Amanda Abrams, New York Times, May 1, 2018
“Downtown just ain’t black enough for me,” Paul Scott wrote in The Durham Herald-Sun a couple of months ago. A minister and local newspaper columnist, Mr. Scott was echoing a sentiment voiced by many of the city’s longtime African-American residents: The city center does not feel welcoming to them anymore.
As a result of the growth, local officials find themselves grappling with a crisis over affordable housing. But what has been largely overlooked is the cultural displacement that can accompany rapid urban change: the sense that home is not home anymore, at least for a portion of the population.
It is not surprising that some Durham residents are feeling disoriented. In the early part of the last century, the city — once a hub for tobacco and textile industries — was nationally known for its strong businesses owned by African-Americans. It went by the moniker “Capital of the Black Middle Class,” and that group survived even as the city’s downtown experienced a population shift to the suburbs. By the 1970s, though, Durham was the poorest of the three main municipalities in the region, which includes Chapel Hill and Raleigh, and it had developed a reputation for crime.
But public-private investments jump-started some growth a few years ago, just in time for the growing interest in urban living. Artists, professionals and young families began flocking to Durham, attracted to its low housing prices and downtown infrastructure. A big part of the appeal, too, was the city’s racial diversity; blacks and whites each make up about 40 percent of the population.
Since then, however, housing prices have skyrocketed. Investors are renovating homes in low-income neighborhoods near the center of town and selling them for several times what they initially paid. Tobacco warehouses and textile mills have become upscale condominium and office buildings.
In total, the projects will bring more than 1.2 million square feet of office space, 1,500 residential units and 100,000 square feet of retail space to Durham.
There are already far more people on Main Street here than there have been in several decades, and that number will soon increase immensely. In particular, the addition of so many upscale residential units means an entirely new population downtown — largely wealthy and white — plus new restaurants and services catering to that demographic.
“I’ve noticed a lot of changes, but none of them have truly been for black people, in my opinion,” said Vanessa Evans, a community leader in the Braggtown area of Durham whose family has lived in the city for generations. “Downtown doesn’t look anything like me, or like it used to look.”
Longtime black residents frequently assert that only a couple of black-owned businesses are left in the city center. But Downtown Durham, an economic development group, recently determined that more than 60 minority-owned businesses were in the area, although many were professional offices not visible from the street.
Nicole J. Thompson, Downtown Durham’s chief executive, also pointed out that blacks appeared to be well represented on downtown sidewalks. “I recently made a point to come downtown, as an African-American myself, and see,” she said. “I had to raise my eyebrows: It’s not all white faces.”
“We don’t want a downtown where only rich people and white people feel comfortable,” said Jillian Johnson, mayor pro tempore on the City Council. “Left to its own devices, this market will trend to the people who have the most money to spend. In order to make downtown accessible and comfortable, there has to be more of an intentional push to maintain some of that racial and socioeconomic diversity.”
But Kathryn L. S. Pettit, a researcher at the Urban Institute, said that the sooner city leaders began to act, the better. Land costs can rise steeply with time, she said, reducing the options if the city waits too long to make decisions.