I went to see Durham Mayor Bill Bell on April 10, just before he went on Larry King Live to talk about the rape allegations that had been covering front pages and leading news broadcasts. When I arrived at City Hall, the mayor had been called away and had told his secretary to put me in his office. So I sat in a black, leather chair and talked to Bell on Bell’s phone, looking at Bell’s furnishings. The mayor’s walls are adorned with paintings that pay tribute to the great American cowboy–dusted men with worn-through chaps and six-shooters, “High Noon” and “Outlaws” the paintings are called, rendered in warm, sunset oranges reminiscent of another time of day in another time in history. Everything about Bell’s cowboys is classic, nostalgic–except that each and every one of them is black.

Bell talks with the cadence of a man who was once full of fire, like a retired reverend whose restless vigor has made way for a more measured prose. It seems when he was younger he could have been the bellowing voice for a city that now needs one more than ever, maybe back in 1982 as the newly minted chairman of the county commissioners, but has instead relegated himself to being its mind. For now, Bell is both. He’s been thrust into the role of restoring the public’s perception of the city, but the feeding frenzy that’s descended on Durham is working against him.

When Geraldo Rivera went on The O’Reilly Factor and gave the Duke rape case its first national air time, he told O’Reilly’s millions of nightly viewers that the scandal was unfolding in the “mostly poor, black town of Durham.” Later that week, as news organizations parachuted journalists in, others offered their unflattering assessments. Durham is a “largely poor, racially split area,” said Jay Mariotti on ESPN’s Around the Horn.

As the national media continued filing, they starkened the contrast between Duke and Durham and made the story more salient. Durham became a poor, black, withering post-industrial outpost, while Duke modeled white-bred elitism and was painted as a place where students pay as much in a year’s tuition as townies do for their homes. Duke was the Ivy ringer squeezed into the volatile South Bronx of the Atlantic region, a place where poverty leads to gangs and gangs to violence. Indeed, the epithet “murder capital of the Southeast” has been thrown around more often since the satellite trucks started commuting to campus, even though some of the South’s other cities–places like Savannah, Columbia and Richmond–see higher rates of murder and rape than Durham does. You’re more likely to get your car stolen in a host of Southeastern cities from Beaumont to Baton Rouge than you are in Durham.

But never mind all that, never mind all the Fortune 500 companies in RTP, never mind that Durham is one of a handful of places in the country with AAA bond ratings for both its city and county governments or that its unemployment is a pithy 4.4 percent. Somehow Durham became poor, black and, to those who hadn’t already heard, laden with crime.

Cannon fire

“The couple of times I’ve gotten lost there it seemed scary, the bars on the windows and the people outside. … I stick to my subdivisions because it seems if I go outside of them, it could be dangerous.”

–Krys, mother of two from Apex and a builder in Durham

As of April 20, almost a month after the lacrosse story broke, 62 national news articles had sourced The News & Observer in Raleigh, among them The Washington Post and The New York Times. Six stories had cited The Herald-Sun in Durham.

The N&O had broken the story. But the events had happened in Durham. Why were the national news outlets going down I-40 for their information? Because The N&O is the dominant daily newspaper in the Triangle. But The N&O is first and foremost a Raleigh paper.

Consider, for example, that The N&O has a policy of not datelining Research Triangle Park. When an innovation comes out of RTP, The N&O doesn’t tell its readers where the park is, so people in Raleigh just assume it’s there. Sixty percent of them believe the park is fully in Wake County, actually. The reality is that RTP is almost entirely within Durham County, that the Durham County portion is the only part that’s developed, and that it’s bordered on three sides by the city of Durham. So why is it that almost everyone believes Durham has a gang problem, but nobody knows that Astroturf was invented there? Maybe it’s because when the national media comes down to cover Durham, they go talk to the Raleigh paper.

The N&O gets to sit back and lob cannon fire across the moat, because it’s not their town,” says Jock Lauterer, founding director of the Carolina Community Media Project and a professor at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. And one way or another, adds John Burness, Duke’s senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, “it does seem like in Durham, when there’s crime, it makes it more towards the front page than the middle page, it makes it more above the fold than below the fold.”

Then there’s television. Rick Gall is the news director for Raleigh-based WRAL-TV, and he chooses what news people see on the 29th biggest local channel in the country. WRAL reaches television sets in 22 counties, spanning as far north as Mecklenburg, Va., and all the way down to Fayetteville. But, then, Gall doesn’t have 22 news crews at his disposal all the time. In fact, overnight, he only has two. So Gall has to make some tough choices.

