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Enjoying the void



It's late afternoon in downtown Durham. After days of gloom, the sky has finally cleared and the low-slung vista of chunky warehouses, auto shops and a few high-rise office buildings spreads to the horizon. My 5-year-old is carrying a paper bag full of old machine parts we've just bought at the Scrap Exchange art recycling store. We walk down Foster Street to King's Sandwich shop for a snack. We're the only people walking but at this hour, the streets are plenty busy with cars and trucks heading elsewhere in Durham. The hum-and-bump of tires on uneven pavement punctuates our conversation.

"Mom, why aren't there any houses downtown?" Sam wants to know.

"Well, when the downtown was built, it was built as a place for business," I say. "Not for houses." His expression tells me he thinks that's a strange idea indeed.

We order our milkshake and take a seat at one of the metal picnic tables under the awning at King's. From here, we have a clear view of the emptiness that is downtown--the ballpark without its bull, the warehouses with twin "for lease" signs for eyes, the lonely stretches that seem to have stopped breathing.

In the 10 years I've lived in Durham, downtown has clung to life by its fingernails. Yes, Manbites Dog theater is here and the YMCA and the soon-to-be Durham Central Park. But Wilma's Country Kitchen is long gone from Corcoran Street, as are most of the other lunch spots that used to dot the area. Even The N&O has deserted the inner, inner city for new quarters in Peabody Place, near Brightleaf Square.

In Raleigh, the decades-long wait for a downtown revival seems to be ending, with developers and city officials moving on plans for a new convention center, office tower and the reopening of Fayetteville Street Mall to traffic. A recent opinion poll of 600 Raleigh residents found more than a third would consider living downtown. As Mayor Meeker so aptly put it: "Wow!"

I want downtown Durham to thrive again, too. And plans for a public park and the possibility of a new social services complex seem like sensible uses for the emptiness--uses that match the way we live now, in an era when little boys find it odd that people ever shopped downtown.

But selfishly, at this late afternoon moment, I find myself savoring the void. Sam and I suck down our milkshakes in peace, listening to the comforting whine of traffic. Nothing else moves or makes noise. We stare at the open skyline and breathe the cool air. It's like contemplating an empty canvas, before that first deliberate splash of paint.

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