The Soul Of Community
Like many American cities, Durham, N.C. is turning once-abandoned factories into tech hubs and microbreweries. It’s also building a shared commitment to its most vulnerable citizens. Barry Yeoman, a veteran journalist who has lived in and loved Durham since 1985, digs into the layers of the city’s soul.
Story by BARRY YEOMAN
Photography by ALEX BOERNER
One City Center, a brand-new glass tower with condominiums topping $1 million, dwarfs the rest of the skyline in downtown Durham. It has become a symbol of the city’s shifting demographics—and for some, of the real-estate boom that has displaced working-class families and people of color.
The area code for Durham, North Carolina is 919. And so, at 9:19 on a Friday night, about twenty teens, mostly African American, converge on the city’s main square. Known as CCB Plaza for the bank that once stood here, it is a square block paved in geometric brick patterns, surrounded by hotels and safeguarded by a one-ton anatomically correct bronze bull named Major.
The kids look uncertain. It has started to rain, and they are carrying some expensive electronic equipment. They turn to one of their leaders, 34-year-old Pierce Freelon, who looks at the sky and shrugs his assent. A laptop comes out, followed by a speaker, and a bassy beat spreads over the square. A circle forms. Then come the words that initiate every Friday night here.
I’ve been thinking about the craft of building a community: how we stoke economic vitality in a city without leaving cultural vitality, in a form that’s shared with everyone, behind.
“Say ‘Cypher, cypher!’” a voice calls out.
“Cypher, cypher!” twenty voices respond.
In the language of hip-hop, a cypher is a gathering for freestyle, or improvisational, rap. This one is organized by Blackspace, a project that Freelon runs inside a downtown tech hub. Durham’s weekly event showcases the kids who take Blackspace’s hip-hop class, but it’s also open to all who want to test their poetic chops. “Everyone’s our friend,” says 17-year-old Khamisi Jackson. “You don’t even have to be a rapper. We’re open for anyone to come in and basically do whatever they want.”
The themes jump from Jesus to gentrification to sunflowers to black youth leadership. “You be the voice of your generation,” one poet says. “You be the difference.”
Strangers wander over. The circle widens. “Y’all come in,” someone calls. “Don’t be scared.” Families with toddlers and dogs appear, along with a middle-aged county official and her husband. The rain picks up, and the kids cover the laptop with extra layers of plastic. Within an hour, the circle has widened to 100—a racial and generational cross-section of the city. The weather has driven almost no one away.
“THE MECCA OF BLACK CAPITALISM”
Throughout this spring and summer, I’ve been examining my hometown through a new lens, and the memory of that June night sticks with me. I’ve been thinking about the craft of building a community: how we stoke economic vitality in a city without leaving cultural vitality, in a form that’s shared with everyone, behind. If community means anything, it seems, it should create a shared sense of belonging.
A once-empty tobacco factory now boasts apartments, a public-radio studio, and an artificial river.
Building community is not like building a house. Or, more accurately, it’s like building a house with a bunch of partners using different blueprints, while others are disassembling the foundation and yet others have confiscated some of the tools. Cities are shaped by market forces and government policies—“and community often is on the receiving end of the decisions made by those two sectors,” says local organizer Ivan Parra.
Durham, a city of 260,000, is a classic example. By one survey, it’s the South’s fifth-most diverse mid-sized city. Civic life is an obsession here. We elect social-justice activists to a City Council that works to widen participation in local government. Our local institutions push back against the national animus toward immigrants, Muslims, and those under the LGBTQ umbrella (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer). We support small businesses, particularly ones that pay a living wage. On the streets, people say hello to each other.
All of this requires struggle. When I moved here in 1985, the tobacco and textile factories that defined Durham’s economy were shutting down. An expressway built in the 1960s had cleaved the city center in two and wiped out a neighborhood called Hayti, which was known as the “Mecca of Black Capitalism.” Even after 20 years, downtown had not yet recovered: Many of its buildings were vacant, and its streets emptied at 5.