“Typically, stories that lead a newscast, near the top of the newscast, are going to be stories that have a sense of importance to them. … You’ve heard the expression ‘If it bleeds, it leads’–that’s not our philosophy here, but, yes, on a given day we’ll lead with Duke lacrosse or some kind of tragedy.”

And while “we’re not looking to cover crime in a particular area more than in another area,” Gall says, “certainly some places tend to have more crime. … We’re certainly cognizant of the image that some people have of Durham, people who live outside, if all they’re seeing is crime coverage. … If the media is really focused on crime in an area, that can very well contribute to a media problem. I know that here we’re aware of stereotypes, of images, of reputations.”

So Gall charges himself with the task of evaluating whether “people take the time to understand Durham, or do they turn on the news and see a murder in Durham and say ‘Well, of course that happened in Durham.’”

But there are a few things that make it hard to adjust the kind of coverage a place is getting. The first is that crime coverage is so damn easy to do. All it takes is a scanner and a few contacts in law enforcement, and you’re off chasing squad cars. Enterprising stories take more time and more resources. When the lacrosse scandal hit, WRAL was already understaffed in Durham and had to pull an extra crew from another county just to cover the story. With 21 other counties to cover, it becomes difficult to produce positive segments on community events in Durham.

Lauterer cites a similar problem with print media. “The N&O is a stakeholder for a huge 18-county area, therefore because it has to spread itself so thin, just by the essential nature of it, of the human dynamic and the human scale, it cannot throw all its intellectual and I guess I’d say moral news-judgment weight behind one place.”

For Gall, over in his Raleigh studio deciding what to put on the news, this raises the question of whether he’s portraying Durham in a representative manner. He knows that “the media plays a role in people’s perceptions. I can tell you that here at WRAL, we recognize our responsibility and our role, and we don’t take that lightly.” But, Gall admits, “that doesn’t mean we’re not going to cover a Durham story. If there’s a crime that’s newsworthy, we’re going to cover it. … You can always talk a good game, but it comes down to what you’re putting on the air.”

In Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine, Moore talks with sociologist Barry Glassner at the corner of Florence and Normandie in South Central Los Angeles, a landmark Moore dubs “ground zero for the L.A. riots.”

Glassner, a professor at the University of Southern California and the bestselling author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, goes on to expresses the widely held opinion that “if a couple of white guys go down and walk around South Central, they’re gonna get killed.” In reality, “the odds that something is going to happen to us are really, really slight, miniscule.” So where does the idea come from?

Glassner attributes the misperception to the “televisual environment,” and he says in an interview with Buzzflash.com that Americans “get a good part of their view of reality beyond their immediate surroundings by what they see on television.” In Columbine, Glassner tells Moore that his “favorite statistic, in all the research I did, [I] discovered that the murder rate had gone down by 20 percent. The coverage–that is, how many murders are on the evening news–it went up by 600 percent.” So although “crime rates have been dropping, dropping, dropping, fear of crime has been going up, up, up. How can that be? It doesn’t make any sense. But it makes perfect sense when you see … what we’re seeing in the news media.”

Glassner has plenty of anecdotes. “If we flash back just a few years to the hysteria over school shootings,” he says in another interview, “what we find is that this was occurring at a time when there were fewer deaths at schools than in the past–at a time, in fact, when the rate of youth violent crime was falling precipitously.”

Now take Durham. As a city with both major north-south and east-west highways, it became the ideal drug distribution hub for the region. Drugs going anywhere in the Carolinas came through Durham, and as Duke’s Burness explains, “there have been some highly visible issues around gangs and murders, Jamaican drug lords on the streets of Durham. You weren’t reading about Jamaican drug lords on the streets of Winston-Salem.”

These things happened; they were problems Durham faced. Likewise, Columbine happened and was a tragedy that touched many people’s lives. But Columbine became indicative of a trend that in reality did not exist. Similarly, through coverage of crime, gangs and drugs, these things became permanently associated with Durham even though no statistical trend validates the fact that people are more afraid of Durham than they are of, say, Savannah, Ga.

Demon at the water cooler

I lived in Chapel Hill for two years. From what I know, Durham is very dangerous, from the news, newspapers, listening to people talk. … I lived in Goldsboro before that, and I had heard about McDougald [Terrace public housing]… I would never move to Durham, I wouldn’t feel safe.

