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Beyond all that

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Lucky Strike, don't strike back. ...

This phrase from a childhood game floated into my consciousness during the Durham City Council meeting on April 3, as I listened to the undiluted praises for Capitol Broadcasting Corp.'s plans for redevelopment of the former American Tobacco campus. When it came to the vote on a resolution of public support for the project, all the little green lights on the voting board came on.

Nobody--black, liberal, progressive--seems to care that our new heroes include the folks who helped make Jesse Helms famous. My friends and I used to try to catch Helms at the end of the news on WRAL-TV and laugh our heads off: His racial politics seemed ludicrously out of date in 1970, and his spiel seemed like a hilarious parody of the Old South position. We didn't realize until he got elected to the Senate that most people were taking him seriously.

As recently as the last election, Jim Goodmon of Capitol Broadcasting, which owns WRAL, was reported to be a big Helms supporter, even helping to raise funds for him. This is hard to square with the thoughtful Jim Goodmon who seems to understand--and care about--what's needed for the vitality of the Triangle as it swells into a metropolis. Since Goodmon's Durham Bulls have become one of the city's biggest attractions, and since Goodmon built Diamond View office building, he's become almost a local saint.

Even St. Joseph's Historic Foundation, which runs Durham's Hayti Heritage Center, is praising Goodmon these days. The Foundation presented him with the Spirit of Hayti award last month, in a ceremony where nobody could say enough good about him, and where he received a standing ovation. Also honored in that ceremony was Ben Ruffin, a Durham native and early civil rights activist who has spent a lifetime blazing trails where no black man in America had gone before. There seemed to be no awareness of the situation's irony.

OK, so maybe we are past all that. Jesse Helms is an elder statesman now, addressing the United Nations. The News & Observer reports that Jim Goodmon may even vote for Al Gore. Then the questions are: Is it a good idea to do something with the American campus, and should the taxpayers chip in for the parking decks? Yes and yes, absolutely.

I look out my windows at American. Its sprawling, unused, 1 million square feet of brick buildings is my landscape to the south. When I first came downtown, the factory was still a bustling place. But year by year since American quit working there in 1987, I have marked the deterioration--gutters gone, windows broken, roofs sagging--and dreamed of a new life for it as I watch the chimney swifts rise from the smokestack and the nighthawks circle the water tower. The setting sun picks out the detailing and rich color of the old brick; its reflection blazes from the banks of windows, as warming to the spirit as a sip of bourbon at the end of the day. One of the buildings here, "Old Bull," is one of three sites in the city listed as a National Historic Landmark, and the whole complex is quintessentially Durham. With it lying dormant, part of Durham has been in a coma.

The cure is at hand, and while we might wish for a different doctor, we shouldn't shrink from paying the bill for the one who can work the miracle.

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