FREE MARKET REALITIES
I had always marveled at Durham’s human capital. It was full of creative people of all kinds, many of them graduates of Duke University and the historically black North Carolina Central University. Particularly strong was the legacy of African-American entrepreneurship. As far back as 1911, the famous black educator Booker T. Washington wrote, “This was the city of cities to look for prosperity of the Negroes and the greatest amount of friendly feeling between the two races of the South.” Washington had just visited Durham and met “prosperous doctors, lawyers, [and] preachers” living in homes with “electric lights and steam heat and baths and all the modern equipments.” African Americans were politically mobilized, too: In the late 1930s—with black voter registration in the South nearing zero—it was 70 percent in Durham.
By the 1980s, that “friendly feeling” had evolved into a biracial political coalition that swept out the old white business establishment and took over City Hall. That was the political environment I witnessed as a young reporter when I moved here from the North Carolina mountains at the age of 25.
Although Durham was politically invigorating back then, it lacked the feel of a city. I couldn’t find a welcoming pub, and I had to drive five miles into the suburbs for a decent pizza. Hearing live music meant leaving town. Without a vibrant streetscape, people didn’t walk. One evening in the ’80s, a friend visiting from New York huddled close to me on a city street. “I’ve never walked in the country at night before,” he said.
Today Durham has seen a headline-grabbing renaissance. Downtown pulses with microbreweries and international dining. A once-empty tobacco factory now boasts apartments, a public-radio studio, and an artificial river. (“The mark of a successful city,” wrote James Fallows in the recent book Our Towns, “is having a river walk, whether or not there’s a river.”) Another old cigarette factory has become a biotech incubator. Jazz and R&B pour from clubs. Cocktail bars sling $16 coladas.
Still, in a city with no majority race, the patrons of these businesses are disproportionately white. Likewise, white professionals are buying up houses in central-city neighborhoods, driving up prices and making it harder for people of color to remain.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the story of urban America in the 21st century. “People have fallen back in love with cities,” says Gustavo Velasquez, an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama administration and now a program director at the Urban Institute. “You have a complete reversal of what we saw back in the ’70s and early ‘80s. Now the place to be is as close to the major job centers as possible.” That in-migration has costs, though. In Washington, D.C., where Velasquez focuses his energies, “we are losing more minorities and more low-income people than gaining.” Despite city efforts to maintain diversity, he says, “there’s still a very terrifying reality.”
That’s why I keep thinking about the cypher in the rain. On the surface, it was an explosion of pure egalitarian joy: the coming together of Durhamites of different races and ages to make poetry together. But it was also a deliberate effort to reclaim the commons—and a commitment to black youth that they are essential to city life, and worth whatever effort it takes to keep them here.
Pierce Freelon, the Durham-born founder of Blackspace, told me that 20th-century highway-building and 21st-century gentrification are, to him, flip sides of the same phenomenon: the pushing of a city’s most vulnerable to the periphery.
“Community,” he said, “is about thwarting that trajectory.”
It’s a phrase I keep returning to, because it describes much of the work I’ve seen here. Crafting a community, I’ve discovered, requires constantly pushing back against free market forces that, if left unchecked, open an increasingly wide chasm of racial and economic inequality. Ralph Yarborough, an old Texas politician, and a Democrat, perhaps put it most colorfully. During his 1958 run for the U.S. Senate, Yarborough campaigned with this slogan: “Put the jam on the lower shelf so the little man can reach it.” With some tweaking for modern times, that turns out to be enduring advice.
MASLOW’S HIERARCHY OF NEEDS: LEVEL ONE
One way to think about the ingredients for a solid, well-rounded community is to use psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. These start with our basic requirements for survival, like food and shelter. While food security has become a serious concern in many areas, shelter—in other words, a home you can afford—has been the primary battle in Durham.
I’m hesitant to overuse the term “gentrification” because it is so loaded, so overworked, and so vague. But whatever you want to call at it, the housing problem is getting worse. In 2015, Governing magazine looked at low-wealth neighborhoods the United States’ 50 largest cities and found that 20 percent had experienced sharp spikes in home values since 2000. That compared to just 9 percent in the 1990s.
