For years, there’s been talk about revitalizing downtown Durham, and numerous large, publicly supported projects have been undertaken for that purpose: the renovation of the Durham Arts Council (DAC) building and the Carolina Theatre; the building of the hotel-civic center complex; the re-opening of the Armory to public use; and the construction of the ballpark. All those things have definitely perked up the city center. And now Durham city and county are poised to commit many more millions to downtown, mainly to build new parking decks to serve the American Tobacco Campus redevelopment, which will draw thousands of people to its one million square feet of office, commercial and residential space. Once that’s done, the boosters of big say, then Durham’s downtown will really live again.

News flash: Downtown’s already alive, if you know where to look. True, this life is not big or shiny, does not have much glitz or flash, but it is there. From Brightleaf and the Durham School of the Arts on the west to Alston Avenue on the east, and from Geer Street on the north to Pettigrew Street’s Venable Building on the south, central Durham is honeycombed with artists, artisans and designers. Over the past 10 years, they have slowly been repopulating the urban core, finding opportunities in the vacant spaces, building studios and creating community in the places business and industry have left behind. With the return of big money and wider interest in downtown, what will happen to these urban pioneers?

“I’d like to say it will be good,” says Jennifer Collins, a fabric artist and costume designer who lives in her studio loft on Main Street, and works as the artist services assistant at the Durham Arts Council, a block away. “But given the history of towns where artists have come in and created interest and then–well, I’m really fortunate that I actually bought this place. As it becomes a more popular area, the rates and prices will go up. Artists who only have an income of $30,000 or $40,000–or less!–a year from their work will be pushed out.”

Collins is not the only one with this concern. Andrew Preiss was born and raised in Durham, and began working downtown in 1991 when he completed his Duke art degree, starting off in a corner of the already-established Vega Metals shop on Corporation Street. He makes sculpture, garden gates and interior architectural and functional pieces, such as lamps and chairs, all in metals. “I couldn’t find any place to work on my own,” he says.

Vega Metals has been very hospitable to other artists in the same general line of work, but with their own business expanding, Vega needed more space in its own building. So Preiss and Jimmy Alexander recently left their work areas within Vega’s current Hunt Street forging studio and moved to a shared 4,000-square-foot space in the nearby Liberty Warehouse, directly across the street from the beginnings of Durham Central Park, and next to the new DAC Clay Studio and the recently relocated Scrap Exchange in the Foster Street arts corridor.

“It’s taken nine years to find this arrangement. Finding a cheap place to do work like this is not easy,” says Preiss. They had to put several thousand dollars into upfitting the space for their needs, but right now he and Alexander are paying only $2 per square foot, which is the right kind of price for artists who need a lot of raw space. But, says Preiss, “It probably will be the typical thing: We’ll move in, then other people will feel comfortable and want to move in, and the rents will go up and the people who need the space won’t be able to afford it.” That may be well in the future, but he notes glumly that “we are already feeling a parking crunch around here.” As Durham Central Park develops and other nearby businesses grow, that problem will worsen quickly, and the availability of free or cheap parking may be as limiting a factor on the growth of an arts district as the cost of studio space.

Painter Steve Silverleaf, whose Art With a View studio overlooks Five Points, has been downtown since 1992. So far, he says, his rent has remained reasonable, but he points out that 50 families a day are moving to the Triangle and while that’s bringing new energy to the art scene, it will inevitably cause rents to rise. However, he shrugs and says, “Every time I start worrying about downtown gentrifying, I hear about another 5000 square feet of rough space that could be had.” Clearly, high rents are not a big problem yet.

One reason for this is that not all the artists are renting from others. Like Collins, they’ve bought in while the buying was good, and that will undoubtedly help preserve some territory for working artists as downtown redevelops. One of the first to purchase a downtown building was Daniel Ellison, a photographer who is also an attorney and has long supported the arts in numerous ways. In 1995, Ellison bought the old Palms Restaurant building on East Chapel Hill Street and turned it into Durham Arts Place, a studio complex with rents ranging from $50 to $650 per month, utilities included. Almost from the very beginning the building has been full, a comment on both the number of creative people in the area, and the need for this type of affordable studio space. Arts Place currently houses numerous individual artists; Ford’s figurative sculpture studio, where classes are taught; Monkey Eye photography studio; AMoore Art and Antiques; and the inimitable Modern Museum.

