I wanted to dedicate this morning's post to Durham's newest residents -- its fair college students, matriculating at NC Central University or Duke University for the first time, perhaps, or returning for a further year of studies. The ride into town is a bit less magical than the Hogwarts Express (please do dodge the potholes, they're not just there for the aesthetics), but once you're here, I hope you'll join in in discovering the great things that the Bull City has to offer.
What's that, you say? There's great things in Durham? Surely you jest, you must think.
Well, I'm not kidding. But I understand where you're coming from. Fifteen years ago, when I was touring college towns to make my own undergraduate choice, I took a look at Durham and headed right back to I-85. It wasn't until a number of years later that I realized that Durham was the right place for my wife and I to live, the place we felt most at home anywhere we'd lived on the East Coast. (I've chronicled that transformation on this earlier blog post.)
I think one of the most jarring things for many new residents of the Bull City -- particularly those hailing from Long Island, or Newton/Wellesley, or Plano, or Manassas, or the like -- is that Durham doesn't look like suburban America. Everything isn't tied up in neat subdivisions and strip malls, outparcels and freeways. Those things exist here, too, but there are actual streets and blocks that haven't (entirely) been torn up for re-development. There are old tobacco and textile factories that haven't been demolished, but instead form the bulk of the skyline.
There are poor people here -- wealthy people, too, but plenty of poor people. And African-Americans and Latinos and Asians and Native Americans, and Caucasians too.
Many of you moving here for the first time have never lived in a place like this. Growing up in Winter Park, Florida just outside Orlando, I know I didn't. Sure, Winter Park had a largely-minority and largely poor area, literally on the west side of the railroad tracks. After the eastern side gentrified and became million-dollar estates, of course, that city turned across the tracks and noticed for the first time a community it ignored and marginalized for decades. Winter Park then did an excellent job of supporting the vast buy-up of that community to become day spas and bistros, too. (Creating an "African American History Museum" across from one of the bistro districts was a nice touch -- especially since the black community in Winter Park is, increasingly finding African-American residents a thing of the past there, too.)
Yet Durham's diversity is one of the most attractive and important things the Bull City has to contribute -- not just to the Triangle, or the state or the country, but to you as an individual. You see, what you're seeing here isn't an anomaly. It's what America is really like.
Durham parallels the absurd extremes of wealth and poverty that make up America, and reflects demographic trends and realities not often reflected in most of our towns, those which have long been segregated through legal or simply economic means. You don't see it in most places; cities and towns in our country generally house the poorest and least privileged or their inverse, not most.
I'd encourage you to ask yourself not why Durham is what it is -- wonderful in many ways, flawed in others -- but to ask why our country is as it is, and what all of us can do to change it.
If you get a chance, take a look at this past Monday night's Durham City Council meeting's debate on some controversial land transfers to two non-profits. The argument stood between two non-profits wanting to build housing for troubled youth and former homeless persons -- and neighbors who fully support the goal, but want to see these facilities distributed more broadly throughout the City and County. No one spoke against the facilities' need, the way Cary, or Morrisville, or Zebulon residents certainly would have in the same circumstances.
That's Durham in a nutshell.
But let's turn to some advice you can use.
First, go to Southpoint -- but go beyond it. Yes, The Cheesecake Factory is a neat place to eat. But it's just as neat in Chicago or San Diego as it is in Durham. On the other hand, Durham is home to Magnolia Grill, acclaimed as one of the dozen or so very best gourmet restaurants in the entire country, located in walking distance from Duke's East Campus.
Visit the Brightleaf Square area, with a unique mix of shops and restaurants, from Morgan Imports to Satisfactions to Alivia's to Parker & Otis. Or stop by the American Tobacco Historic District, to see a Bulls game or go to Tyler's. Or head down Fayetteville St. and visit The Know, a great bookstore with even greater jazz music.
The point is, you've probably lived in suburbia all your life. You're in an urban area -- a small one, yet an urban one. Live in it, and enjoy it.
Second, while you should use the common sense inherent in any urban area, enjoy the city and be willing to experience it, day or night. My first year working at Duke, the night all the parents left I was asked on East Campus by two wide-eyed freshmen about dining options off campus. When my colleagues and I suggested Ninth Street, they asked with fear in their voice, "Is it safe to walk there at night?"
The answer is not simply, "well, yeah." It's deeper than that. You should feel free to take in the Bull City just as you would in Dayton, or Chattanooga, or Savannah, or Hartford -- that is, all perfectly nice cities that rank about the same on the crime meter. The streets of Durham aren't a Disneyfied Main Street -- thank goodness -- but you're not exactly walking down the streets of Baghdad either, to say the least.
Third, learn the history of the Bull City. This should be a priority for college students anywhere, but it's especially home in Durham. Durham's the home of the Piedmont blues. The one-time home of Minor League Baseball. Once one of the richest boomtowns of America, with fortunes made and lost in tobacco. And for the past two generations, the home of innovation and R&D from IBM, GlaxoSmithKline, RTI, and dozens of startups.
You can experience this history on Preservation Durham's walking tours of downtown and the histories of civil rights and tobacco in the Bull City. Or at the Endangered Durham web site. Or the Hayti Heritage Center.
No matter what, I'd encourage you not to just make Durham a place you pass through for four years. It's going to be a home for probably five or more percent of your life. You won't find many places in the United States where you can volunteer, can become engaged in civic life, and get involved from day one more than Durham.
So don't just live in Durham. Live Durham.