The trend is taking a wider and wider toll: A 2017 study by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene showed that people displaced from their neighborhoods were twice as likely to be hospitalized for mental illnesses. The authors describe one cause as “root shock”: the distress that comes from being torn away from one’s social networks, and from having daily routines interrupted.
“In nearly every other industrialized nation besides the United States, there is near-consensus that purely private land markets will not meet the needs of the poor,” wrote journalist Peter Moskowitz in the 2017 book How to Kill a City, “and so measures have been taken to ensure that at least some land remains off the market or subject to regulations that make it affordable.” Stateside, local governments tend to limit their regulation of real-estate development—in fact, they often encourage high-end growth. That might augment the tax base, Moskowitz writes, “but it also reshapes what cities are, turning them into explicit supporters of inequality.”
Durham isn’t as expensive as, say, San Francisco and New York. But three-figure rents here are disappearing, and the median home is now listed for sale at $283,000. “The market is not going to produce affordable housing,” says the Rev. Herbert Davis, pastor at Nehemiah Christian Center, a Pentecostal church.
Given the decades of damage that gentrification has done to cities across the country, one would think there would be some government policies by now to offset the problem. If anything, the opposite holds true. In North Carolina and elsewhere, state law binds the hands of local officials who want to tinker with that market. “We have a legislature that is using its power to clamp down on cities,” says Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. “There are many things we’d like to do in Durham that we can’t.” As one example, municipalities here cannot require developers to set aside a percentage of their units for lower-income families, a practice known as inclusionary zoning. Nor do cities have the luxury of going rogue: A spurned legislature is a vindictive one that can yank funding for essential needs like public transit, or bully a city, as it did when lawmakers ordered Durham to extend water and sewer into an environmentally sensitive area.
I’ve watched the housing crisis play out in my own neighborhood, which is sandwiched between downtown and Duke University and mirrors the city’s demographics. During much of my 30 years here, and particularly during the crack epidemic, I was calling in gunshots nightly. Now century-old bungalows and Craftsman-style houses are being renovated and flipped for ten times what I paid in 1987. Crime has gone down, for which I’m grateful. But in today’s free market, older residents, artists, activists, and working-class families, all of whom gave this neighborhood its texture, are often priced out.
There is one thing, however, that has helped keep our neighborhood remain economically diverse: Around the time I moved here, my neighbors welcomed a non-profit with an innovative homeownership model.
While Kwame Joyner performs at an August cypher, the listeners on the right, holding a dictionary, call out words to prompt new themes. This routine has become a favorite for cypher rappers.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING’S CHALLENGE
The Durham Community Land Trustees fixes up houses and resells them to families earning below a certain income. (Land Trust families own their buildings, but not the land underneath; instead, they sign a renewable 99-year lease.) Families buy the houses at well below market prices; when they sell, it must be to another qualified buyer, at a modest mark-up limited by a formula. This keeps the houses permanently affordable.
“We started out literally one house at a time, using a lot of volunteer labor,” says executive director Selina Mack. And the trust did more than just sell homes. It provided credit counseling and worked with residents to advocate for better policing and infrastructure. “We consider ourselves to be in the trenches with people in this community,” she says.
We sat on the porch and watched the street, which is narrow and enlivened by neighbors with long histories together. “I love how much on top of each other everybody is,” she said. “People are noisy; they’re happy; they’re partying. I really like the mess of humanity.”
Around the U.S., there are about 300 community land trusts, according to the National Community Land Trust Network, and they have wide-ranging historical roots: 19th-century utopian thinkers, Israel kibbutzim, and India’s gramdan system of private land donated back to the village. The first modern U.S. land trust was New Communities, a civil-rights-era collective farm in southwest Georgia. Since then the model has moved into cities, and studies show it both keeps property affordable and prevents delinquencies and foreclosures. Land trusts are not the solution to affordable housing. But they’ve proven to be an essential part of a larger toolkit.
