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Hope for Durham

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When I moved to Durham in 1985, it was a city filled with possibility. While most mid-sized Southern cities were still run by a small cabal of white business leaders, Durham had started evolving into a model of representative government. A biracial council, headed by Mayor Wib Gulley, had turned City Hall into a place where community voices carried as much influence as those of real-estate developers, where ordinary voters felt welcome no matter their color or income.

Those were heady times. Neighborhoods finally had a say in development decisions. The city helped residents of modest means buy and maintain their own homes. Suburban sprawl was out; downtown redevelopment was in. Money flowed into low-income communities in the central city. Sure there were tensions--who could forget the struggle over the Erwin Square tower?--but that very conflict reminded us democracy was alive. We felt like anything was possible.

What created this diverse city government was a political coalition between the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and two predominantly white liberal organizations, the People's Alliance and the Durham Voter's Alliance. Individually, none of the groups had a large enough constituency to overturn the city's traditional power structure. In coalition, though, they formed a majority of the electorate, enough to tip the city's political scales. For years, leaders of the organizations would rendezvous at the Chicken Hut restaurant, where they would negotiate unity slates to bring back to their membership for approval.

This took compromise. Neither side was thrilled about every candidate on the coalition ticket. But progressive voters understood that it might take the endorsement of some well-meaning-but-ineffective candidates to guarantee the election of the real superstars. Purity might make us feel good, but it didn't get our candidates elected--and the consequences of absolutism would be unfettered development, environmental destruction, and disregard for central city neighborhoods and their residents.

Unfortunately, the black-white coalition fell apart in the '90s, as the Durham Committee took stronger pro-development positions and began parting company with its traditional white allies. Recent councils have reflected this shift: Witness the way the Southpoint area is sprawling out of control.

That's why I felt some excitement when I read in The Independent that the Chicken Hut meetings have resumed, and that the two surviving political groups (Durham Committee and People's Alliance) have endorsed a common slate. The prospect of a black-white coalition recapturing the City Council offers the best opportunity for restoring the excitement of the late 1980s--the sense that Durham could break from its Southern neighbors and become a true citizen-run city again. In my mind, such a coalition is our only hope.

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