Barbershop owner Samuel Jenkins stood before residents and business owners from his East Durham neighborhood as an example of how one person could use individual and municipal resources to rebuild the blighted community. Jenkins, who has leased the property for his Angier Avenue shop, Samuel & Sons, for the last two years, is in the process of purchasing his building with the help of a $30,000 loan from the city.
"It needs a facelift all the way around," he told the crowd at a Tuesday night meeting. "I want it to look like the buildings on Ninth Street." But he hopes the restorations will provide more than an economic boon. "If we improve the businesses and how they look, that will deter crime," he said.
Jenkins shared his experience at a community meeting called "A New East Durham," which he helped organize with the Rev. Melvin Whitley and Vivian McCoy. Almost 100 people convened at the local recreation center to address the crime, vacant lots and general disrepair that plague the area around Angier Avenue and Driver Street. A can-do spirit pervaded the hour-long assembly. Mayor Bill Bell, City Manager Patrick Baker, police Chief Steve Chalmers and council members Howard Clement, Thomas Stith, Mike Woodard and Cora Cole-McFadden attended and voiced support. Audience members raised questions and gave neighborly advice.
Jenkins' loan was one result of increased efforts by several city departments to focus on revitalizing East Durham. At the meeting, economic development administrator Chris Dickey discussed his department's recent assessment of the neighborhood, which determined that the local businesses are appropriate in size and scale to serve community needs, but are often in poor condition. Jenkins circulated annotated color photos of local businesses that supported Dickey's conclusions. The dilapidation, Jenkins argued, fosters drug users and dealers, prostitutes and other criminals. It also leads to a loss of revenue. "This community has economic power," Dickey said. "But a lot of purchases are made outside the community." Dickey says his department is in the process of making funding decisions on several commercial revitalizations. The city council established a $250,000 fund to subsidize such projects.
McCoy urged local entrepreneurs to take ownership of their properties. "What we want from those of you that have businesses in this area--if you rent those buildings, buy those buildings," McCoy said. She also pressed them to organize. "I went to the chamber of commerce several years ago to ask them to help start a business association," she said. "I never got a response ... we are going to try to get all of you together. You need to formulate a business organization for East Durham." All the entrepreneurs who were present pledged their support.
But not everyone was convinced that cleaning up businesses would reduce crime. "Samuel, what you've done to the front of the building--that's great," resident Debbie Parrish told Jenkins. "My concern is cleaning up the clientele. A pretty building will not deter crime. If you don't clean up the clientele, you're wasting money and so is the city."
Demetrius Lynn, who lives one block over from the community center, also expressed doubts. "Once you clean up businesses, [criminals] move to the side streets," Lynn said. "I know people who are scared to come out of their houses."
Meeting organizer Whitley affirmed that residents as well as businesspeople would have to take part in any revitalization efforts. "Criminals do not operate in well-organized communities," Whitley said. "It's not good for business." He took a show of hands to see who was interested in organizing a community watch program, and left with a list of names and promises from several local cops that they'd work with citizens to police the streets.
Bell ended the meeting on a positive note.
"What you're doing tonight is exactly what this community--all of Durham--has to do," he said. "You're setting the example. Don't stop. Come to the next meeting."