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Does Black Wall Street need to be blacker?

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There's a little bit of Black Wall Street embedded in Tobias Rose's DNA.

His grandfather worked for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co., the oldest African-American insurance company in the country, which was originally headquartered in the same building as Mechanics and Farmers Bank, just a few doors down from Komplex, the graphic-design firm Rose founded in 2006.

"Sometimes I think about the fact that he probably walked these streets," Rose says. "I wanted to be here. I wanted to feel that spirit. I like the feeling of knowing that I have a bit of Black Wall Street's legacy in my blood."

Along with collaborators Jesica Averhart and Talib Graves-Manns, Rose is working on a plan to turn the historic Black Wall Street into more than just a two-block stroll on a Durham Visitors Bureau tour. This week, they'll be hosting a three-day series of panels, lectures, workshops, mixers and parties called Black Wall Street: Homecoming, in conjunction with N.C. Central's homecoming weekend. The event is both an homage to the entrepreneurial spirit of Durham's once-robust black economic district and a call for more minorities to think in grand terms like "venture capital" and "impact investing."

Today there are roughly 13 black-owned businesses on Parrish Street. They're surrounded by downtown's polarizing advent of pricy condominiums, boutique hotels, highbrow eateries and ritzy bars. The only visible traces of Black Wall Street's heyday are a few art sculptures and the then-linchpin Mechanics and Farmers Bank.

With about 1.8 million square feet of office, residential and retail space coming downtown, black-owned businesses will likely absorb some pedestrian traffic, but—given downtown's changing demographics—perhaps not much traffic of color. Where will the black faces come from?

"That's a question I really can't answer," says Matt Gladdek, director of government affairs for Downtown Durham Inc.

In January, DDI began working on an update to its Downtown Durham Master Plan. The original, set out in 2008, was sadly provincial in its treatment of downtown's glaring diversity problem. In contrast, much of the public input DDI has gotten this time has been focused on this very issue: "There's a lot more people coming downtown than there used to be, but we're not pulling as many people of color downtown as we would like," Gladdek says.

The answer may well come from some radical, outside-the-box idea. Rose has one: "Durham is way too culturally and historically significant for us to neglect our other communities. Every time I'm in the Angier Avenue/Driver Street area, it looks like a little ghost town. But when you drive through downtown, everything is built up. They've retained all this stuff. We need to figure out how to do that in the rest of Durham. We have all these other pockets. Maybe we need to build ourselves another downtown."

Reach the INDY's Triangulator team at triangulator@indyweek.com.

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