–Employee at Panera Bread in Chapel Hill

In the psychological literature on consumer behavior, there’s a phenomenon known as the dominance of “case information” over “base rates.” Glassner can present statistics showing that when the population was particularly fearful of terrorism, school shootings or kidnappings, all available statistics proved those preoccupations to be irrational. But “case information”–the gruesome details of a shooting, the diary entries from a freckled girl with pigtails who was swept from her home, the mug shots of a terrorist who slipped C-4 into his sneakers–is much more memorable than statistics showing you’re 10 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack.

“The odds of being the victim of a crime here in a five-year period would be trivially different than in different locales. But one salient event dominates attention,” explains John Lynch, the Roy J. Bostock Professor of Marketing at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

As people talk to each other about something they see on the news, they tend to become polarized; dialogue makes them take sides more decisively because it’s hard to have a didactic exchange if you don’t feel all that different from your coworker. When you’re talking about something like crime in a place like Durham, the result is that “the discussion makes it seem like it’s more and more severe of a problem,” Lynch says.

Once people gather to discuss the details of an event, for example a new development in the lacrosse case, they will lock onto the most compelling or colorful details. This is called “focalization,” and Lynch explains the symptoms like this: “The more you talk about it, the more your ability to think about other aspects of Durham is literally inhibited.” Imagine that your brain has an intake valve, and it’s been shut off.

It’s called the “blocking effect in new concept learning,” and it works the same way brand associations do. Once people learn what qualities to attribute to a product, it “literally blocks their ability to learn new associations of the brand.” If you consider Coke to be crisp and refreshing and expect Firestone to build tires that buckle and blow out on the highway, you’re pretty much stuck with those notions for life. In this case, “the water cooler talk about this issue almost makes it impossible to have people generate other associates of Durham, even for people who know it.” Once you’ve seen Durham in the news, once you’ve decided it’s a dangerous place, that it’s racially divided, that it’s the murder capital of the Southeast, that it’s on par with a Flint, Mich., or an East St. Louis or a Newark, N.J., it’s pretty much impossible to change your mind, regardless of what kind of information you’re presented with.

And once you get to the point where you’re not going to change your mind, you get better at changing others’. “Water cooler discussion has the effect of causing rehearsal of the fact; it means that fact will come to mind more readily,” Lynch says. People are not only resolute in their opinions of Durham, they’re thinking about them more often. That’s when people become rote in the reasons they’ve made negative associations, and they become better antigens on which the information rides like a virus. The next time they’re thirsty, the cycle starts again–“You hear the latest about Durham?”

In an e-mail a few days after I met with Reyn Bowman, president of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, he wrote me that “an overwhelming majority of newcomers have already been contaminated before ever pursuing official information.” When the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants decided to move to Durham, they extended offers of relocation to 400 people. Fifteen percent accepted, and of those, so far three have elected to live in downtown Durham. Tony Pugiliese, who oversaw the AICPA’s search for a new location, expressed to me the overwhelming excitement he and everyone at AICPA have about moving to Durham. But he also said that they learned more “about Durham from the national broadcast media than any actual information.” The day he took the Durham proposal to the board, a documentary by Al Roker on gangs in Durham aired nationally.

Burness pointed out to me that when the drug giant Merck moved its plant down here, not one of its 16 officers moved to Durham. “We’re awfully good at recruiting business to Durham, but once that recruitment is done, it dies.” Burness proposes “a SWAT team, where as soon as that deal is made, all the people get on a plane” and go talk to potential tenants about Durham “rather than leave it to a vacuum, leave it to a Web site.”That is all to say that before people are irreparably swayed around the water cooler, Durham’s accolades must be advertised and accurate information made accessible. It’s not happening.

Vanishing act

I heard about Durham–downtown is dangerous, we heard about it on the news. I lived in Cary five years; Morrisville, too. That’s what I heard on the news.

–Woman working the Clinique stand at Hudson Belk in Raleigh

“Paging Benson party, now boarding to Raleigh at gate B6.” I’m sitting in the Charlotte Douglas airport waiting to come back to Durham, and the gate agent keeps misspeaking. Raleigh, she keeps saying. Not RDU, or Raleigh-Durham International. Just Raleigh. “Boarding zone four for Raleigh, zones one through four to Raleigh, at gate B6.”

