You can hear Batalá Durham long before you see it. Its tide of layered beats and enthusiastic shouts emanates from Durham Central Park, where the city has permitted the ensemble to rehearse on warm Monday nights since last summer.
But some local residents would prefer that Batalá be neither seen nor heard in Durham Central Park. Earlier this month, after repeated complaints from a resident at Liberty Warehouse Apartments and three visits from the police, Batalá Durham was warned that an additional noise complaint could prevent it from being able to practice again in the public park. It's a case of rubber meeting the road with Durham gentrification, and the outcome could speak volumes about Durham's commitment to artists versus development.
"Being shut down was a cultural shock to me," says Caique Vidal, one of the founders of Batalá Durham. "I believed people would love this, because Americans pay airfare [to Brazil] to experience this. I'm giving it to you for free!"
The samba-reggae group formerly practiced at Terreiro de Arte e Cultura, an Afro-Brazilian center for arts and culture housed on North Mangum Street—just a short walk from Durham Central Park—until Terreiro was priced out of the space. Now Batalá Durham practices at Durham Central Park during the summer and the Monkey Bottom Collaborative during the winter. Founded in 2015, the Durham chapter is the first in the Southeast, and is one of thirty-five such groups around the globe.
The Liberty Warehouse site has its own strong Durham history. From 1940 until 1984, it was a tobacco warehouse that helped power a thriving industry. After the warehouse ceased operations in 1984, Walker Stone, the building's owner until 2006, repurposed the warehouse. It became home to artists and nonprofit arts groups, including the Scrap Exchange for a time.
In 2006, Stone sold the building to Greenfire Development, a Durham company known for acquiring historic properties in the area. After the warehouse's roof collapsed in 2011, Greenfire's management of the property was called into question. With the support of Preservation Durham, Durham City Council removed the building's historical designation and sold it to East West Partners, a developer based in Chapel Hill. In 2015, the company announced its intent to demolish the building and build a mixed-use complex at the site, which opened in May of this year.
Peter Katz, a board member of Liberty Arts, was involved in efforts to make sure that East West Partners would abide by Durham values in its development of the site. But Katz doesn't think that Durham asked enough of the developer.
"To me, it represented a big opportunity, because, even now, we're wringing our hands trying to figure out how to get developers to grant affordable housing," Katz said. "And yet we gave away a pretty big bargaining piece—that historic landmark designation—for nothing."
Katz noted that the rents at Liberty Warehouse Apartments, which start at $1266 a month, are not affordable for many Durham residents. The same month that Liberty welcomed its first residents, East West Properties flipped the development to a New York-based real estate investment firm for $69 million.