A COMPLICATED TRADE-OFF
On a summer weekend, I visited one of my newest neighbors. Laura Friederich is a forensic chemist who, even with a professional salary, wasn’t making enough to buy a house on the open market. Until last year, she was renting a mother-in-law unit on the periphery of town. She had almost given up on finding her own home when she learned about a three-bedroom Land Trust house with a screened-in front porch available for $141,000. “A miracle,” she says.
We sat on that porch and watched the street, which is narrow and enlivened by neighbors with long histories together. “I love how much on top of each other everybody is,” she said. “People are noisy; they’re happy; they’re partying. I really like the mess of humanity.”
She likes it enough to forego financial security. “I like how anti-capitalist it is,” she says. “You’re choosing solidarity or community over increasing wealth.”
This is a complicated trade-off, as I learned from my friend Alisa Johnson, an English professor who has lived in a Land Trust house since the 1990s. “In the African-American community, homeownership is always tied to wealth development,” Johnson said. (She and her husband, like many Land Trust owners, are black; Friederich is white.) “Love the house. Love the neighborhood. Honor the commitment that I made. But at a certain point, when we sell, we’re going to be more deeply under water than most of our neighbors.” In other words, they won’t have the equity required for a market-rate home.
There are non-profit models that allow homeowners to build more wealth, but here’s the rub: Once a house is sold at market rate, it’s removed from the low-cost pool. Unless and until we change the rules and incentives of today’s free market, there’s no perfect way to craft affordable community. There is only a series of possibilities, all of them compromises, creeping collectively toward a solution.
MASLOW’S MIDDLE LEVELS: WORK AND BELONGING
A couple of years ago, when I was visiting the port city of Cádiz, in Spain, a friend asked me to join him as he picked his up daughter from school. Our destination was less than a half-mile away, yet it took almost two hours to walk there. As we navigated the city’s 18th-century streets, there was a neighbor to greet every 50 feet. There were faces to kiss and hair to tousle, and a conversation with the older men at my friend’s father’s social club. We might have arrived at the school early if not for an impromptu beer with a friend at a neighborhood bar.
Whenever I travel overseas, I am reminded how much community life—when it’s healthy—plays out in public. On this front, the United States regularly falls short. But lively streets and squares like CCB Plaza are essential to a city’s self-definition—to the feeling that this is a place to live in rather than drive through. (One of Durham’s better efforts at this occurred with an innovative coffee shop venture. To see how this enterprise took shape, see the adjacent sidebar story, “How Does a Truly Communal Coffee Shop Survive?”)
“The square is a gathering place where all kinds of things happen,” says Fred Kent, founder of Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based non-profit. “It’s not like a park where you play baseball or tennis. A square is a flexible, dynamic place,” where the design is less important than the activities it inspires. To Kent, the ideal square “is one you can improvise.” When spontaneous activities bring diverse people together, he says, the result is magic. “If there’s a Wednesday night market and you have dancing, you’ve hit a homerun.”
That’s why I keep thinking about Blackspace’s Friday night cypher. It is the moment each week when the city center feels most alive with creative energy that crosses class lines.These events are a mix of the conscious and the spontaneous. What will happen any given night is anyone’s guess. But they don’t emerge from the ether. Their occurrence, at 9:19 each Friday night, is the result of a collaboration between Durham’s business and creative sectors.
“THE MOST DIVERSE TECH-HUB IN THE WORLD”
Like many cities, Durham boasts a technology incubator that has attracted young entrepreneurial energy downtown. It’s called American Underground (AU) because it began in the basement of American Tobacco, the renovated factory with the faux river. Then, like a plant with a rhizome system, AU spread across the railroad tracks and popped up in two Main Street buildings. It markets itself as a “counter-story to Silicon Valley” for both its urban location and its efforts to nurture women- and minority-owned businesses.
