Caleb Southern used to be a music guy, and a very successful one at that, living the life of the funk glitterati in New York City. He was the producer for the Ben Folds Five, who came out of Chapel Hill on their way to rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Chapel Hill is where Southern started, too, as a music engineer, graduating from UNC-CH to Cat’s Cradle to producing hot local bands like Archers of Loaf before a mutual friend introduced him to Folds.
Southern has moved on from music though (with no regrets, he says), coming back from NYC’s East Village to practice urban planning in his hometown of Durham, where, for the last 18 months, he’s been living in the West End Apartments.
East to West, music to urban design; the one consistent thing in all of it is that Southern’s still a success: Without any formal training whatever in land-use planning, he’s the fellow who, when the debate over whether to build Eno Drive heated up again this year, presented the alternative that just might settle the issue once and for all–and Durham’s northward sprawl with it.
Reading through old public documents on the web, Southern discovered that there used to be–still was, actually–a plan in the state highway program for something called the East End Connector. The road first appeared on the state’s long-range maps in 1959, and as those who’ve worked with these things know, once a road gets into the long-range plan, even if it’s long forgotten, nothing short of celestial intervention can get it removed. “It was the oldest unfunded highway project in North Carolina,” Southern says, still smiling.
The reason Southern smiled when he discovered the connector, back in April, was that it showed up exactly where he’d already decided a road ought to go–between the Durham Freeway and U.S. 70 in East Durham at the point where the two roads are only a mile apart. Very little was in the way, Southern knew, just old industrial tracts long since abandoned. In fact, the state had acquired much of the Connector corridor years ago, only to give up and turn its attention to the west when Interstate 40 emerged and U.S. 70 receded as the major Raleigh-to-Durham link.
The reason Southern’s smiling now is that the connector has won broad support in the Durham community in the seven months since. Civic leaders and elected officials have come around to the view he first expressed in a in a Herald-Sun column in May: Either the East End Connector or Eno Drive would relieve traffic congestion on I-85, a major goal of the state Department of Transportation; but where Eno Drive alone would pull development out of Durham to the north, in typical sprawl fashion, the connector would support the redevelopment of downtown Durham.
Southern left the music business and came back to Durham with the intention of getting involved in downtown redevelopment, either as a planner or investor. He’s since chosen the former course and is making plans to return to school to get a professional planning degree. What he never expected was to be cast into the fray immediately in the role of civic activist and smart-growth advocate. But that’s what happened: Once he’d found the connector plan and written that first newspaper column, a dozen or so neighborhood groups coalesced around him and he created www.durhamloop.com, the Web site that connected them to each other and to the maps they needed to sell their point of view.
“I was the idea guy,” Southern says. “But I never would have been able to do anything without the hundreds of people who joined together and have stuck with it for months.” For one thing, he adds, shaking his head, “I was never involved in politics, not on the student council, not since. I always had a fear of public speaking.”
Not any more.
Returning the compliment, West End neighborhood activist John Schelp says nothing would have stopped the DOT from putting all its money on Eno Drive if Southern hadn’t come to town with his combination of computer-geek skills, ability to visualize transportation solutions, and most of all, his love for downtown living.
Southern traces his pro-downtown bent back three generations: His great-grandfather, he says, went to high school in the building that is now the Durham Arts Council’s home on the downtown loop. Southern’s father was an editor at Duke University Press, his mother a librarian in Chapel Hill; between them, he worked up an early affinity for research and map-reading that he called on to cull the state archives and discover the connector plan. Put that together with an undergraduate degree in computer science (and music), and voila–downtown activist.
“We’ve had a lot of false starts in downtown Durham,” Southern says, “but I think with the American Tobacco project, and the West Village, and the TTA coming together, this time it’s the real deal. That’s why I want to be part of it.”
Southern doesn’t see the East End Connector and Eno Drive necessarily either-or. “It’s not all or nothing,” he says, “and I’m willing to talk about options. But the important thing is that EEC gets built first, because if it doesn’t, Eno Drive will pull all of the growth out of town to the north and the Connector will never get built at all.”