Raleigh-Durham International airport is the only airport with two names that doesn’t put them in alphabetical order. Minneapolis St. Paul, Chicago O’Hare, Dallas Fort Worth, Cleveland Hopkins, Atlanta Hartsfield, and so on. When N.C. House Bill 476 chartered the Aeronautics Authority in 1939, the intention was to build an airport to service Durham and Raleigh equally, and in that vein it was given the rather cumbersome name “Aeronautics Authority for the City of Raleigh, the City of Durham, the County of Durham, and the County of Wake.”

The name was long and invited truncation, and both cities tended to put their names first when making reference to the airport. The Durham paper, for its part, called it “Durham Raleigh” whenever it could: “Effective Monday, the Eastern Air Lines will occupy the Durham RAleigh Airport,” said a headline March 14, 1943; a few weeks later, “A proposed appropriation of additional funds for the Durham Raleigh Airport.”

But, eventually, the original law was changed and the name officially shortened to Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority. No reason was given and since the legislature doesn’t keep minutes along with bills, it offers no insight into why the change was made. But RDU was the name that stuck.

So why was the name “Raleigh-Durham” signed into law in the first place? The best explanation I heard had to do with the fact that Raleigh was a major city, that it was the capital, that it was bigger. But other than being the capital, that wasn’t the case at the time. Raleigh was a sleepy town that had state government and not much else, while Durham was a booming industrial hub with a thriving tobacco industry. Durham was, in fact, the bigger city–according to the U.S. Census, Durham’s population in 1940 was 60,195. Raleigh’s was 46,997.

Since the airport’s inception, no three letters have caused so much confusion or played such a central role in silencing a city. The RDU bug has infected databases, confused travelers and misled hoteliers. It works like this: An assumption is fostered that there is some city called Raleigh-Durham, and while some are discerning enough to realize that Raleigh-Durham is the name of an airport and not an actual place, they tend to just assume they’re in Raleigh. So it was in mid-April, when JetBlue announced it would bring its low-cost service to North Carolina and the CEO issued a press release boasting “award winning service” to the “North Carolina cities of Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham.” Of course, Raleigh-Durham is not a North Carolina city. It’s not a city. It’s not anything really; it’s just the name of an airport. So I called up Dave Ulner, JetBlue’s vice president of planning, to tell him they got it wrong and see if he had a good reason.

“The airport has its naming rights, and it’s called RDU. That’s what we go with, and that’s how it’s marketed.” So they refer to actual cities by the airport that serves them. I wondered to myself whether JetBlue serves the City of Reagan International.

Before the end of the conversation, Ulner will exhibit the progression of errors that leads to confusion and ultimately robs Durham of its laurels. “Both Raleigh and Charlotte are strong business destinations with high fares,” he says. “Raleigh in particular.” Raleigh. When he says “Raleigh,” he doesn’t mean Raleigh, he immediately explains, so much as he means “the whole area that’s served, the large population space … all spread through the northern part, the northeastern part of North Carolina.” Ulner has accidentally given the entire Triangle–Cary, Chapel Hill, Apex, Durham–a new name: Raleigh.

Everything that would draw a business or leisure traveler to Durham, for example, is assumed to be in Raleigh. This is when you begin to get travelers who think they’re flying into Raleigh, hotels in Durham being accidentally listed as in Raleigh, and people who aren’t sure where the hell they are. This is how Durham begins to get swallowed by Raleigh, and its accolades get silenced. This is when anything good about Durham begins to vanish.

Take the DoubleTree Inn. It has a hotel in Durham that’s listed as being in Raleigh-Durham because that’s the airport guests would use. When DoubleTree printed an advertisement–“Over 100 Locations. Thousands of Sweet Dreams”–with a map of the country and little white trees marking every city with a DoubleTree, there wasn’t space to write “Raleigh-Durham” without dumping the hotel in the Atlantic, so it just says “Raleigh,” and Durham is literally shoved off the map. Anything positive that might be attributed to Durham is handed off to Raleigh.

What’s clear now is that recognizing the prominence of Raleigh in the airport’s name was more than symbolic, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. For over 50 years, Durham has been without one of the major mechanisms that could have helped it generate positive publicity before people become conditioned around the water cooler to draw unsavory associations, while Raleigh accepts credit for much of what goes on in Durham, and is now the region’s major city.

