Last month the Durham City Council voted to close the Apex Street bridge, a two-lane overpass connecting the neighborhoods of St. Theresa to the east and Forest Hills to the west. The 4-3 vote was a victory for the mostly white, mostly middle-class residents of Forest Hills who had watched the small neighborhood bridge become a shortcut for commuters. Defeat fell not to the mostly black St. Theresa neighborhood, which never collectively opposed the bridge closing, but to a broader coalition of black citizens--including but by no means limited to commuters--who organized in support of opening the bridge to cars. On the surface of it, the conflict over the Apex Street bridge looked like one more neighborhood traffic dispute come for resolution in the halls of the local municipality. But this wasn't just any municipality. This was Durham, a city whose politics--variously dysfunctional, entertaining, corrupt and inspirational--have for years baffled not only outsiders but the people who live here and love it. And while the Apex Street bridge was a small matter relative to, say, the inglorious departure of the city manager or the appalling behavior of certain school board members, its resolution, three years in the making, was fraught with the same dysfunctional, entertaining, corrupt and inspirational politics as Durham's most factious dramas. In the process, it became a testament to the worst, and the best, of this city.
Points of disclosure: For two years I lived in Forest Hills within walking distance of the Apex Street bridge; the publisher of this paper still lives in Forest Hills, and the two of us were among those who publicly opposed re-opening the bridge to cars. What happened was this: In 2001, after the state condemned the bridge as structurally unsafe, Durham's public works department weighed the benefits of repairing the structure and opening it to traffic again. All the information compiled by the department seemed to point toward closing the bridge permanently. Forest Hills residents had long complained about the volume of cars exceeding the speed limit and ignoring stop signs. A state department of transportation study confirmed that before the bridge was condemned, upwards of 400 cars a day were using it as an east-west cut-through across the city--far too many to safely negotiate the steep, narrow streets of the Forest Hills neighborhood. Those same drivers had easy access to Enterprise Street, a wider, non-residential road just two blocks north of Apex Street. In fact, according to the city, a commuter obeying the speed limit could actually get across town more quickly using Enterprise, which was designed to carry heavier traffic. Even emergency services signed off on permanently closing the bridge to cars.
Despite all this, public works recommended re-opening the bridge to cars--at a cost of roughly $600,000 to state and local taxpayers. The reason? A vehicular bridge between the St. Theresa and Forest Hills neighborhoods was crucial to the two communities' sense of "connectedness."
To which the Forest Hills neighborhood raised a skeptical eyebrow. Four hundred cars ripping through residential streets foster connectedness? When the bridge was open, these people said, you took your life in your hands crossing the road. Jogging, walking the dog, kids on bikes--forget it. There were too many vehicles racing around the hairpin turns just west of the bridge; too many blind spots, no sidewalks, not even a center line. The only "connecting" anyone did was when Forest Hill residents helped people dislodge their cars from flowerbeds, tree trunks and retaining walls. Not exactly the sort of thing that brings communities together.
And so, the neighborhood decided to fight. Throughout the spring and summer of 2001, information was gathered, petitions circulated, letters written. We wanted the bridge closed to cars but open to pedestrian and bike traffic that crossed back and forth over the American Tobacco Trail.
Not everyone agreed. St. Theresa is a low-income neighborhood whose residents are mostly black. Forest Hills is predominantly white, with a mixture of modest, expensive and extravagant homes (the Peterson mansion, for example). And there was the history of the bridge itself, used decades ago as a walking path for African Americans who worked as maids and gardeners in Forest Hills. Given all this--the economic and racial disparity between the two neighborhoods and the symbolism inherent in the original street path, some in Forest Hills thought the bridge should stay open as a gesture of friendship and solidarity. A majority, though, believed that the gesture, though sorely needed, would have to assume another form. The problem had nothing to do with the St. Theresa neighborhood, which also suffered from the increased traffic; the problem was commuters using the bridge as a shortcut.
