Melva George Rigel’s memories of childhood in her College Heights neighborhood come easily. It was the 1950s and ‘60s. Her family lived in a white bungalow built by her father, Daniel George, in 1946. The neighborhood, which makes up 12 city blocks in Southeast Durham, brimmed with N.C. Central University professors who emphasized the importance of education to local schoolchildren, and the ethos of a community raising a child rang clear and true. 

Neighborhood parents organized hiking trips, cultural events, and parades. Every Christmas, Ezra L. Totten, the NCCU chemist who lived across the street from the George family, famously synched the outdoor Christmas tree lights between neighboring bungalows. When switched on, the display along “Christmas tree lane” was as perfect and precise as an equation.

The College Heights of today feels relatively untouched, Rigel says, though there are fewer children and “most of the elders have died.”

The Durham surrounding College Heights has changed, though, which is one reason why Rigel—who moved to the West Coast in 1970 but returned to her childhood home in 2008 to care for an aging parent—felt it was important to join in the work of preserving its history.

Rigel, a board member at Preservation Durhan, is one of the volunteers behind Open Durham, an expansive rabbit hole of a website dedicated to archiving the city’s history. The website has changed over the years but remained online, in one form or another, since 2006.

Each week, Rigel says, she logs several hours of work on the site; some weeks, when she gets caught up, those hours stretch to 40. Thanks to her work, those browsing the website can look up nearly any address in College Heights—a neighborhood now in  the National Register of Historic Places—and find a full report on the house, including a photo, architectural specifics, and the history of past residents.

Sometimes this information is sourced from county tax records; other times, Rigel simply knows the generations who have lived there before.

“One thing that I do know is that it is very important for you to write your own history,” Rigel says, “because when someone else is writing your history, almost always, it is not accurate.”

When I first moved into my current home, an older rental in downtown Durham, the woman moving out left behind a framed black-and-white photograph of a man carrying a box of butter up a set of stairs. I asked what the picture was of.

“Oh, that’s this house,” she said, and directed me to Open Durham.

Sure enough, when I put my address into the search bar, it conjured that photograph, alongside a patchwork story of the house and a comment describing how an early inhabitant was a passenger on the first streetcar run in the neighborhood.  All of a sudden the house, with its slanted floors and weird, creaky corners, took on the dimension of past lives.

Upon clicking further into the website, the heart of Durham spilled out in the form of thousands of hyperlinked archival pages. Its design was rudimentary, clearly a labor of love, but the information infinite, like Durham’s own Wikipedia.

Soon, in conversations with people around town—architects looking for the history behind a house, teachers planning lessons on local history, journalists digging for background—it became clear that an invisible framework, one shaping the future of the city, depended on this website.

And, as it turns out, it is a website run by just a handful of volunteers.

One afternoon in June, I met Nicholas Levy, the current site editor of Open Durham, on a bench overlooking Durham Central Park. It was sweltering—the kind of heat that makes you think extra hard about climate change’s grip on the future—so he directed me to a shady spot.

An animated redhead, Levy gives the impression of a competent, resourceful person who, if you handed them a balloon, could improvise a challenging animal shape. When we sat down on a bench, he quickly pointed out the story behind it.

“This is dedicated to two sisters, Margaret Wilson and Lydia Wilson Parker, both descendants of a man named Peyton Smith,” Levy said, pulling a map out of a tote (which itself was made out of a goat feed bag) and explaining that Smith was a Black Spanish American veteran and prolific Durham businessman. “When Durham Central Park was being organized, his descendants, including the women honored by these benches, sold it to the city to be developed for this purpose.”

Levy, a doctoral candidate in Stanford University’s history department, has roots in North Carolina but grew up in Atlanta. In 2016, he moved to Durham and became plugged into local historical work; in 2018, while working

as a board member at the nonprofit Preservation Durham, the project fell into his lap.

He’s been obsessing over it ever since.

