Other City Sidewalks: Durham NC

For better or worse, I've spent most of my time in the old South in run-down places, dilapidated towns, and weather worn waystations... places like antedivulean New Orleans, Savannah Georgia, Memphis, Tennessee, and Bessemer City, North Carolina... so that when I think of The South I think of carpets of kudzu, faded paint peeling from signs, cars on bricks in the tall grass, and the smell of barbeque drifting over fields of trailer homes. I do not, however, think of America's post-industrial economy, nor do I think of the medical device industry, but arriving in Durham, North Carolina all that began to change. The difference was gradual, but somehow, arriving at the Cary train station, I crossed a bridge into the 21st century.

In his influential book of dot.com hype, Edge Cities, Joel Garreau apparently described Cary as the epitomal 'edge city,' kind of an autonomous, suburban, information economy paradise. My aunt and uncle on the other hand, aging hippies that live in the Durham-area woods, describe Cary as a Containment Area for Relocated Yankees. Whichever way you look at it, I was pleasantly surprised that the area in and around Durham, the so-called 'research triangle', seemed to have a burgeoning, diverse economy. Duke Univeristy and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill are both located a within a dozen miles of donwtown Durham, and their combined influence (multiplied by the multiplier, of course) means that North Carolina's tri-city area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) is a happenin' spot.

Perhaps because of the overall economic strength of the region, the city of Durham is undergoing an extensive overhaul of their sidewalks and street grid, adding a seemingly limitless amount of streetscape improvements aimed at rekindling a historic aura to the surprisingly well-preserved (albiet small) downtown core. It seemed to me that the downtown sorely needed some sort of catalysis, because, somehow, the region's economic vitality had passed downtown Durham by. Pretty much the only open or interesting storefront was the (mind-blowingly awesome) Book Exchange bookstore, which had rooms and rooms of 20ft shelves stacked high with books arranged, not by author, not by subject, but by publisher (!), so that there was an entire wall of 'Blackwell' or 'Oxford University Press' books from which you had to browse. It certainly challenged my knowledge of the publishing industry.

I asked the bookstore clerk, though, about the sidewalk project outside and he complained that the city'd been working on the streets and sidewalks for years and years. I'd probably have gotten a better response if I'd asked him about whether he'd enjoyed getting his wisdom teeth removed, and it points to one of the oft overlooked (by planners, anyway) problems with big construction ideas: the short term impact it has on currently operating businesses, which for many business owners, is what they're really thinking about most of the time anyway.

But Durham, which I learned had served as the Black Wall Street, with a number of banks and businesses fostering entrepreneurialism for African Americans during the early 20th century, has a lot of historical, dense infrastructure to offer, and their sidewalk/street project, when its finally done, should turn the downtown into one of the nicest places to live in the area. Part of the attraction, I'd gather, is the draw of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park (D-BAP), where the legacy of the classic movie Bull Durham has translated into strong attendance and support for Tampa's AAA-affiliate baseball team. (Durham is the smallest population Triple-A city in the country, reflecting both the strength of the region and the popularity of the franchise.) The D-BAP is one of the rare cases where I think a baseball stadium can actually serve as a neighborhood development tool, and a whole mixed-use complex is going up surrounding the relatively new stadium (office buildings and some retail). Other projects in Durham include changing the old tobacco factories into mixed-use office/indoor retail spaces, and local arts and crafts incubators. Like many old East coast cities (e.g. North Adams, MA), there's a whole lot of old industrial building stock, and finding uses for these huge, brick spaces can be a real challenge.

As for the Durham sidewalks, the city is replacing much of the poured concrete, and many of the crosswalks, with inlaid red brick, adding traffic calming bump outs, installing pedestrian/car separating iron posts, and changing many of the streets from one- to two-way traffic (thus decreasing the rate of speed, and making it easier to navigate the complex street grid). All together, these improvements will dramatically increase the walkability of downtown area, and look really nice. When they're finally finished in the next year or so, you can bet that downtown Durham will turn into a student hang out, a condo- and yuppie-filled neighborhood, and a great place to have your office if you're a lawyer or something. It's the kind of thing that many cities with old downtown cores, and relatively vibrant economies, should be doing (e.g. Saint Paul). (Of course it helps that Durham, probably for economic reasons, didn't extensively 'modernize' their downtown during the 50's and 60's.)

[Downtown Durham's beautiful art deco Kress building, currently being condo-ized.]


Anonymous said...

Grew up in Cary (among other places), went to Duke in Durham. Now in NYC.

Loved your post. Durham is one of the most wonderful small cities I've encountered. Folks are kind, life is inexpensive and accessible, there's tons of stuff going on, and there are restaurants/hangouts that really rival the ones here. Ahh, now I'm missing it.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Durham's best point is intangible. It's perhaps the most diversed and tolerant city in North Carolina. Truly, a great place to live, work and play.

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