On Wednesday night, a small group gathers beneath an orange streetlight at the corner of Gearwood Avenue and Drew Street in northeast-central Durham. Their number fluctuates throughout the evening, as more people appear from the darkness, knowing this is where they can find their friends after work.
Behind them is a gravel portion of Drew Street that extends maybe half a block beyond Gearwood and dead-ends at a fence separating the residential street from what used to be East End School, which opened in 1909 to educate black children and now houses the Bethel Family Worship Center.
It may not look like much, but for about twenty years this has been not only a gathering place for this community, but a hub for a little-known sport in the Bull City.
"Anybody that plays horseshoes in Durham has played right here on this dirt," says Derrick Gibson, who grew up down the street and has played horseshoes for about fifteen years.
More recently, though, the neighborhood around the horseshoe pitch has changed. It's a scene you can find all around downtown Durham as the city's population grows and new homes and new residents move into traditionally affordable and often historically black neighborhoods. But for those with long-held ties to this area, it feels like a siege—and it's closing in on the core of this neighborhood. The pitch now sits between two homes under construction and another that just sold for $430,000.
The developers behind these homes have been appealing to the city council since at least April in an attempt to stop the games, saying they draw large, rowdy crowds that turn off potential buyers, clog up the residential street with cars, and create unsanitary conditions just feet from the homes they're constructing. But members of the horseshoe league, who deny these allegations, say they've had no complaints until now.
So far, the city, which controls the property thanks to a fifty-year-old record-keeping snafu, has not stepped in. On Thursday, the city council is expected to hear from staff members tasked with learning more about the conflict, as well as people on both sides of the issue. In the meantime, the league has moved most of its equipment into the yard of an adjacent home owned by the church.
"Before we go in and do something very governmental," says deputy city manager Bo Ferguson, "we want to be sure that's something we believe is in the best interest of the community, and we still haven't gotten to that determination yet."
This neighborhood, known as East End, is wedged between two of the most drastically appreciating parts of the city—Cleveland-Holloway and Old North Durham. Gibson, who still has family on the block, estimates that half of the neighbors he grew up with have left, most in the past two years. Some passed away, some sold their homes, others who rented moved when their landlords sold.
"Everybody on this street that owns their house has been made an offer," he says.
"This neighborhood has always been affordable for a lot of African Americans and minorities in Durham," adds Rommell Shipman, who grew up staying with family members who still live around the corner. "To me, it's really important because our forefathers and our grandfathers and our grandmothers had to fight through a larger battle to get to where we are today."
Not everyone who plays or watches horseshoes on Drew Street lives there. But most have some connection to the place, whether they grew up there, have family there now, or have just been coming to games in the neighborhood for years. Many players got their start on the Drew Street pitch, even before it became part of what they call the Atlantic Coast Conference horseshoe league. (It's not affiliated with the collegiate conference of the same name.)
"That's where the competition came to play," says Ronald Davis, who's been playing about fifteen years. "That's where anybody that was anybody was playing."
The league consists of eight teams, five based in Durham. Players estimate the league includes about one hundred players, men and women ranging in age from eighteen to seventy. Each team has a home court, and games rotate between the sites. The Intimidators claim the Drew Street pitch and are managed by Gibson.
The players are competitive and treat horseshoes as seriously as any sport, trash talk included. This was on display Saturday as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference took on players from a Charlotte league at another Durham site in a backyard off Club Boulevard.
Gibson negotiated the rules with the visiting teams and tracked each of six games in a hand-drawn bracket. Reggie Kersey, who lives across from the Drew Street pitch, grilled up what looked like a hundred chicken wings while also keeping score for his team. A thirty-plus-year player who goes by the nickname Jackie Boy tied a blue bandana around his eyes and pitched blind. He missed two with his eyes covered, but, sight restored, promptly tossed three ringers.
"I've seen him do it before," Gibson said with a giddy smile.
The neighboring property owners don't necessarily object to the horseshoe games, but rather to the noise, traffic, and litter that come with them.
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- James Mitchell, commissioner of the horseshoe league
John Little, one of the men behind the company building on adjacent properties, denies that this conflict is between longtime and new residents, citing cars he sees parked on the small residential street when games are held. He believes the city hasn't taken action for political reasons.
"There are sympathetic people on the council to the diminishing demographic in this area, and the problem is the people who play in the pits do not live in the neighborhood," he says. "If it was a few people who live in the neighborhood playing, I probably wouldn't say anything except quiet down and stop throwing beer cans on my property."
He also takes issue with a recently removed improvised toilet at the site that funneled urine underground through a PVC pipe. Little says he offered to pay for new pits to be built in a nearby park but was turned down. (Players who spoke with the INDY say they were asked about the prospect of moving, but they weren't aware of an offer to pay.)
Both sides say they've been threatened by the other. Little says other neighbors have complained to him but are "too afraid to speak up." Little and George Bailey, his colleague at J&G Transmogrify Homes, say they've called police more than a dozen times.
Lubo Panagonov, who moved into the new house next door about a month ago, says he was unaware of the games when he and his wife bought their home. An immigrant from Bulgaria, Panagonov says he doesn't want to disrupt neighborhood customs, but the traffic, drinking, and profanity-laden music he says are part of these gatherings are a separate issue.
"If it's about people having a tradition of getting together, I'm absolutely for that," he says. "But we're talking about something that's a nuisance."
In Little's view, the games never should have been allowed to become a tradition in the first place. The land was supposed to be turned over to the neighboring property owners in 1965, when the Durham City Council voted to abandon that portion of Drew Street.
But according to deputy city manager Bo Ferguson, an order to abandon the property was never recorded, so it remains under city purview. Now Little feels like he is being asked to fix a mistake that wasn't his. Little can petition to close the Drew Street excess, but needs the support of adjacent property owners—and he doesn't think it's fair for him to pay for that process. If the city doesn't act, he says he'll take action in court.
"The city has the authority to remove obstructions in the right of way," Ferguson says. "It does not have an obligation to do so."
Ferguson said last week that no decision had been made, but it doesn't appear the games are impeding any use of the right-of-way or presenting an immediate safety threat.
City staffers have found players and long-term residents "had zero complaints or problems" about the gathering. A representative from Bethel Family Worship Center said the same, according to a city memo.
City council member Eddie Davis is hoping to find a middle ground. After hearing complaints about the gatherings, he went to one this summer. He says he was promptly offered a horseshoe and a beer, both of which he declined.
Davis says his concerns about the gatherings stemmed from whether there was illegal, unsafe, or unsanitary activity happening on city property. He doesn't see this as a conflict of gentrification and argues that dismissing it as such obscures whether the Drew Street site really is an appropriate location for these gatherings.
Davis would like to see the pits moved to a nearby park—or better yet, a dedicated facility where horseshoes can be "elevated" to a major Durham attraction.
"Let's make Durham the horseshoe capital of North Carolina," he says.
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Mac Holman, player for the Intimidators, warms up before a tournament.
The players who spoke with the INDY, however, aren't interested in relocating the Drew Street pitch. Their games sometimes go too late for park hours, and they worry about competing with other groups for the pits, especially during the busy tournament season. But in a broader sense, they feel like they're carrying the torch for other changing neighborhoods with their own traditions.
"It's kind of sad to get run out of your own neighborhood. Our families are here and our friends and our relatives. That's why we come here. Where else are we going to go?" asks Mac Holman, who lived a few blocks away on Gurley Street for about twenty years and is among the league's best and longest-playing members.
A dedicated facility though, where all Atlantic Coast Conference teams could play whenever they want, is something they've been dreaming of.
"That's a lot bigger than us," Gibson says. "It would be best for the league."