Frankly, the practical and logistical reasons for keeping the bridge closed were so compelling that it was tempting for Forest Hills residents to assume success. We never did; that same summer, a handful of black citizens began their own petition drive urging the city to re-open the bridge. It quickly became evident that these petitions were being passed up and down the aisles of African-American churches all over Durham--and that the vast majority of the petitioners lived nowhere near Apex Street. It also became clear that the majority black city council would side with them to re-open the bridge.
Still, on the night of the public hearing, Forest Hills residents showed up to argue their points: safety--for residents of both sides of the bridge, traffic numbers, the availability of other routes, the senselessness of spending more than a half-million dollars to repair a dangerous road. One by one, we stood up to address not only the practical and fiscal issues, but our conviction that the Forest Hills and St. Theresa neighborhoods could and should connect--across the peaceful span of a pedestrian bridge. The arguments were for the most part well-reasoned and heartfelt. They represented the hard work and goodwill of citizens who, knowing they would lose, hoped at least to have a voice. Which they did--right up to the moment someone walked to the podium and cried race.
There is no easy way to write about such things, especially if you are white, middle class and a member of the liberal media. It is true that for two years I did what people do--I advocated for safe streets in my neighborhood. A simple, universal objective. It is also true that the context was anything but simple. My white neighborhood wanted to close a bridge connecting it to the adjacent black neighborhood. On a certain level, every argument, every fact, every fine point faded in the bright light of this truth. On a certain level, it didn't matter that we were right. So no, there is no easy way to write about it. Words fail, sentences balk; there is no metaphor that deftly sums up the situation. Smart people writing about race tend to evoke images of perplexity and obfuscation--a hornet's nest or a maze. The best I can come up with is an endless row of tattered flags raised in the name of ignorance, resentment or, occasionally, grace. A parade of Iwo Jimas with no sign of armistice.
I can tell you this, though. It is one thing to be educated in the politics and language of race. It is another to be called a racist--in a public forum, by people who don't know you from Eve. In the eyes of the opposition, my neighbors and I were rich, bigoted white people. We wanted a gated community. We wanted black people to stay off our streets, out of our neighborhood, away from our children. In a way, you had to pity the city council members; it would have taken an extraordinary amount of composure to parse the merits of the debate from the onslaught of vituperative. Of the 12, only two voted to close the bridge to cars.
That was three years ago. For awhile there was nothing for bridge opponents to do but lick their wounds, bide their time. Then, this past year, when it came time for the city council to approve funding to repair the Apex Street bridge, Forest Hills residents began organizing again. I'd moved from the neighborhood by then, but friends kept me posted on the meetings, e-mails and strategy sessions. The opposition's arguments had always been weakened by the fact that so few of them lived close to the bridge. The trick would be to replace those voices with voices from the St. Theresa neighborhood. With a 4-3 black majority on the reconfigured city council, a win was again unlikely. Still, a handful of Forest Hills residents began talking to their neighbors across the bridge.
They had their work cut out for them. In 2001, I had been part of a small group that walked house to house on Apex, Fargo and South streets, knocking on doors and talking with people about the bridge. Some admitted they hoped it would stay closed, that they were worried about the traffic. But nobody wanted to stand up and speak out publicly. The movement to open the bridge had gained too much momentum, assumed too much symbolism. "This thing's gotten bigger than my street," one woman said from her sagging front porch.
This summer, despite the obstacles, Forest Hills neighbors showed up again, knocking on doors, talking. And each time it looked like the council might vote, these same neighbors would show up to argue their case. They continued to be met with accusations of racism--the local chapter of the NAACP threatened to enter the debate, the chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People chastised Forest Hills residents. Still, a certain momentum had been achieved, and the city council continued to consider the issue and hear arguments throughout most of the summer.
That momentum notwithstanding, what happened at last month's meeting surprised everyone. Maybe it was the fact that a resident--just one--from the St. Theresa neighborhood stood to speak against opening the bridge to cars. Maybe it was the persistence of the bridge opponents, all the letters and phone calls, the slide show put together to detail every argument. Maybe it was courage of four city council members--three white, one black--who, asked to sweep the concerns of well-meaning citizens under a rug of contempt, were willing to say, flatly, no. I once heard a black man say that what white people don't like about Durham is this: "Black people here never did just lie down and take it." It is true that Durham has long had an educated and organized black population whose influence on the political landscape puts most Southern cities to shame. And while this fact has made for some cantankerous moments and a lot of bruises, it's also what makes Durham so remarkable.