Of the prominent Carolina families that would have been privy to some kind of discussion, no one knows a thing about why the name was changed. Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, Duke Founder James B. Duke’s grandniece, says, “You know what? I would know most of the things in that era, but you know, I don’t know.”

Frank Daniels Jr., who was a member of the airport authority for years (his family sold The News & Observer for $373 million in 1995), said, “I don’t know anybody alive today that would know. Maybe some historian in Chapel Hill or at N.C. State, like William Powell.” I talked to UNC’s Powell; he didn’t know. Nor did historical writer and columnist Jim Wise, who wrote Durham: A Bull City Story. Jean Anderson, author of the authoritative history on Durham, told me “everything I know about the airport I put in the book.” There are three pages about the airport in her book, none of which deal with the name change.

So I dug more, and what I came up with after working with four different archivists at NARA, the National Archives and Records Association, was this: The airport was taken over and turned into an air support command post for Camp Butner in World War II. The War Department actually had a naming board, and the proposal that the name be changed to the “Raleigh Durham Army Airfield” came up in a meeting on Nov. 11, 1942. But there are no minutes for the War Department Naming Board, and so it’s not clear why the change was made.

But early players seemed to recognize the name’s importance.

When the War Department decided on the name Raleigh-Durham, Henry Yancey, the airport authority’s chairman and Durham’s city manager, claimed he hadn’t received any information about a name change whatsoever. It was A.E. Finley, owner of one of the country’s largest industrial equipment firms and a Raleigh booster and philanthropist through-and-through, whose name is on N.C. State’s stadium and a slew of other local institutions, who announced that an official at the war department had notified him the name was to be “Raleigh-Durham Army Air Field.”

So Yancey went to work trying to wrestle the name back for Durham. He changed the name to “Durham Raleigh” whenever he was on the record, and the newspapers responded, either out of confusion or as a subtle insurgency against Raleigh’s gradual annexation of the airport. In March, an important document was received by “Eugene C. Brooks Jr., attorney for the Durham Raleighairport authority.” In April, a county board approved “additional funds for the Durham Raleigh airport.”

What’s even more telling is that before all this, way back in the beginning of 1927, Durham was moving to build its own major airport. It would have been a blow to Raleigh for Durham to entrench its position as the region’s major city; Raleigh might have suffered the same fate Durham does now.

For seven years, Durham came close again and again: “Municipal Airport for Durham Virtually Assured as City Council Approves Use of 125 acre Site for project” read a headline in the Durham Morning Herald. But the project was continually waylaid by obscure technicalities, by injunctions, by powerlines in the wrong place.

But in 1934, as Durham tried to get money from the Works Progress Administration, things get suspicious. “Durham’s Airport Again Sidetracked as Mrs. Thomas O’Berry Forgets to Include City in List Submitted to Washington,” one Durham Morning Herald headline read.

Only, she didn’t forget. Although she assured the people of Durham that its airport was on the list, she had a last-minute change of heart and decided it would be best to complete the airports already started. Mrs. O’Berry was the state relief administrator. Her office was in Raleigh.

After more build-ups and letdowns, the Sisyphean push for an airport finally seemed to be coming to the fore in 1937.“Proposed airport here has all qualifications, official of aeronautical division of commerce department says”; then “Site selected here meets all federal requirements, official declares”; then “County elections chairman estimates that 3,500 persons so far have registered for airport election.”

But on March 2, 1938, the boulder tumbled down again. “Durham voters defeat airport bond issue overwhelmingly.”

The next day:“News and Observer advocates Durham Raleigh Airport.”

The Art of the H3ist

“I used to live in Chapel Hill, and I’d be driving in Durham and get lost at night, I’d be worried … am I gonna get mugged, be in a drive-by? Now I go through those same intersections and laugh. I was conditioned to think that way by the papers, by TV.”

–Richard Hart, editor, Independent Weekly

On the night of April 1, 2005, two men approached the east entrance of the Park Avenue Audi dealership in New York City, one a stride behind the other. The showroom’s security camera captured the first man approaching the window. In a flurry of motion, he brings a bat down over his head, instantly shattering the entire pane. Then the image becomes distorted, and the video cuts out. The next morning, a new 2006 Audi A3 was gone from the showroom. The New York City auto show was the following day; it would have been one of the first times the new Audi would be displayed in North America. Instead, there was an empty revolving podium and an easel with a “missing” sign requesting tips. Within hours, bloggers from all over the world were talking about the missing car.