Open Durham originally grew out of a blog run by Gary Kueber, a local doctor-turned-developer who also spent time moonlighting as a preservation activist and blogger. Frustrated by what he saw as a lack of government-directed preservation efforts, Kueber started blogging on the site, then called Endangered Durham, in 2006.

The stakes, as he remembers it, were different then: Durham still suffered from a reputation of blight; houses were cheap, and he did not anticipate the speed at which Durham would develop and gentrify. Back then, he says, he just hoped to advocate for the historic properties in danger of being knocked down.

“We were still in that phase of people not really valuing downtown,” Kueber says. “There was a question of, how do we get people to actually invest in downtown? How do we get people to move into it?”

For a time, the blog was a regular news source. In a 2008 INDY profile of Kueber, Cleveland-Holloway Neighborhood Association founding member Eleni Vlachos remarked that “people wake up, have their morning coffee and see what Gary posted.”

Soon, the site became a nearly encyclopedic, if somewhat chaotic, inventory of the city, with pages for nearly 2,000 places. In 2011, motivated to make the site easier to navigate and contribute to, Kueber began using new software.

Endangered Durham was the renamed something more hopeful: Open Durham.

“Rather than it being this kind of top-down, ‘I’m the self-appointed expert who’s going to tell you about this stuff,’ the best person to write about a specific house is the person who grew up there or lives there now,” Kueber says. “Open Durham is editable and updatable to reflect what people think now, or what people think 10 years from now. I would hope that if somebody reads something and they think like, ‘What, what was he smoking?’ they’ll add their own perspective to that. That’s the whole idea, really—that it has that openness.”

In 2016, after years of running the site, Kueber, who has since pivoted to working as a career coach, donated the site to Preservation Durham.

The organization has a more formal infrastructure for doing preservation work—it has been around since 1974, has board members, a small budget, and an active event and educational series—though the work of the organization still falls to one full-time employee, executive director April Johnson.

“As communities began to gentrify and change, we can understand the evolution of the change, why it’s changed, [and] people’s stories,” Johnson says, in reference to the website. “People can tell their own story about why maybe they’ve moved out of the neighborhood, or why they’ve been forced to move out or, or why they decided to move into the neighborhood.”

In 2018, Levy took on managing Open Durham. With it, he took on the complications of a rapidly changing Durham—and changing preservation ethics, too, as historians grapple with how to tell the story of the past truthfully when so much of it has been willfully obscured.

Preservation work itself has long been marked by racial inequity; of the 95,000 homes recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, for instance, a scant two percent reflect the experiences of Black Americans, reporting in The New Yorker recently revealed.

Add to this that deteriorating Black neighborhoods are often scrubbed from public memory altogether—once by highways and urban renewal, now by condo developments—and historians face something of a race against time.

“The preservation movement has had a kind of identity crisis in the last 20 years or so,” Levy says. “There’s a history that has largely been defending and arguing for the architectural value and merit of homes that predominantly were owned by wealthy white folks. And the way in which we determined that [a building] is important, even within the category of wealthy white folks, tends to privilege the work done by men over women.”

Open Durham is organized by 48 neighborhoods; more than most people might even realize exist in Durham. Upon clicking a neighborhood entry, users encounter an intro paragraph, alongside individual addresses that link to a page with pictures and sometimes anecdotal comments posted by readers. (At 3112 Roxboro Road: “Johnny’s Country Store had the coldest beer in town in the 1970s.”)

For history nerds, this kind of database is obviously invaluable. But as development continues aggressively apace, tech companies bring high-income populations to the Triangle, house prices rise—in 2021, the median home price in the Triangle rose to $357,000—and longtime residents find their doors papered with glossy home offers, it is also evidence of, and argument for, a rapidly vanishing city.

To illustrate the value of a contributor-friendly platform, Levy describes the metamorphosis of one particular site entry, about a block of East Main Street.

