Durham has been on the verge of a renaissance for years, it seems. Anyone who drives through its streets and sees the dozens of empty old buildings can see the potential for a vibrant, interesting downtown. Many of the buildings’ owners are speculating, waiting to cash out at just the right time when the prices are high. Others have tried to make a go of it–a bar, a record store–without success.

But Durham isn’t on the verge anymore. With a handful of thriving nightspots, an increasing number of downtown residents, a monthly Culture Crawl every third Friday connecting downtown galleries, and packed audiences at local venues, it’s clear: The renaissance is under way.

Musicians from Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Carrboro fleeing high costs of living are coming to Durham for its grit and energy. As housing costs soar all over the Triangle, this is still a place where a rock ‘n’ roller with one day job can afford to buy a house. Young people are flocking to established city neighborhoods like Northgate Park, Duke Park, Old North Durham and Lakewood. Music weaves the social fabric of Durham together–those who aren’t in a band are connected by one or two degrees to people who are. And it’s not just rock–traditional mountain and blues music have roots here, and the classical and jazz scenes surrounding Duke University and North Carolina Central University overflow with talent. The universities bring world-class performers to a working-class city of 200,000. This weekend’s Third Annual Durham Music Festival (which the Independent is co-sponsoring) features 35 bands, including national acts–an addition that’s stirring some debate, further evidence of the fact that Durham’s music scene is reaching the next level.

Driving the city’s renaissance is a network of artists, small business owners and downtown residents who represent Durham’s early adopters. A group called the Durham Arts Initiative exhibits local works and holds concerts in the old Main Street building that used to house the Mr. Shoe store (which has since re-opened on Guess Road) by permission of its owner, even though the place will eventually have to be torn down. Another group, Wellness Partners in the Arts, offers movement classes, hosts dance performances, shows photography on its walls and rents out space during the day. The Talk of the Town jazz bar has been happening for a long while on the eastern side of Main, while Joe & Jo’s keeps the west side loud and lit up. The Carolina Theatre and Durham Arts Council are within walking distance of everything. A combination of neighborliness and networking holds all of these groups together.

This is what Richard Florida dubbed the “super-creative core” in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class. While the American Tobacco Project will soon draw members of the broader “creative class” to work downtown–high-tech workers, pharmaceutical researchers, advertising creatives–those living and working in the unreconstructed part of downtown Durham are in for heavier risks. They’re not afraid of Durham’s infamous crime (a fear that many of them say is just a veiled form of racism). Nor do they mind the old buildings, warped and broken, in need of repair. Behind the layers of plaster they see the city’s history, and it’s something they want to preserve, not cover up.

Ask these folks why they live in Durham and (after they mention cheap housing) they’ll tell you they chose it for its cultural diversity, its lack of polish and pretension. They’re proud of its gritty imperfections, and they want city leaders and developers to stop trying to make it more like Raleigh. The spirit of Durham’s creative class is summed up in a sticker for sale at the counter of the thriving new Broad Street coffee shop and night club Ooh La Latte: “Durham Love Yourself.”

An emerging organization is broadcasting that message, bringing the voices of downtown’s creative community to City Hall. The Arts & Business Coalition of Downtown, known as ABCD, is a loose network of people with a passion for Durham’s city center. The group marries civic involvement and political advocacy to the cooperative spirit of the arts scene. ABCD has no board of directors and no budget. But its voice is getting louder.

ABCD made the news recently because of the group’s vocal opposition to a proposed 4,000-seat events center next to the American Tobacco Project development downtown that would be managed by Clear Channel Entertainment. After weeks of debate, the city changed its plans, scaling the project down to a 2,000-3,000-seat venue (though this change had as much to do with an inability to raise funds as it did with public disapproval). When Mayor Bill Bell and other city leaders traveled to Houston earlier this month to tour a comparable Clear Channel-managed venue there, ABCD member Josh Parker was allowed to go with them (at his own expense) and participate in the discussions. (See Triangles on page 13.)