But when, exactly, did it become "racism" to support the school superintendent or criticize the city manager or question a school board member's mishandling of public money? When did it become "racism" to want safe streets? The trouble with Durham isn't that accusations fly, it's that they stick. By some strange, unaccountable alchemy, recrimination becomes fact.
Please don't tell me I can't understand. That's a point on which I'll capitulate every time. I believe closing the Apex Street bridge to cars was the right thing to do; and while I can't acquit myself or anyone else on all charges of racism, I can say with certainty that it wasn't racism that prompted our call to close the bridge. In fact, had any of us writing letters or gathering signatures suspected that our neighbors really just wanted to keep black people out, we would have walked away from the whole thing.
I also know you can't completely separate the "merits" of the bridge debate from the complex histories of these two Durham neighborhoods or from larger truths about who holds power in this society. It is tempting to complain--as many of us did during the bridge controversy--that in Durham, the race card trumps every hand, every time. But beneath all the contentiousness of the public debate there were glimpses of a different, more poignant reality. It emerged, for instance, that many black people believed it was the Forest Hills residents--not the state Department of Transportation--who had the bridge condemned and closed back in 2001. White people, they believed (and with good reason) had the power to close a state road. White people, they believed, wanted blacks to keep their distance.
Powerful stuff, if you've ears to hear it. The trouble is, in the human anatomy the ear bone is connected to the backbone, and when your back is up you go deaf as a post. The truth is, those of us opposed to re-opening the bridge were confident that our reasons were principled. But in the face of the name-calling and jeers, it was hard not to become angry and dug in. The trouble with reckless accusations of racism is that these charges, thrown out in a void of evidence and endowed with the strength of fact, tend to create the very bitterness and resentment they decry. And one more tattered flag appears on the horizon.
Of course, it doesn't always happen that way. After last month's city council vote, it was clear that, for Forest Hills residents, the story of the Apex Street bridge was in some ways just beginning. One day after the vote, a group of neighbors walked across the bridge to invite their St. Theresa neighbors over for Popsicles. The next day, the president of the Forest Hills neighborhood association sent an e-mail to his neighbors outlining agenda items for the next board meeting. Among the items: organize fund-raising and volunteer activities to clean up the bridge, appoint a committee to work with the city on creating a pedestrian bridge between the adjacent neighborhoods, work with Habitat for Humanity and the Campaign for Decent Housing to improve housing conditions in the St. Theresa neighborhood. Whatever the past relationship between Forest Hills and St. Theresa, its future would be very different. There was another neighborhood-wide e-mail sent out, this one from a Forest Hills resident who had led the way in meeting and talking with his St. Theresa neighbors. It read, in part:
If in years to come... when someone from across the bridge comes to this neighborhood for help, never forget that it took their help to keep the Apex Street Bridge closed and they stepped up and did so for us. Returning the favor, even years down the road, will be our responsibility and turn to step up for them. Maybe put a plaque at the bridge to remind generations to come of that fact. So no one ever forgets that the neighborhoods on both sides of this bridge came together to make it happen.
A few days after the vote I drove over to the bridge and stood for a moment on the cracking asphalt. To the north was the Durham skyline; to the south, the winding path of the Tobacco Trail, carpeted with kudzu. A couple of teenage girls from St. Theresa were walking across with a middle-aged woman.
"Looks like they're going to keep the bridge closed," I ventured, not sure what kind of reply I'd get. It was an uneasy victory after all. The woman raised her hand, flat palm to the sky.
"Thank Jesus it's over," she said. Then, lowering her voice as if the skyline had ears, she said, "I never did like all that traffic noise." When I agreed with her, she brushed my arm with her warm hand and smiled at the trumpet vine that festooned the sides of the bridge. "Let's all of us just be good to each other now," she said.