The block, which had once housed the mega-mansion of the white supremacist Julian Carr, was home, during the 1950s, to a diner at 111 South Dillard Street owned by a white family. For a while, the site entry featured the idyllic diner pictures that had been submitted from that era. 

Later, though, a woman named Rashida Brandt reached out with information about what the diner had transformed into in the 1980s—a vibrant Black hair salon owned by her father, Ernest Brandt.

“If you ever sat in his chair you were guaranteed to get an in-depth Black history lesson and a beautiful hairstyle, all while Anita Baker or Miles Davis played in the background,” Brandt is quoted as saying on the site, “This address will always hold a special place in my heart and I am extremely proud that my father will forever be a part of the history of Durham, N.C.”

Now, the page for 111 South Dillard reflects both chapters of the building.

“There was a huge blind spot,” Levy says. “Not just decades in the history of this single building, but it was also sort of a microcosm—the history of white flight, and Black businesses, and a number of other things that have been really important but kind of underdialogued.”

Part of the challenge, he says, is getting people—and therefore, policies and funding—to recognize the value of the histories that look less like the Biltmore Estate and more like the College Heights neighborhood of Melva Rigel’s childhood.

“In some ways, this is an American problem,” Levy says. “We have difficulty reading history that doesn’t look like a 12th-century French cathedral or something—and by ‘we,’ unfortunately, I mean the kind of dominant white supremacist interpretation of historical value.”

There is some good news on that front: Nationwide, the work of activists fighting to preserve Black history is steadily gaining overdue recognition. Locally, structures like Pauli Murray’s home in Durham have received federal recognition in the past few years (and, most recently, a $1.6 million Andrew W. Mellon grant), while Preservation Durham has done substantial work protecting and restoring Black burial grounds.

Still, after foundational neglect, the work of historical preservation remains an uphill battle, particularly when so much of it is shouldered by just a few people.

Drupal 7, the content management system that Open Durham was built on, expires in November 2022. Issues with the server caused the site to crash for a couple months this summer, causing readers to worry that it had disappeared forever. Levy made a call for tech help as he rebooted the site. (“We have no budget for it, beyond paying its hosting fee,” he says.)

Running it, as he explains, is a taxing “full-time unpaid job,” consuming both his time and an extra room in his house, which has become crammed with local historical ephemera that people send him—diaries of a Black minister from the 1920s, newspaper clippings, tackle boxes of slide film—not knowing what else to do with it.

In July, a reader of the site reached out to Levy and donated a substantial sum of money to Open Durham, requesting anonymity. During a tight moment, the donation was enough to fund migrating the site to a new platform, which Levy says he should be able to do by next year’s November deadline. (There are also ongoing donation links on both Preservation Durham and Open Durham’s websites).

Public history sites like Open Durham exist in other cities, says April Johnson, though she doesn’t know of many in mid-sized Southern cities like Durham.

“I look forward to it continuing to be a community digital public history,” she says. “As we move into the future, I believe more and more people will be using the digital space to learn.”

And so the site, for now, lives on. Levy can’t help but brighten, too, when he thinks of its future. He has hopes of making it more navigable, with a design that encourages more users to contribute.           

“It wouldn’t be much of a website if it just came from me,” Levy says. “That wouldn’t take in the sort of breadth and perspective that makes public history resources really rich. I would love to draw attention to the incredible collections at Duke’s Special Collections and UNC Special Collections, and the North Carolina collection at the Durham County Library.”

Down the hill beside us, a pair of teenagers at Durham Central Park—presumably, based on the PDA, a couple—were posing and taking pictures in front of a sculpture.

It seemed almost too on-the-nose to be watching the next generation interact with public art as Levy spoke about the previous generations that had lived on the ground we stood on. But it squared with the mission of Open Durham: the past and the future both live with us.

“I would like for it to be a place,” Levy says, in reference to the website, “where people recognize that history is something that they have a stake in—that they may be a part of it, and they may have something to contribute to as well.” 

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