ABCD is working with Alan DeLisle of the city’s Office of Employment and Economic Development to create financial incentives for small business, meanwhile calling up friends to recruit someone to open a pizza parlor or corner store downtown. Group members joined African-American business leaders at the first meeting of the Parrish Street renovation project, which will restore and preserve the historic “Black Wall Street,” setting the stage for a long-awaited history museum.

“They are a critical voice in framing the issues we’re dealing with in downtown right now,” DeLisle says. “They are the stakeholders. They represent the people and businesses we want to stay here, grow here and expand here…. The most important thing is to understand how we can best meet those needs.”

While the city council has committed to having monthly public meetings on the events center proposal, a meeting in June at the Durham Arts Council, hosted by ABCD and the Durham Association for Downtown Arts (or DADA)–groups with many members in common–brought together an array of people who are already making things happen in Durham: representatives from the Walltown Children’s Theater, Ms. Film Festival, Durham School of the Arts, Manbites Dog Theatre, Durham Blues Festival and the Skywriter newspaper. They spoke not just about the events center, but more broadly about what Durham needs in terms of facilities and public investment. It was exactly the kind of conversation that should have happened before the city ever went to the legislature asking for a tax to pay for a theater. Not only did the city not plan or pay for this meeting, no city council members attended.

Subsequent meetings and projects have brought ABCD members to the table with city officials, consultants and developers. Aside from some heated debates over the events center, the mood between ABCD and the city is positive and cooperative. Everyone wants downtown to thrive. But it cannot be overstated: With the term “creative class” on the lips of city boosters these days, this is a group the city needs to listen to.

Durham has been “much maligned, the underdog,” says Christine Gill, a graphic designer who moved here from Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband Zeno Gill five years ago. “I’ve watched it turning around exactly the way Brooklyn turned around in the ’90s. I see an exact parallel to that.” In that turnaround, they realize, lies the danger that people will be priced out of downtown Durham in a few years. That’s why they’re adamant that the city’s plans for revitalization include preserving the diversity that makes Durham so unique.

“What Durham has the potential to become is truly unlike any other downtown revitalization,” says ABCD member Scott Harmon, an architect who just bought a building on Mangum Street. This city has unique strengths, he says: “The middle-class, racially balanced history that Durham has; having a power base of people who are less affluent and more culturally marginalized; a long history of those people finding ways to be politically and economically involved in what happens here; the whole creative, grassroots, artistic movement; the focus of intelligence per capita in terms of the universities here and how that translates to the arts and music.” If city leaders make a conscious commitment now to that mix, he says, “at the end of the day we’ll have economic diversity, social diversity, and it will really be made up of all of our community and will be created by the people who are here instead of the knights in white armor that a lot of cities look to.”

Maria Francesca Braganza and her longtime partner Alex Kostelnik moved from Seattle two years ago. They bought a two-story building on Parrish Street, across from the old Mechanics & Farmers Bank building–the first African-American owned bank in the country, which helped to launch the black middle class in Durham during the first half of the 20th century. She’s a veterinary assistant and a deejay at Duke’s WXDU. Kostelnik is artistic director of the Scrap Exchange, and the couple has fixed up the ground floor with discarded plastic sheeting, shelving and old furniture. They hope to make the upstairs into a living area, but the process of renovation is slow. Pipes, electric outlets and beams are exposed, as are the musty brick walls. For now, it’s a nearly blank slate, a great place to record music–Kostelnik and a partner have a studio business called North State Sound.

“When I try to explain what ABCD is,” Braganza says, “when I invite people to meetings, I say we’re an advocacy group.” For artists and businesses? “It’s actually even more amorphous than that, in my opinion. For promoting a vibrant culture downtown. For small businesses. And for anyone who’s interested in having all elements of the community represented, not just business owners, not just artists, but everybody being able to harmoniously find a place here.”

When the couple arrived in Durham, they had trouble finding help through the official channels. Neither the city’s Office of Employment and Economic Development, nor Downtown Durham Inc., a semi-official nonprofit run by Bill Kalkhof (formerly of the Home Builders Association), could help them find a building to buy or hook them into the downtown network of small business owners. DDI is geared toward bigger deals, recruiting developers or established companies to fill crucial patches of city real estate such as Capitol Broadcasting’s renovation of the American Tobacco site.

