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.
- Photo by York Wilson
- Batalá Durham in performance in front of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
On June 26, police shut down Batalá Durham for the first time because of a noise complaint from a resident at Liberty Warehouse Apartments. Afterward, Batalá Durham members Justin Anderson-Pomeroy and Mavis Gragg researched the noise ordinance in Durham and found out that noise under 60 decibels was permitted until 11 p.m. They then got in touch with central district police, speaking with Lieutenant Jerry Yount over the phone and Captain George Zeipekkis over email. They were told that they were not breaking any laws, but it would be up to the officer on call how to handle future complaints.
Gragg and Anderson-Pomeroy also talked to the board of Durham Central Park and were told that they were allowed to use the space on a first-come, first-served basis. Additionally, they contacted Liberty Warehouse Apartments, which offered to incorporate Batalá's practice schedule into its community calendar so residents would be notified.
On July 10, Batalá held its usual practice in the park, but it wasn't long before a police officer showed up to tell them that a resident had called to complain about the noise. The police officer left after band members showed him documentation of their correspondence with Captain Zeipekkis and the noise ordinance. But another officer showed up later on during the practice and, after visiting with the resident at Liberty Warehouse Apartments, asked them to stop playing. He warned them another violation could prevent them from practicing again in the park. The Durham Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
According to Anderson-Pomeroy, who handled most of the group's communication with the police, the anonymous resident claimed she was expecting to hear noise on weekends from the park, but not on weeknights.
"We're not doing anything illegal, we're not doing anything against the ordinance," Anderson-Pomeroy says. "We're doing something against one person's interpretation of what their neighborhood should be like."
Liberty Warehouse Apartments did not return requests for comment.
Catherine Edgerton, a Durham native and Batalá member, says that the members of Batalá Durham are subjected to the effects of gentrification not just through noise complaints by nearby residents but also through their own struggles to remain in an increasingly unaffordable Durham.
"My property taxes doubled this year," Edgerton says, adding that everyone in Batalá has been affected, especially those who rent. Many members of the group also emphasize that their decision to stay in Durham, despite increasing rents, is largely due to its vibrant arts and culture scene—a scene that Batalá Durham is worried about being priced out of.
"We have this amazing opportunity as a city to really cultivate and grow and expand the things that make this city magical," Edgerton said. "But Durham is in danger of becoming a Disney version of itself."
To the members of Batalá Durham, the private interests of wealthy Liberty Warehouse residents seem poised to determine the group's future, which remains unclear. They just hope that those private interests won't win out in the long run.
"At our last practice, some of the residents of Liberty Warehouse Apartments came down and danced, so I know some of them are supportive and that gives me hope," Vidal says. "But if they shut us down, I don't know where we'll go."
On its website, Liberty Warehouse Apartments advertises, "Live DCP [Durham Central Park]. Live Liberty." But as it stands for Batalá, a representative of a Durham-for-all spirit, that living Liberty resonates with hollow irony.