“We had goals of being the most diverse tech hub in the world,” says Jes Averhart, AU’s former director of corporate and community partnerships. In 2016, Blackspace moved in, rent-free, and began teaching hip-hop, poetry, videography, coding, game design, and puppetry. Blackspace’s Pierce Freelon, a hip-hop and jazz musician, immediately recognized what this could mean for the teens in his charge: “access to downtown prime real estate” and “skin in the game at AU.” Jackson, the teen who, at the cypher said “everyone’s our friend,” recently worked on a film crew for an AU tenant.
One recent Thursday night, 10 teens squeezed into Blackspace’s suite. Kevin Joshua “Rowdy” Rowsey II, a musician and emcee who runs the hip-hop program, was assigning an exercise. “I want you to be a news reporter,” he said. “I want you to write from the voice of the community. If you can’t think of anything, just start to scribble.”
Seven minutes later, the kids were performing their poems, many of them about police shootings of young black men. This process, and this material, would fuel subsequent cyphers.
“I was never bold enough to perform in front of people,” said 19-year-old Alyssa Gurnell, who had been writing poems for years. After taking Blackspace classes, she now raps at CCB Plaza.
MASLOW’S FINAL LEVEL: CREATIVITY
Compared to housing, the arts might seem like a trifle, not even worth mentioning in an article about creating a community where everyone feels they have a chance at the action. If I had retained even a shred of doubt about the value of the arts, though, Jeremy Liu blasted it away.
Liu is a senior fellow at the non-profit PolicyLink in Oakland, California, where he leads an initiative to integrate arts and culture into equitable community development. We talked about how the arts help communities assert their priorities. “There’s a whole realm of epidemiology now that looks at social factors as determinants of health for individuals and populations,” he said. “How much agency you feel over your life actually is a huge determinant.” Just as political engagement and protest help build autonomy, “the role of arts and culture and other creative practices in supporting folks who feel they have agency is immeasurable. It’s tremendous.”
What’s more, Liu says, cities are discovering the value of integrating the arts into all areas of urban planning. Last year, PolicyLink published a 64-page report with concrete examples: When a light-rail line was built in Minneapolis, the city developed a walkable district celebrating Native American culture; in New York City’s East Harlem, local officials turned an abandoned school into affordable live-work spaces for artists and their families; and North Philadelphia created the Village of Arts and Humanities, a cluster of art parks that provides jobs for youth of color.
But these stories are still outliers. In the United States, government funding for the arts is minuscule compared to what’s spent in Canada and Western Europe. (In 2014, the news service AlterNet reported that, per capita, Germany spends 40 times more on the arts than the U.S.) “The public often views the profession of ‘artist’ as not serious,” a team from the Urban Institute wrote in 2003. As a result, “many artists struggle to make ends meet. They often lack adequate resources for health care coverage, housing, and for space to make their work.”
A WIDE OPEN ART GALLERY
This trend was on my mind one night last summer, as I drove from the cypher downtown to a gallery called The Carrack. It was opening night of an exhibit, and the crowd spilled out two doors: onto the sidewalk in front, and onto a wooden deck in back.
The show, by a half-dozen artists, was called The Baghdad Battery. It looked like a magical-realist archeology museum filled with concrete vessels that almost, but not quite, suggested antiquity. One urn, covered in chainmail, sat on a Plexiglas pedestal that housed a fog machine. Another dangled from a tapestry of a jet flying over Baghdad during the U.S. invasion.
At first glance, everything about the Carrack’s physical space—the professional lighting, the stamped-tin ceiling—suggested a conventional gallery. The difference is its economic model: The Carrack, a non-profit, raises its budget from the community and takes no commission on sales. Artists who show their work there keep every dollar they earn.
This turns out to be a game changer, particularly for newer artists and those without access to capital. “There are so many barriers,” says Chuck Pell, an artist-inventor who co-founded a surgical robotics company. “It costs money for the materials, lots of money. There are so many middlemen. And there’s a guild mentality: ‘You’re not really an artist.’” Add gallery commissions of 50 percent or more, and many newcomers can’t afford to exhibit.