“Our mission is the creation of an environment for private investment in downtown,” Kalkhof explains, “and we focus on the issues primarily of economic development, and also safety, appearance, parking and promotion.” ABCD has developed a distinct role in downtown’s growth, and the two groups don’t always see eye to eye. Kalkhof initiated the events center proposal downtown, which ABCD has vehemently opposed. “I think what is important is that there’s a lot of overlap in the future vision of what downtown should be between our two groups,” Kalkhof says. “The energy level and voice and forum they are providing for their constituents is of value to us. We may not always agree. We have had the ability to agree on a lot of items, but the ability to agree to disagree on several others. And the lines of communication remain open.”

Christine and Zeno Gill wanted to get out of New York. Vibrant as the place was, they had no time to do anything but work in order to pay the rent. Since moving to Durham, she’s left advertising and begun working freelance, while her husband has resurrected a record label he began in 1996, Pox World Empire, which has put out several CDs of local bands.

In the spring of 2003, Christine Gill called the first meeting of what would become ABCD because a friend of hers was interested in opening a club downtown. “I thought how ridiculous is it that this one person is going around researching all this stuff when I had just been talking to Alex and Maria and they were doing the same thing.”

So she sent out a few e-mails, and the idea struck a chord. “I thought maybe five or six people would come. Thirty-five people showed up and they were all saying, ‘We’re looking for something like this where it’s more on the ground.’ Just normal people trying to get something going, trying to buy a building or start a club or do a gallery or play some music.”

Today there are 200 people on the ABCD listserv, according to Caleb Southern, a downtown activist who’s part of the group. By the third or fourth meeting, members were considering whether to form as a nonprofit but decided against it. “We had a purpose that didn’t need that,” Southern says. “The best thing that was happening was that people were coming together and talking about their common ideas. ABCD is a conversation.”

Harmon agrees. “We actually realized that we’d be more effective, that we’d get more done, if we stopped worrying about what we were and talked about, ‘What do we want to do?’ and did it. ”

Eschewing both money and organizational concerns, ABCD can act quickly and let the initiative and creativity of individuals drive the group’s activities.

Once Harmon renovates his two-story building on Mangum Street, he plans to live in the upper floor and set up his architecture firm in one of two storefront spaces. “At 11 o’clock at night Caleb called me and said, ‘Hey, can we use your building to put up a storefront for ABCD?’ And I said, well, I’ll have to kick you out when we start renovating. He said, ‘No problem.’” At 4 a.m. Southern e-mailed Harmon pictures of a group of people working through the night, removing the metal burglar bars from the front, clearing out old debris, fixing the lights and setting up a sign in the window. Now the group has a space for meetings, and a place for other people like themselves to come in and find out about Durham’s network of artists and businesses. Their last meeting, the first in their new space, drew more than 40 people.

Lots of building owners are doing nothing with property that sits empty. ABCD members sometimes ask them for permission to put art in the storefront windows, just to make the street look more alive. ABCD invites speakers of all stripes to come to their meetings: a commercial developer who talked about restoration and infill, people who work for public arts groups in Cary and Chapel Hill who discussed different models of publicly funded arts projects, a longtime Durham resident who presented a slideshow of pictures he’s been taking of downtown buildings since the 1950s. “Whether it’s the TTA [Triangle Transit Authority] or developers, we welcome anyone from the mayor to performance artists coming through town,” Braganza says. “Whoever it is, the more information we can get out there, the faster what we want to happen downtown will happen.”

For decades, big development projects have passed Durham by and landed in Raleigh instead. That’s just fine, ABCD members say. “As long as we keep trying to beat Raleigh at Raleigh’s game, we’re always going to be viewed as the unwanted stepchild in the Triangle,” Harmon says.

