The fact that an uptick in violent crime this month has had understandable reverberations in and among the Duke community -- not surprising, since robberies, assaults and shootings are typically concentrated in several segments of the community that don't directly border the Gothic wonderland.
Unfortunately, the response of some student commentators have been perfectly predictable. One Chronicle columnist has made it a regular sport to bash the Bull City this past year, providing such joyful nuggets about Durham life as "the bar scene is pretty weak," "if you think Durham is already great--well, then you should probably be drug tested," and "I am beginning to wonder whether the Duke-in-Durham experience has really been worth the risk."
(It should be noted that I started caring a great deal less about this young scholar's ruminations about Durham after his full-column cogitation on -- I am not making this up -- his roommate's dog becoming intoxicated on alcohol multiple times this school year. "College wouldn't be the same without the inevitable weekend bacchanalia. But when your innocent, excitable dog is hung over the day after a big party along with you, has your debauchery gone too far? .... After all, he's a big dog-roughly 70 pounds-and has gotten drunk a few times before....")
On the flip side, some Duke students have written into the Chronicle to express the need for Dukies to continue to engage with the Bull City community -- as seniors Ellen Bolen and Cy Stober did on Friday.
Students made broad generalizations about Durham being unsafe and one student suggested to "just build giant fences around the school." Statements such as these perpetuate the "us vs. them" mentality. These crimes were not just committed against Duke students, but against the Durham community as a whole.... A Duke student has the right to feel safe, but so does every citizen in Durham. Durham is a great community and it has a lot to offer to those who are willing to commit to it.
Not surprisingly, the reaction in the comments section was hostile... much of it, in all likelihood, coming from folks not even associated with the university. Much of it was the often-seen, borderline racist linkage between issues of safety and Durham's diversity, with one commentor noting that Durham "is just a scaled down version of New Orleans," where poor African-Americans suffered from "corruption of the human soul caused by the 'entitlements' of the Welfare Society." Others tried to dance around the issue more elegantly, but often came back to slightly more eloquent versions of this pithy comment: "I'm tired of BS -- of having to appease the locals of this sh!thole."
Why bring this up now? Because these comments were on my mind as my weekend began after work on Friday, and I found myself ruminating over the negativity that hangs over the Bull City in so many people's minds. And that's never a good feeling; it only tends to fill one's mind with one's own sourness.
Stewing in my thoughts, I decided to head out to see a movie that night (the Blade Runner re-edit that's made its way to the Carolina Theatre.) It turned out to be the best decision I made all week.
Arriving downtown, I parked over by the CCB Plaza; heading out into the chilly night, I arrived at the Carolina only to find a monumentally long line stretching down into the outdoors, thanks to a ticket printer that had gone on the fritz.
Now, in most cities I've lived in, a crowd would be pretty irascible standing out in freezing temperatures waiting to buy a movie ticket. But the crowd was in a surprisingly good humor, chatting it up and waiting for updates.
Ahead of me in the crowd I spied Duke prez Dick Broadhead and his wife Cynthia, standing about five back from the box office, talking with others in line who noticed him queued up to buy a ticket. The Brodheads purchased tickets to a showing and headed off into the crowd, ready to check out a film at the arthouse cinema like all the assembled grad students and professionals and retirees.
I spent a decade attending and working for Harvard, and let me tell you: you never saw Larry Summers or Neil Rudenstine going out to the Loews Theatre or Sony Janus to catch a flick. The Harvard president barely walked anywhere, for that matter. A university-owned limo sat in the middle of Harvard Yard; its custom license plate simply read "1636," a reference to the year of the university's founding, in typically arrogant Harvardian fashion.
A lucky Harvard student could get Larry Summers to autograph their $1 bill, in reference to his immediately previous, and far more successful, tenure as Secretary of the Treasury. A lucky Duke student can chat up their president at the movie theater. (Or, later that weekend, could have run into him at the Uplift East Durham tour, which he and his wife quietly attended, again unaccompanied and unshepherded by the throngs of yes-men and potentates that surrounded Larry S. at every one of his public engagements.)
Once the ticket line started moving, folks bought their tickets and snacks and headed into the screenings. Cinema One, filled with a hundred or so film-watchers, had more the feeling of a cocktail party, with Durhamites running into friends, stopping to chat, catching up on the week's news before the previews started.
For my part, I ended up talking with a delightful woman about, of all things, living in Durham and why we loved it here. (She regaled me with all the reasons why, though she visited Raleigh and Chapel Hill often, she never wanted to live there -- only Durham.)
A few minutes later, in walks a friend of mine from the neighborhood, there to see the movie with several pals of his. I join him and catch up on news from some of our mutual civic interests before the film starts. I'd shown up at the movie alone, but ended up having more chances for conversation than I would have expected.
At the end of the film, my friend and his buddies headed off to Bull McCabe's for drinks, while I headed home to catch some sleep. But I found my mood markedly improved from where it had been when the weekend began. In fact, walking back to the CCB to pick up my car, and standing amidst the well-lit tower and the Major the Bull statue, I couldn't help but think how different living in Durham is from anywhere I've lived before.
It's the connections with people that make this such a truly unusual city, and that have made this my home. There is rarely a lonely moment in Durham. Running into someone randomly is, in the places I've lived before, a fairly rare occurrence; in Durham, it's hard to go to a restaurant, or movie, or store without meeting and chatting with a few people you know.
This happens in part because Durham is a small town -- but, more to the point, because those who choose to live in Durham tend to be active and engaged with the town. They're involved with non-profits, with their neighborhoods, with their school. There's few people I know here that I don't know from two or three different contexts.
It's this socialization that helps makes Durham special... and that stands in ironic contrast to the latest craze over the idea of "fencing in" Duke's campus.
After all, Durham's interconnectedness is not likely high on the priority list of your typical college undergraduate. College students everywhere are typically, by their very nature, more focused on their own lives and campus life than broader issues of community. They arrive for a few years and then depart, on to new communities. The connections that so many Durhamites make with each other center around a geography; those made by students more typically revolve around an alma mater, relationships that will last over a long distance.
Sure, college students volunteer intensively for community outreach efforts -- and I see more of that energy from Dukies than I have in other places. But college students everywhere tend to be more internally focused on those campus relationships than community ones.
I suspect that's why it's hard for our friends the Chronicle columnists, or just about any twenty-year-old for that matter, to see the wonder of Durham. Some of the things so many of us love about the Bull City just aren't yet salient for them. Far more predictable are the aforementioned complaints of "too few bars" and "not affluent enough" that you might expect them to mutter about the Bull City.
After all, Durham isn't your typical college town, and likely never will be. It's also not your typical American city -- it's smarter, it's more diverse, it's more introspective, it's more rational and less fundamentalist, it's (as I've argued) more of a community than most "communities" are these days. It's also not chock-a-block with nightclubs, bars and Abercrombie & Fitch, either.
So, will the aforementioned Chronicle columnists ever understand why I rave about Durham while they rant about it? Someday, maybe, but probably not right now. After all, I probably wouldn't have been so jazzed about Durham at age 21, either. At age 31, I wouldn't choose to live anywhere else.