Melinda Ruley has cleverly obscured the race issue in her opinion piece (“Closing a bridge–and connecting two neighborhoods,” Independent, Sept. 15, 2004, indyweek.com/ durham/2004-09-15/ruley.html). First, by attempting to establish one point of view, hers and that adopted by the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association, as an incontrovertible aphorism of truth. Secondly, by clouding fundamental precepts of race and equality in the confusion of fuzzy logic. Ruley states, “Smart people writing about race tend to evoke images of perplexity and obfuscation–a hornet’s nest or a maze.” Go tell that to W.E.B. Dubois, Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West. The perplexity and obfuscation of race issues rises inversely with the level of intellectual honesty of the participant. Ruley is to blame for clouding the race issue. The facts are quite clear and speak for themselves.
The St. Theresa’s neighborhood is all black. The Forest Hills neighborhood is virtually all white. We have in the year 2004, in our midst, a situation of stark segregation on either side of the proverbial railroad tracks (the Tobacco trail was in fact a railroad line that was converted to a bike path as the tobacco warehouses in Durham closed down). A bridge closed to vehicular traffic persists as a symbol of this segregated reality. I would further venture to call it an instrument of segregation, perhaps unintentional and historical in basis. Nevertheless, it is my firm conviction that all symbols, and certainly all instruments, of segregation must be removed without equivocation.
Over the course of history, countless visionaries have fought bravely against the prevailing establishment to dismantle symbols of segregation that have tarnished our country. Often, the cost of demolishing these symbols of segregation has been prohibitive, but many great activists did not relent. Likewise, the cost associated with safely maintaining the Apex Street bridge to vehicles would be extraordinary: rebuilding the bridge, implementing speed bumps, building sidewalks, etc. Done properly with judicious use of traffic-calming measures that prevent the use of quiet residential streets as cut-throughs, there would have been negligible threat to the safety of joggers, cyclists, pedestrians, children and pets. When Ronald Reagan demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall, those who insisted that he first address the enormous economic disparity between East and West had entirely missed the point. Namely, remove injustice and then address the problems that result; do not contrive obstacles for justice by exploiting practical concerns to incite fear and trepidation.
I believe that we as a society owe a debt that demands we incur the heavy cost of removing symbols of segregation; most of my neighbors in Forest Hills do not. Does this make them racists? This is a question that each person must answer individually. Remember, racism is not black and white. It exists over a continuum, and everyone sits somewhere on that continuum. It is easy and convenient to claim that you are untouched by racism when the issue is far from home, but the true test is when the situation arrives in your back yard. Throughout history, segregationists have co-opted the language of fear and uncertainty to fight progress towards racial equality. Today, liberal, left-leaning citizens oppose intermingling of subsidized housing in middle-class neighborhoods when they ring the alarm bell of fear by threatening decreased real estate values.
Undoubtedly, it was this lack of commitment to removing symbols and instruments of segregation that led to the allegations of racism before the Durham City Council. It was not that we (proponents of opening the bridge to vehicles) thought the white folks in Forest Hills “wanted a gated community or wanted black people off the streets,” as Ruley implies. In fact, my contention to City Council was that the issue was as much about social and economic disparity as it was about race. With poverty comes a host of other social maladies, some real, some perceived: violent crime, poorly maintained vehicles and drugs. Curiously, the Forest Hills neighborhood association used the threat of increased crime in its initial overtures to City Council, but later strategically dropped this issue in favor of more sterile issues of safety and cost considerations. Ironically, some Forest Hills residents stood in front of City Council and hid behind the insincere pretext of cherishing diversity. The fact is there is no diversity in Forest Hills. The lack of diversity in Forest Hills is even more appalling given its geographical context: Durham is 55 percent non-white, according to the 2000 census. Forest Hills has historically been all white, remains virtually all white, and there has been no movement to change it. If citizens in Forest Hills want diversity, then they have to accept all that accompany racial, economic and social diversity. That means the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Apex Street was the only residential street connecting the Forest Hills and St. Theresa’s neighborhoods. The other streets connecting them (Enterprise and Roxboro) are moderate-sized thoroughfares. I would argue that to truly foster neighborhood connectivity, we ought to increase the number of residential streets connecting the two neighborhoods–not eliminate them. Additional streets would not only decrease the traffic burden on the Apex Street bridge and the streets leading to and from the bridge, it might just improve inter-neighborhood connectedness. The complete lack of such connecting residential streets is vestige of an oppressive system that is facilitating segregation to this day.
Closing the bridge has dictated that certain citizens can come into our neighborhood using the streets and modes of transportation that we prescribe. Can we then guarantee protection from further infringement of the rights of the same citizens? Let us not forget the struggles of those who have fought for the oppressed.