“It’s coming into its own personality now,” says Ellison. “There is a core of artists who seem to be in it for the long haul.” They now have a shared identity as Arts Place artists. That is partly due to the Durham Art Walk, which has brought a lot of downtown artists into closer community. The Art Walk was started by Downtown Durham, Inc., but the existence of Arts Place is what made such an event feasible. “A lot of praise should go to Dan Ellison,” asserts Steve Silverleaf. “We need more people like him.”

We’ve got them. Manbites Dog Theater turned the former Ferguson Printing building on Foster Street into a fine little theater, which they share with other companies. It was a lonely outpost on north Foster until architect Ellen Cassilly became the next to take the risk. She converted the old Coman’s Lumber building at Foster and Corporation Streets into her own studio and rents spaces to others as well.

And this week Leonora Coleman opens Claymakers, also on Foster, one door north of Manbites Dog, in the building vacated by Durham Awning Company. Claymakers includes, in addition to Coleman’s own production and teaching studios, a gallery for locally made pottery, a supply store for clay artists, 12 spaces for other potters, and a glaze and kiln room to be shared by all. Coleman will be supplying a need that has long gone unfilled: “I see these studios as an intermediate stage for people–kind of like an incubator,” she says. “I’ve been fomenting this for at least five years. I saw that there were no facilities beyond the classroom where you could learn more. This semi-cooperative situation makes it possible for more people to do serious work.” Claymakers gallery and shop will be open normal business hours, and Coleman will hold her classes at night, but the studio artists will have access to their spaces 24 hours a day.

Such a capital-intensive undertaking is a huge risk for an artist who makes her living throwing pots, and while Coleman is jittery, she is also confident. “It’s in the right place; it’s the right time, and I’ve pursued the idea long enough that I’ve got good support.” She probably won’t lose everything, but neither is she likely to make a fortune–but that’s not what drives her and other venturesome artists. “I want to have a livelihood and pay my bills and do what makes me happy,” she says. “And there’s a very big element of making a contribution to the community.”

Al and Donnalee Frega are similarly community-inclined. Al is a large-scale metal sculptor, renowned for his ability to transform into art materials that have outlived their original utility. His best-known work in Durham is art-in-architecture commissioned by Richard Morgan for Peabody Place. Frega has worked on railings and other pieces there for years; he’s now completing work on the north side, where he has made filigree out of huge hooks and other surplus industrial parts. Donnalee is a writer whose work ranges through literary and arts criticism, reportage and fiction. In 1999, they moved their family back to Durham after several years in Wilmington, where Al was a partner in ACME (Art Can’t Mean Everything) Studios.

Last month they closed on a sculptor’s dream compound at the far eastern edge of downtown. Located near the SEEDS (South Eastern Efforts Developing Sustainable Spaces) Art Garden with its beautiful gates, and the red-trimmed COBRA (Coalition of Blues and Rhythm Artists) School of Fine Arts, this tremendous stone barn at the corner of Gilbert Street and Alston Avenue was originally Durham’s livery stable and home for the fire wagons. It was last used by Southern States as a maintenance and storage facility for the nearby feed mill. There’s a fenced yard, and several sheds and outbuildings, and the barn alone comprises over 10,000 square feet. Even after moving in Al’s tractor-trailer loads of materials, and making a writing studio for Donna, and spaces for three artistically inclined kids, there will be room left over.

“This is going to be the real arts district in town,” boasts Al Frega. “We’ll restore and repair the barn as we can,” says Al. “Then we hope to find a few artists to come in at low rent, people working at a serious level who need bigger spaces. There are plenty of smaller spaces at the Venable and Arts Place.”

While Chapel Hill is known as an arty town, and Raleigh has sprouted a cool, social art scene, Durham has remained true to its working-town persona and built not one arts district, but two. Dozens of artists, far more than I’ve mentioned here, have been working away for years, without making much of a fuss about themselves, and helping each other whenever possible. Says Jennifer Collins: “It’s a nice place to work because it is quiet. One thing I really like about Durham is that there aren’t too many people wearing their art on their sleeve … it’s just a permeating presence.” Says Steve Silverleaf: “Coming here I expected a big social scene and was perplexed when it wasn’t. But I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of really competent artists doing really good work here.” Says Leonora Coleman: “I hope this studio lets people do work that elevates the way we conduct our everyday lives.” Says Al Frega: “I can do work here.”

Industry may have moved away, but industriousness has not. Durham’s artists, averse neither to risk nor hard work, have taken up a position in the forefront of the Durham renaissance, from which they are unlikely to be shaken. It is, as Andrew Preiss says, their hometown. EndBlock