Frank Duke to leave City/County Planning
Monday's City Council meeting: street/sidewalk bond, DAP move forward, group homes don't

Welcome, student friends, to the Bull City show

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.



Kevin, one quibble: Preservation Durham leads tours of "Architecture and Landscape", too. In fact, this weekend!


"Live Durham" that's a t-shirt waiting to happen.


This is an awesome essay, Kevin, and I wish someone had said something similar to me when I was a freshman. It is really sad how little I went anywhere except for 9th street when I was an undergrad at Duke. It wasn't until I moved back here five years ago that I really explored the area - and considering I've not yet been to the Know, I suppose I could still use the advice above. In any case, thanks for writing this.


Um, lock your doors and for god's sake take your stupid iPod charger out of the car. As an undergrad I got my car broken into at least once a semester, although in fairness I was forgetful because I had usually driven home drunk from Ninth St. Ironically this was because I hated taking the stupid East-West bus or calling Safe Rides.

Seven years later (1998), on my first night back on campus as a prospective grad student, my truck got broken into AGAIN! This wasn't no BFE Blue Zone satellite parking, either -- it was right smack where Edens quad is today.

Duke doesn't allow guns on campus, so my advice is to buy a small can of pepper spray. I'm serious -- Durham is perfectly safe around Ninth St., but don't forget that dead people are found blocks from campus (Walltown) on a seemingly regular basis. Also comes in handy for date rapes, for all you "Charlotte Simmons" fans who fear the worst.

Durham: True Grit.


Great intro to Durham post! I am a music lover and have come to grow to love the Piedmont blues. I wasn't aware that Durham was the home of the Piedmont blues.

Where can I read more about the history of the Piedmont blues and how it got its start in Durham?

One of my favorite musicians. Jon Shain, resides right there in Durham and is a student of the Piedmont blues. I can see why he lives there now...



Dead bodies are NOT found in Walltown on a seemingly regular basis. As much as I'd actually prefer that undergrads consume and litter their cases of Natural Light outside of Walltown, they are unlikely to encounter dead bodies as Rollins' hyperbole implies. There has be ONE body found in Walltown since I moved there in December, and it was outside what I would consider a reasonable walking distance from campus.

Kudos to Kevin on an excellent essay. The editor of Duke Magazine ought to publish this.

Michael Bacon

Here's another tip for the undergrads: take everything David Rollins tells you with a grain of salt. Dead bodies indeed. There was one this year, which was horrific yes. Before that it was 1998, I believe. Sheesh. Last year, Durham had fewer per capita homicides than Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Charlotte. Yes, the year before we were the "murder capital" of NC among the big cities. That just shows you how much noise there is in these stats.

On the other hand, date rape is a huge problem at Duke. Best advice -- avoid the rowdiest parties where alcohol-related sexual assaults are highest. Go spend time in Durham, where it's safe!

Kevin Davis

Ben -- I know John Schelp already responded to you on email but here reproduced for everyone are the links John sent out about the Piedmont Blues. Good stuff.

Bull City Blues (State marker)

Blind Boy Fuller (City marker)


In re Walltown: short answer, "What Michael said." With the following helpful tip: if you want to avoid getting murdered in Durham, (1) please don't get hooked on crack cocaine, heroin, and the like, (2) don't join a gang, and (3) don't marry a crazy novelist-cum-mayoral candidate-turned-wife-killer. In all seriousness, almost none of the murders in Durham are random, but instead are the follow-on to drug and especially gang activity. If you pulled those numbers out of the picture, I suspect that crime rates in Durham would be just about as low as most of the suburban areas.


True dat. Take everything you read on them internets with a grain of salt.

Speaking of drunk driving and parking lot hazards, I should tell the story of the townie who came to one of our fraternity parties (I believe Gary "Spud" Kueber was there), drank himself silly on malt liquor, passed out in the bushes behind Few Quad for a few hours, then tried to drive back home to whatever outside-the-bubble hovel from whence he came. He started his Cutlass, put it in drive, stepped on the gas and prompty passed out. The car bumped into the one facing him, then raced the motor until the transmission overheated.

When I arrived on the scene at 5am, coincidentally dressed in a suit & tie to drive to some Bill Kristol/neocon/libertarian wonkfest in DC that day, the Oldsmobile was about 40% engulfed in flames and a bunch of us undergrads were attempting to pull him from the wreckage. I seem to recall we good samaritans got our pictures in The Chronicle for that one (I'm the guy who happened to keep a fire extinguisher in the back of my Volvo). You can look it up! I devoted my Friday column to this saga.

Of course in retrospect the funniest part was that the fire consumed the meticulously detailed Toyota Supra of one of the more ornery brothers (the kind of guy who would double park in the fire lane, then get a pledge to find him a space). You can't imagine my glee at running through the section, telling everyone (except Rob) that Scrumpy's car was on fire. For many moons afterward we would send pledges to the impound lot behind Wally Wade to get a souvenir of the wreck (melted seatbelts, windshield wiper, etc.).

By all means, hang out in Durham rather than the "hookup culture" on campus. Get yourself on the Traction listserv and learn to make vegan sushi (I'm serious!). Or come to Satty's on Monday nights for the Durham Co. libertarian meetup. Ask Gator to put a beer on my tab; I'll be the guy in the Duke Lax ballcap smoking Parliaments.

The comments to this entry are closed.