurrah, though: The Center Theater soon closed and now sits vacant at Lakewood, having spent a decade housing the Duke Surplus Store, which itself closed in 2007.

Beloved novelist Clyde Edgerton turns in a graceful hybrid essay that is at once family history and an enchanting conjuring of Durham's baseball parks, going back to George Lynn Ballpark, before turning out the lights on old Durham Athletic Park as the contemporary Durham Bulls Athletic Park comes into view. Indy contributor Adam Sobsey, also a Durham native, picks up the baseball thread with an essay about his youthful employment at Durham Athletic Park and his later encounter with a hero from those days, the can't-miss-but-did-miss minor league phenom Brad Komminsk.

Daily journalists are here, too. The Herald-Sun is represented by Cliff Bellamy's thoughtful account of the fall and rise of Durham's Central Park District, while Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan, a more recent arrival, stitches together a series of character portraits. Jim Wise, longtime political reporter and local historian, submits an excerpt from his 2008 book Durham Tales. Although amiably curmudgeonly, it's also remote: His topic, a long-ago controversy about an ordinance governing oversized flags, doesn't carry much resonance—it feels more like Mayberry than 21st-century Durham. Given his front row seat to the city's politics, I would have preferred a harder and more current take on the city's searingly, sometimes humiliatingly dysfunctional government, rife with cronyism, ineptitude and racial factions. Still, there's little disputing his conclusion that Durham is "messy, it's sometimes ugly, more often ridiculous, and it can be a free-for-all. At the same time, it's open to all. In Durham, civic life is a participant sport and everybody's eligible to play."

There's one significant omission: Aside from Margaret Rich's vivid, grisly reminiscence of working at Duke Hospital and collecting chicken serum at a slaughterhouse, there's no sustained treatment of Duke University, without whose largesse the city's reputation would not be possible. Two of the city's key cultural attractions are supported by Duke: the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and the American Dance Festival. (Included, however, is a lovely poetic reverie, "In the Gardens Beside a Library," by Duke English professor James Applewhite.) And Duke made this book possible: It was funded by a grant from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation. Perhaps a second volume of this title could address Duke more directly—perhaps something left behind by the late Reynolds Price.

I'd also like to see an excerpt of American Gold, by Ernest Seeman, whose life and times are recounted in Schewel's introduction: The head of Duke University Press in the 1920s, he was a leftist labor firebrand whose support for the textile strikes in the 1930s cost him his job. Many years later, his fictionalized memoir of Durham appeared, "a series of vignettes, vivid portraits of poor country folks, black and white, and exotic outsiders, lured in and chewed up by the tobacco and textile machines of Durham in its Gilded Age," as Schewel writes.

These days, Durham is something like a can't-miss urban prospect. Someone returning to this city after only a year or two's absence will be stunned by the scene on Rigsbee Avenue, a hopping district that hasn't even acquired a solid name. This culture is present in the collection's most up-to-the-minute piece, Barry Yeoman's fine reflection on community and struggle in the aftermath of the effort to defeat an anti-gay marriage ballot initiative [originally published in our pages].

But we should be careful what we wish for: Real estate developers are circling downtown now. A cloth-napkin rooftop restaurant appears to be on the way, and a massive rental condo development may be built to "preserve" a nearby historic warehouse. In no time at all, we could look more and more like ... Raleigh. But let us wait until 27 Views of Raleigh appears before deciding if that's a good or bad thing.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Blue grit."

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