Trained in the violin, Khamisi Jackson (center, during a cypher) says he has broadened his musical skills at Blackspace’s workshops. “They even mentor us on the business side of the music industry,” he says, “marketing and things like that.”
The Carrack’s mission has evolved over time, says Laura Ritchie, the gallery’s first director. In 2011, she and sculptor John Wendelbo invited friends to exhibit in a downtown loft they were renting. Curating the space led them to think about what was missing from the local art scene. “I have nothing against landscape painters—nothing against work that has more traditional or commercial appeal—but I was seeing way more of that type of art than anything else,” she says.
Ritchie started thinking about why other galleries lacked creative diversity. Since financial barriers are often an insurmountable problem, she and Wendelbo wondered if they could structure things differently. “Let’s push it as far to the opposite extreme as we can,” she remembers them agreeing. They couldn’t afford to pay artists to exhibit. “But we could say there’s no application fee. There’s not even a requirement to have a full body of work complete. We just want you to have a great idea, and we want to see enough of your work to believe that you can pull it off.”
Much of the funding would come from a single annual event, called the Muse Masquerade, which invites sponsorships from local businesses. Over the years it has evolved from a black-tie gala with an art auction to a costume ball with DJs, tarot-card readers, even aerialists.
I went to a lot of The Carrack’s early shows. Openings sometimes featured live music or even short films and theater performances. The artists literally had possession of the gallery keys, and that sparked a sense of possibility. The downtown renaissance was just taking off, and the Carrack represented a kind of DIY space that comported with the city’s scrappy self-image.
But just as downtown’s comeback shifted its racial dynamic, the Carrack too felt a bit monochromatic. “The first couple of years, we were not thinking critically about that,” says Ritchie, who is white. Applications from people of color were low, “and we weren’t asking why. We were just thinking, ‘It’s free to apply. It’s zero commission. There are no barriers.’”
After many conversations, Ritchie came to understand that lowering the barriers weren’t enough; the Carrack needed to reach out. She and her volunteer team and advisory board began talking with minority artists, visiting other organizations, and attending diverse cultural events. “It was not at all hard to find an incredible wealth of talent,” she says. Last year, for the first time, Ritchie says, more than half the exhibits and programs were led by, or featured, people of color.
As luck would have it, Durham’s downtown renaissance soon forced the gallery to move—a common occurrence in neglected neighborhoods that artists help revive. The Carrack relocated to a historically black neighborhood; in a further twist, now that community is feeling real-estate pressures of its own. “How do we exist as art spaces, which also end up becoming gentrifying forces?” asks Saba Taj, The Carrack’s new director. “That’s something we have to actively work against.”
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
“What we do with the land around us reflects who we are, and what we believe, as a community,” says the Rev. Heather Rodrigues.
Reading the post-World War II history of American cities, I’m struck by the central role that political organizing played against efforts to destroy communities in the name of what developers and planners called progress. In the 1950s, New York’s “master builder,” Robert Moses, wanted to ram a four-lane highway through Washington Square Park. Greenwich Village residents banded together to stop him. They sent 30,000 postcards to city officials, held rallies with babies in strollers, and enlisted editorial support from the Village Voice. Moses tried to dismiss the opposition as “a bunch of mothers.” But in 1959 the mothers prevailed.
“Highway revolts” like these were soon brewing across the country. In Washington, D.C., activists distributed handbill in 1967 saying, “No more white highways through black bedrooms.” In San Francisco, folksinger Malvina Reynolds entertained a 1964 rally with her anti-freeway song, “The Golden Octopus.”
When I moved to Durham, more than three decades ago, long-timers told me about our city’s own highway revolt. In the 1970s, African Americans and white liberals shared a determination not to repeat the debacle that obliterated the Hayti neighborhood a decade early. When an extension of that very same expressway was slated to bore through a tight-knit black community called Crest Street, they formed an alliance to fight the bankers and developers who supported the road. They circulated petitions, lobbied politicians, and packed meetings wearing buttons and T-shirts printed with their message. In the end, they scored a partial victory: The expressway was realigned enough so the neighborhood could be rebuilt around a church that was spared.