What followed was a three-month, cross-country chase involving other cars, art theft, and a privately contracted agency on the trail of the thieves. People followed the story, set up Web sites and perused hacked e-mail accounts of some of the players trying to figure out what was going on. Audi A3 owners reported being stopped and asked if theirs was the missing car.

And the man behind it all was Brad Brinegar, CEO of the Durham-based ad agency hired by Audi to run their A3 campaign. McKinney + Silver, whose office in Durham’s showcase American Tobacco campus is the symbolic capital of Durham’s much ballyhooed creative class, aced the campaign. It generated over 45 million PR impressions, drew 500,000 participants, 2 million visitors to Audiusa.com, and handed dealers 10,000 leads, which all serve as ample testimony that Brinegar knows exactly how to foster “the conversation between the brand and the prospect” and generate the right kind of buzz.

As a marketing guy who handles advertising for the likes of NASDAQ, Sony and Travelocity, Brinegar is well aware of Durham’s image problem. “I would drive to my office in Raleigh, and I realized that there was this image that Durham is crime-ridden and a place you just don’t go.” So when Brinegar decided to move the company there from Raleigh, his employees were “shocked as shit. There were some real issues–they hadn’t spent any time over here,” he recalls.

Once they decided on plans to move to Durham, Brinegar would “tell people I live in Durham, and I think it’d be smart to check out Durham. Then the real estate agents would take them away. I wasn’t too happy about that as a Durham homeowner, that these people wouldn’t even give it a shot, even though the head of the company lives there. You know the image is pretty bad when it’s being actively marketed against.” So Brinegar fired back in his own modest way: He sat his employees down and showed them a breakdown of the crime in a 12-block radius of the new office in Durham, then the one in Raleigh. At the time, Brinegar was the only McKinney employee living in Durham. Now there are 87.

Even though Brinegar would be the most qualified person to publicize Durham–“I’m an ad guy, and we’re pretty darn successful, so it’s not like we don’t know how to change people’s perspectives”–he isn’t quite ready to join the small cadre of agencies trying to trumpet Durham’s accolades and bury the gritty image. Brinegar knows that there are still parts of Durham that have crime problems, and “there is a well-worn phrase in our industry, which is ‘the best way to kill a bad product is to advertise it.’ To go out and aggressively try to convince people of things they can prove not to be true is a dangerous way to fix an image problem.”

Brinegar’s logic seems altogether sound; maybe holding off until the crime problem is fully eradicated is a good idea. But in the meantime, Brinegar represents a missed opportunity for Durham to be touted by someone who knows what to say. And there isn’t a shortage of accolades for Durham to boast about, from the 300 medical- and health-related companies with a combined payroll of more than $1.5 billion a year to its standing as the second best place to live in the South and the second most educated area in America, to being home of some of the nation’s largest black-owned financial institutions and the setting for the first interracial basketball game (a Duke Med team played an NCCU team in the 1940s). Durham is the birthplace of barcode readers and childproof medicine caps among other inventions, and it boasts 29 regionally and nationally recognized restaurants. Hollywood is no stranger to the city, which provides the setting for more than a few major motion pictures from The Handmaid’s Tale to Bull Durham.

So I went to see why it is that Durham doesn’t get its due. If, for example, no one knows that RTP’s footprint is essentially Durham, why don’t we do anything about it? Bowman, of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, had mentioned something about how taking credit for RTP is seen by some as contrary to the region’s best interest, that it would be ignoring the inevitable phenomenon of a rising tide lifting all boats. Following this logic, we make the Triangle a destination and forgo promoting individuality. If we make the Triangle a place to live and work and play, well, then everyone wins.

Bowman wouldn’t tell me who was responsible for this school of thought, but I had a hunch. It had to be someone with their hand in more than one city, someone who’s been around long enough to have more entrenched interests than some tied-up capital in real estate; maybe someone with an office in Raleigh and the nation’s largest historic preservation project in Durham. I went to see Jim Goodmon, president and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting (which owns WRAL) in Raleigh, the guy who owns the Durham Bulls and the American Tobacco Historic District.

“I think this is one market,” Goodmon says. “I been preaching that a long time. This is one economic market.” Goodmon is leaning forward now and rapping his knuckles on the table. “The amazing thing about this market is that people live in one community and work in another community and go to the theater in another, and they move all around.”

