Walker Stone’s voice is gruff but flavorful, like the tobacco leaves that were once hauled into his auction warehouse in Durham to be sold to the tobacco companies that dotted downtown.
“Durham was built on tobacco,” Stone says at the onset of The Rise and Fall of Liberty, a film by local documentary filmmaker Carol Thomson and a project of the Southern Documentary Fund.
One only needs to walk Durham’s streets and landmarks to see the truth of Walker’s words. But Liberty tells the story behind—and literally inside—those familiar landmarks and raises questions about the consequences of unchecked economic development in Durham’s downtown and its threat to the city’s identify.
Thomson found her film’s focus in Liberty Warehouse and her narrator in Stone, owner of the warehouse during its operation as a tobacco auction house where farmers would sell their crop. The last tobacco auction was held in 1984. The tobacco industry left Durham shortly after, and the streets and buildings supplying that industry went quiet. Liberty Warehouse served as an underused storage facility until after 2000, when it entered into a new stage of life, becoming home to a community of artists and metal workers, including the Scrap Exchange.
Liberty follows the warehouse until the present, building to a conclusion that won’t be news to anyone who’s strolled around the Central Park District recently. But there’s nonetheless much in this film that makes it a must-see for locals and newcomers alike.
For starters, archival material hunted down by Thomson and editor Jim Haverkamp brings old Durham to life. The black-and-white images offer a glimpse into Durham’s booming years as a tobacco mecca. Familiar streets are made unfamiliar among tobacco warehouses, large trucks filled with tobacco leaves, and the growers bringing their crop to market. Among this hustle and bustle in the early twentieth century, the film reminds us, 90 percent of American-manufactured cigarettes were made in Durham. Along with narration from Stone and other Durham residents, the documentary ably and vividly depicts a bygone Durham to contrast with the later changes to the urban landscape.
The film also reveals the saga that brought about the end of Liberty Warehouse, using that structure as a frame through which to analyze what is lost in a city when urban revitalization is encouraged but unchecked.
Industry leaves. Artists take its place. Then they’re forced to leave when the building’s ceiling collapses in 2011. These artists, the filmmaker suggests, are responsible for making Durham what it is today. They help in the campaign to build Central Park; they build Major, Durham plaza’s metal bull; they grow an art scene that attracts people and investment to Durham.
But then we watch as the Liberty Warehouse, a home to Durham’s art scene artist and a historic emblem of its past, disappears and is replaced by luxury apartments. The film’s ending, Thomson says, is not a happy one.
“We just wanted to tell a story that’s really authentic to what was happening downtown,” Thomson says. “In the name of progress, we’re losing a lot.”
The Rise and Fall of Liberty will be screened at the the Longleaf Film Festival in Raleigh on May 13. Admission is free to the festival, though some events require preregistration. Further screenings are planned in the Durham area, and updates will be posted on the film’s website.