That expressway battle helped launch a political coalition in Durham that took over local government by putting together biracial electoral tickets. The original alliance has since crumbled, but the tradition of multiracial government persists, and some of the Crest Street activists are still around. Mayor Schewel was one of them, and he proudly told me about the battle back when he published the newspaper where I worked until 1999.
Today, in gentrifying cities, grassroots organizing plays a newly critical role, says the Urban Institute’s Velasquez—as a counterweight to newcomers who might not understand the need for a sense of commonweal. “Demographically and economically, cities are shifting,” he says. “So you have more and more high-income people coming in, year after year after year, and their mindset is not in this strong mobilizing, advocacy network.”
I wanted to see how grassroots advocacy plays out in 21st-century Durham. So, on a June afternoon, I headed down to City Hall.
FIGHTING INJUSTICE WITH SCRIPTURE
About 75 people, representing a dozen organizations, had gathered for a press conference outside the building, calling on the city to turn the site of its soon-to-be-decommissioned police headquarters into affordable housing. Among the speakers were a retired teacher assistant, an ex-prisoner, and a woman who was left homeless after a house fire. Many held mirrors. The Rev. Heather Rodrigues of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church explained why: “What we do with the land around us reflects who we are, and what we believe, as a community.”
Most of City Council was also there, listening. “Those are the voices we need in this conversation,” council member Charlie Reece told me.
The event’s key sponsor was Durham Congregations Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN), a multi-faith organization that works on issues involving low- and moderate-income residents. Herbert Davis, the pastor, calls it a platform for translating religious conviction into community-building—“so that you’re reading Scripture in a way that you feel called to address injustice.”
After the City Hall press conference, I had coffee with CAN’s lead organizer, Ivan Parra. He explained that the organization’s priorities are bottom-up and come from intensive listening sessions, with literally thousands of people, which the leaders of CAN’s member institutions are trained to conduct. “People are invited to talk in very personal terms,” he said.
CAN then hashes out options for smarter policies. “If affordable housing is the big problem, and we can’t get inclusionary zoning, what is the most strategic path?” Parra said. They decided to focus on one power the City Council retains, even in the face of a preemptive state legislature: determining what happens to city-owned land.
CAN knew the fight to build inexpensive housing on the police site would meet resistance. It’s prime property. Some city staffers wanted to sell it to the highest bidder, and use the proceeds for housing elsewhere. To overcome those objections, “we’d really need to push hard, in a very public way,” Parra said.
After the outdoor event disbanded, the crowd moved into City Hall, where the council was meeting. They took almost every available seat and deputized a spokesman to address the council formally. That afternoon, following a long discussion, council members decided to list affordable housing as their top priority in the redevelopment of the site.
Parra sent me a text after our coffee. “The craft of building community,” he wrote, “requires 1) relational face to face meetings, 2) training of leaders, 3) collective planning/analysis of power situation, 4) collective action.”
Yes, and more. It also requires a willingness to confront difficult truths about inequality and poverty. These are principles that are baked, albeit imperfectly, into this city’s value system. “Durham has a tradition of fixing problems in public,” said Parra.
If Durham’s history is proof of anything, it stands for the idea that building community is an all-hands effort that requires buy-in from everybody—elected officials, civic organizations, religious leaders, artists, and businesses. And from everything I’ve seen, it seems clear that a truly healthy community can only be built by lowering barriers—to owning a home, to exhibiting your paintings, to launching a startup, to gaining a voice in public policy, to feeling like you belong in the town square.
Barry Yeoman is a freelance magazine journalist based in Durham, North Carolina, whose work has appeared in a wide range of publications, such as The Washington Post, Texas Monthly, The Nation, Popular Science, and Mother Jones.
Alex Boerner is a portrait and documentary photographer in Durham, North Carolina, whose work has also been seen in a range of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Guardian.
Topics: Work, Education, and Community, Arts and Entertainment
Locations: North Carolina