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Making downtown a neighborhood

JoAnne Fitzgibbon, co-owner of Joe and Jo's, wasn't going to wait for someone else to do it


The friendly little pub nestled in a small brick building at the Five Points intersection of downtown Durham looks like a mirage. Year-'round Christmas lights, strung across the green awning and storefront windows, beckon people to come in and enjoy a pint or a burger. While there are a few other downtown establishments, most aren't open late at night. The streets and sidewalks surrounding Joe & Jo's usually empty out after dark, as the "loop" diverts cars away from the city center.

"Downtown revitalization" has become the mantra of cities seeking an economic boost. But sports stadiums, loft apartments and public art projects can only do so much for a city's cultural life. Joe & Jo's gives downtown Durham something crucial: a neighborhood bar.

It's walking distance from the Carolina Theatre, the Arts Council, City Hall and a growing number of downtown apartments. It serves pub food and a full array of spirits. With its green walls, hanging plants, snapshots of regulars and an eclectic jukebox, the place feels like home--or maybe like the hottest rec room in town. Both a lunchtime pub and a late-night watering hole, it draws regulars as emblematically diverse as Durham itself--suited businessmen, lesbian rockers, Howard Deaniacs, Internet workers, Herald Sun reporters, city employees. It's hard to believe the place has been around for less than two years. Owners Joe and JoAnne Fitzgibbon have become local celebrities in their own right. He's a career military policeman with a booming voice and a Boston accent; she's a friendly former reporter from Florida.

"Joe & Jo's pub has become a downtown institution," says Caleb Southern, a regular who lives in the nearby West Village loft apartments. "People cut business deals there at lunch and meet friends for dinner or a night out. This is the kind of gathering place that makes downtown a real neighborhood."

So when Fitzgibbon sent out an email last month pleading for help in dealing with aggressive panhandlers, city officials and downtown residents took notice. "I even had one crackhead laugh at me one night when I said I was calling the police," she wrote to fellow downtown business owners and police. Besides the few guys looking for a handout, there are the more persistent troublemakers whose methods have been getting invasive, she said. They've been coming inside the bar to bother customers and staff. Nearly all of her nine employees have had their cars broken into. She said she was worried that the so-far nonviolent incidents could escalate, putting her customers and staff in harm's way. "Folks--I can't take this stress anymore. It's not fair and the City needs to step up if they want Downtown Durham to be the dynamic, vibrant destination spot it could be."

"The recent upswing in crime is a symptom of our success downtown," says Southern, who is working with fellow neighbors and business owners to create a kind of urban neighborhood association. "There are more people down here, especially at night, which is great. But unfortunately some of the panhandlers and small-time thieves have noticed this, too."

It's made things even harder for Fitzgibbon that her husband has been on active duty in Afghanistan for the past eight months, making her feel even more vulnerable. One guy in particular used to cross the street to avoid the bar when he knew Joe was there, she said, but these days he's a regular pest. "It's kind of ironic," she adds. "He's over there fighting for safety and freedom and democracy, and then he has to call home. And he's actually been on the phone with me when I've had people come in, and he can hear me, and he's just wanting to crawl through the phone and chase these guys down the street. It just kills him."

While the reputation of "dangerous Durham" persists, downtown boosters and city officials say the reality is there's hardly any crime.

According to Captain Terry Mangum of the Durham Police Department, the crime rate in downtown Durham is low, and it hasn't changed for the past two years. There were a total of 37 incidents in the past seven months in the area immediately surrounding Joe & Jo's; the vast majority were property crimes. "That would represent about one crime per week, the way it breaks down. It you look at it in that context, it's not a crime wave."

Mangum says misperception of danger downtown is fed by media reports. "There's got to be that little dig at downtown," he complains of local news coverage. "But I do the best I can to counter that by telling you--and I can--that downtown Durham is a safe place to go."

Fitzgibbon says she's never bought into the idea of dangerous downtown. "I wasn't going to wait for downtown to turn into this mega 24-hour nightlife destination. We wanted to be part of the solution. We wanted to help build it, to be part of that excitement," she says. "Joe and I don't regret a thing."

But she didn't want to stick her head in the sand and let a serious problem arise. She talked to Bill Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham Inc., a booster organization, who helped her arrange a meeting recently with fellow business owners, police and city officials. About 50 people showed up at the bar, including City Manager Marcia Conner. They continued the meeting at the police station, where Mangum presented the crime statistics and asked neighbors and business owners to call police about aggressive panhandlers. Shortly thereafter, the police responded to a citizen's suggestion and created a new category for 911 calls about aggressive panhandling.

The response was great, Fitzgibbon says. "I didn't expect so much support so quickly. I was very impressed. I guess I never realized people cared so much about my little world and about our staff and about downtown Durham." Days after the meeting, a well-known aggressive panhandler was arrested after a complaint by an employee at Ringside, a venue down the street.

"I have seen more police on the street since the meeting," Southern says "I hope this isn't just a short-term fix, and that we can count on visible patrols, especially at night."

Keeping up the pressure is important, Fitzgibbon says. "The mayor's made it his platform to make this a great place to be, and I do believe that downtown is the hub and the life center of a city, that they need to beef up security."

Downtown business owners have been talking more to each other and to the police since then, she says. Officers make a point of coming by to find out who's working, and whether they're having any problems. And besides the bar's regular lineup of live music and holiday events (all-day drink and food specials on St. Patrick's Day), it will also host a Durham Businesses Against Crime meeting for owners, managers and staff to hear crime prevention tips from an officer.

Joe is due home in late May or early June. Meanwhile, JoAnne gets reports on the phone of treacherous conditions in Kabul. "He said it's just cattle exploding every day [due to land mines]. I can't even imagine. He said it's also rocket attacks, gunshots; it happens every night, and that gets to your psyche after a while. He can't wait to come home. He cannot wait. I miss him. I really do. We all miss Joe, the big lug." EndBlock

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