The Heritage Square shopping center located in Durham’s Hayti community. Photo by Brett Villena. 

A new grant from the federal government is giving hope to Hayti residents and business owners, but it comes with some skepticism.

Last week, congressman David Price announced in a press release that the City of Durham and the Durham Housing Authority are the recipients of a $40 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant. The grant comes as part of $200 million in funds awarded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and will be aimed at augmenting ‘Forever Home, Durham,’ an ongoing partner-centric program creating affordable opportunities for renters and homeowners through new construction, property repairs, and essential housing services.

DHA has plans to focus the allocated $40 million in funding in part towards the revitalization of Durham’s existing 519 East Main Street Apartments, along with the development of multiple other DHA, city, and county-owned properties in the downtown/central and southeast central Durham communities, according to a press release announcing the grant. The development plan incorporates ground-floor retail, a new community park and other green spaces, as well as a new community center, new roads, and public safety initiatives to reduce crime and violence.

While the new funding is exciting, Hayti residents and others are wary of the city’s past efforts when tasked with urban renewal.

The southeast central Durham community—one of the areas at the focus of the $40 million CNI Grant—is known to many in the surrounding area more commonly as Hayti, an important historically Black community with roots dating as early as the late 19th Century.

Hayti—historically the home to a thriving community of Black homeowners and business owners—was decimated in 1970 by the completion of the first leg of NC Highway 147, the Durham Freeway. The freeway’s construction resulted in the destruction of a portion of the Hayti neighborhood and effectively cut the neighborhood off from what is now a prosperous metropolitan area. A variety of failed promises and attempts at urban renewal followed over the ensuing decades.

For many living in the Hayti community today, the allocation of the CNI Grant might appear as another attempt by the city and  the DHA to fix a sordid history with a once thriving community.

“We cannot fully comprehend the nation’s affordable housing crisis without looking to our past, particularly regarding federal policies designed to intentionally marginalize communities of color,” Price acknowledged about the realities of urban renewal efforts and their impacts on communities like Hayti as part of a press release last week. “Programs like the Choice Neighborhood Initiative provide targeted funding for these historically underinvested areas” and that the initiative will aim to “rectify this harmful legacy and achieve housing justice.”

Anthony Scott, CEO of the Durham Housing Authority, echoed these sentiments.

“The reality on the ground is that there are two downtowns [in Durham], the newer part is disproportionately wealthy, white, and growing, while the edges are lower-income communities of color that are shrinking in the gentrification pressure,” Scott said in a separate press release. “The Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grant will help us bring those two together, further bridging the gap and restoring Durham’s community, forever.”

But members of the Hayti community are wary nonetheless. As the INDY previously reported, Henry McKoy—an NC Central University professor who spearheaded Hayti Reborn—warns that the DHA’s approach to redeveloping Hayti will only reinforce the gentrification already taking place throughout the district.

And with good reason, as Hayti in particular has been in the sights of several out-of-state developers over the years. 

Nearly a decade ago, in 2006, a prominent shopping center in the Hayti community was sold to Andrew Rothschild, a Manhattan physician turned private developer. Rothschild’s purchase of the shopping center was reported in the real estate section of The New York Times, stating that Rothschild had plans to build “a $130 million, six-block, multistory district that will reconnect underneath the freeway the streets between downtown and Hayti.”

Like many such plans, nothing ever came to fruition.

Continuing the trend in recent months, Sterling Bay—a Chicago-based development firm—announced in June a joint venture with another Chicago firm and a New York developer to purchase a swath of declining commercial space within the Hayti community. Again, no further planning has yet to come from the deal.

While it clearly won’t turn back history, the $40 million CNI Grant is undoubtedly a win for the city of Durham. With it there is still some hope that the city and the DHA can begin to make amends and revitalize a community that has long been severed by a freeway. 

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