Big development projects can create big problems. “We’re afraid that this old generation of political leadership in the city is still trying to use outdated economic development tools to fix a problem that no longer exists here,” he says. Downtown isn’t dead anymore. But the life that’s growing here could easily be snuffed out if the city makes bad decisions, Harmon says. “Part of our mission, as we see it, is to keep the old-school economic development types from screwing it up.”

Kostelnik holds up a copy of a development plan for Durham published in 1957. Inside are plans to raze many “outdated” buildings and to promote a program of “urban renewal”–a phrase that rings with irony today. That redevelopment philosophy devastated many American inner cities. Another development plan by a consultant from Virginia, published in 1960, establishes the plan for the downtown loop, a one-way flow of traffic around the perimeter of downtown–the very system Durham will soon spend millions of dollars replacing with good, old-fashioned two-way city streets.

The point is, no matter how well-meaning city planners might be, grand ideas that seem good at the time can often do a great deal of harm to the fabric of city life. Now that people are living downtown, Southern says, the city should listen to what their needs are. “The downtown people want is developing from the ground up. It’s already happening and will continue to happen on its own. What we don’t need to do is try to whitewash everything we have and pretend we’re something else,” he says.

“They want to apologize for stuff that’s awesome!” Braganza exclaims.

Pride in Durham’s history means preserving the buildings and history that are already downtown before building something new, they say. That’s part of why ABCD generally opposes building the events center and wants the city to devote more resources to maintaining the buildings that already exist.

“We need infrastructure,” Harmon says. “We need good, old-fashioned brick and mortar cityscape. We need streets, sidewalks, trees, parks.” Those are things that only the city can provide. “Redoing the downtown streets,” Harmon continues, “this is a very necessary, legitimate project. That’s the right way to spend tax dollars.” Pouring more money into the area near the ballpark is “corporate welfare,” Harmon says. “I promise you, that piece of property needs no further help from the city.”

“Not only are these things that they’re proposing not needed,” he says, “there’s a danger that they’re going to chase away the authentic grassroots creative movement that’s very much here right now. If they’ll just leave it alone and let the natural economic conservative forces–it’s Money 101–let the free creative market have its day.”

Harmon gives an example of how a loose-knit, informal organization can keep downtown diverse. When he bought the building on Mangum, he gave notice to a tenant who owned a hair salon in the building. She said she wanted to stay downtown, and he said he’d help her find a place. He put a call out on the ABCD listserv, and within three days the woman was put in touch with the owner of another downtown building, where she’s now setting up shop. “If she had gone to any city agency, if she had gone to DDI, if she had gone to a realtor, it would have been weeks. And she would have been met with this, ‘Well, do we really want another hair salon downtown?’

“It was so empowering for this headless organization that has no leader, no bank account, no steering committee, to put the word out there and within three days this woman got what she needed to keep putting food on her table. And it’s a business that was already downtown that we didn’t need to lose. That to me is the epitome of what we can do in terms of just immediately, tangibly helping people.”

Once the American Tobacco Project opens, hundreds of workers will pour into downtown Durham each day. No one knows how many will stay around after work, or venture up the hill to grab a bite at Safari Cuisine or the Latin Grill or pick Blue Coffee over Starbucks.

Empty buildings will be bought up before long, and the renovated apartments they’ll be turned into won’t be cheap. ABCD is trying to get the city to think about how to prevent downtown from becoming strictly high-end condos. Durham is known for being a place where college professors, blue-collar workers and people from all walks of life coexist happily. “There are a lot of forces in downtown that, if left unchecked, will without even knowing it create this whole high-end café culture,” Harmon says.

As they sit eating popcorn in the unrenovated florist shop, ABCD’s organizers think about what it will be like six months or a year from now. Diversity has always been Durham’s strength, they say, and now is the time to celebrate it in order to keep it. “What has thus far been perceived as Durham’s weakness,” Harmon predicts, “as it’s perceived by the outside–this diversity, this culturally complex chaotic kind of thing that sometimes looks bad in the newspaper–is suddenly going to become a noble asset.”

Are city officials listening? “Their ears are open,” Braganza says. “It’s just a question of where it’s going to go.” x