The front window of Blue Coffee Cafe at Corcoran and Parrish streets is the place to witness the rebirth of Durham. The streets, once empty enough for tumbleweed, now teem with people. Hotels, skyscrapers, plazas, new businesses: The people making that happen all pass by Blue Coffee, an anchor of this neighborhood for the last nine years.
One of the main black-owned businesses downtown, the cafe is a hangout for Durham politicians, merchants, musicians, community organizers, artists who toil in second-floor studios nearby—and recently, construction workers renovating the 21c Museum Hotel across the street. It’s where hundreds of people gathered to watch Barack Obama become the nation’s first African-American president in 2008. In fact, Obama had stopped by Blue Coffee on the campaign trail that year.
And at the end of the year, as part of the city’s rebirth, Blue Coffee must go. Not far, just two and a half blocks away, to 107 N. Church St., but the cafe’s displacement signifies a larger change sweeping through downtown—and anxiety about the future of pioneering business like Blue Coffee.
This morning, the cafe held a breakfast to announce the launch of a $35,000 Kickstarter campaign to help pay for the transition. The campaign starts Sunday with a jazz brunch from 11 a.m.–4 p.m. and ends Nov. 24. “We’re here because we love this community and Blue Coffee,” said Cicely Mitchell, founder of the Art of Cool festival, who is helping with the fundraising campaign.
Located on the ground floor of the former Jack Tar motel (aka the Oprah Building), Blue Coffee is leaving the space because a developer is renovating the building, the upper floors of which are admittedly are a mold-fest, into a boutique hotel with a rooftop bar. Austin Lawrence Partners, which purchased the old motel earlier this year, is constructing a 26-story skyscraper across the street, and rehabbing two ailing buildings along Main and Parrish streets. Although Greg Hills of Austin Lawrence Partners has emphasized he wants the retail stores and restaurants in the buildings to be locally owned, it remains to be seen how rents affect who can afford these premium spaces.
The new Blue Coffee Cafe is scheduled to open in January, said Gwen Mathews, the beloved owner, who has been known to greet regulars with a hug. It will serve breakfast all day, plus lunch, blue plate specials—the mention of mac ‘n’ cheese elicited a gasp from this morning’s crowd—in-house baked goods and a dessert bar. In the evening, the cafe will feature entertainment—it often hosts jazz—and drinks.
“They have the best tuna salad in Durham,” said Scott Harmon, the local architect working with Hills on the Jack Tar. “And the best hugs.”