Goodmon can be intimidating when he wants to be–he’s tall and walks with something between a limp and a swagger. He has the subdued intensity of a man three years out from wrapping up his master plan with still enough giddy-up to give marching orders and see to it they get done. When voters rebuffed a 1990 referendum that would have launched construction on American Tobacco, the city threw razor wire up around it to keep out vandals who then, relegated to the ground, took to putting rocks through windows.Goodmon had to look at the whole mess one too many times while watching his Bulls play across the street and decided to make something happen. He turned to Mike Hill, his VP, and said, “Well Mike, go get an option on the property. We’re gonna have to do this.”

Goodmon is a 21st-century Alexander Hamilton, and delivering his case for regionalism is one of those times he slips from his Southern civility to emphatically speaking his mind. “It’s not about what Raleigh is or what Durham is,” he says. “It’s what we all are. If we’re gonna live in one place and work in another place …” he trails off and reconsiders, starting over. “People don’t think of this place as Durham, Raleigh, Cary and Chapel Hill. … We’re gonna be a bigger market than Durham. And we’re not gonna do it with one big downtown with 30 60-floor buildings, not with all these counties spread out.” This, in other words, is the argument for regionalism. This is why Durham shouldn’t take credit for RTP, why Durham shouldn’t be bothered by Raleigh’s gradual annexation of hotels and landmarks in Durham. Why, in other words, Durham should be silent.

Goodmon dimples his cheeks into an impish grin when he disagrees, and then raps the table with his knuckles to emphasize a counterpoint; I see both more than a few times. When I first meet him he begins to show me drawings of Diamond View two and three, the next two buildings that will go up around the ballpark. This is Goodmon’s subtle way of saying “I told you so.” After the 1990 renovation project fell to voters in a referendum, nobody wanted to take a chance on the American Tobacco project. It was in terrible shape, and when Goodmon first started showing the space to potential tenants there was “guano all over the floor,” Brinegar told me. “You needed a flashlight and a hard hat and to throw away your shoes afterwards.” But with the help of meaty tax credits, Goodmon went to work. Now he unfurls the renderings and runs his index finger across them, tells me this is it for him, that after this project is done, Jim Goodmon goes to the beach.

While he adamantly denies that Durham suffers from an unwarranted reputation–“I’m not, I am not one who says that Durham is a victim … I don’t even like, I’m telling you I don’t like the premise of your story … “–he acknowledges that he runs into the image problem when recruiting potential tenants. “People would ask questions about security. That’s probably the number one question, ‘What are you going to do about security?’” Goodmon never tells the tenant they’re wrong; he says they’re going to improve security, and then he puts another night watchman on call at American Tobacco. But “the other side of it,” Goodmon explains, “is that downtown Durham doesn’t have a crime problem. There isn’t a crime problem.”

Then an interesting addendum: “I’ll tell you something else I see happen. I believe that real estate agents, if you’re coming into town and you’re taken around by a real estate agent, they will tell you not to live in Durham.”

Damned by faint praise

To be honest, I don’t get out of Chapel Hill and Carrboro much, so I’m relying on stereotypes…. There’s an idea that Durham is dangerous. There are windows with bars that you don’t see here…. But I have been there and I didn’t feel it to be that at all.

–UNC graduate student

“Say a company is moving from New Jersey to here,” Bill Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham Inc., is telling me. “And that company works with a real estate relocation company. It’s XYZ realty company in New Jersey.” So the company set to relocate calls XYZ and asks XYZ to work with the company’s employees to get to know the new area and settle in. “What they do is, this XYZ company will call their ‘quote’ regional headquarters here, and guess where the regional headquarters is?” Raleigh. “So guess who gets the first shot at showing around and informing these people of what’s up with Durham? And of course that’s where you start hearing stories about crime, schools and all that.”

Kalkhof does what he can. In presentations, he urges Durham Realtors to “make sure these people line up not with the Raleigh partner but with the Durham partner, so we’re in front of the water cooler.” Goodmon, Burness, Brinegar and Kalkhof all independently implied that a critical phenomenon is what Realtors say about Durham. So I went to find out for myself.

I posed as a prospective homebuyer looking for a house in the $200,000 to $400,000 range and arranged to see houses and discuss the region with two Raleigh Realtors.

In the car with the first Realtor, I tried to prompt her into talking about Durham by describing the city: “So I mean, a place for 2, 3, $400,000 in an older neighborhood, a historic place, is there some place like that?”

“Inside the Beltline would be the first place that comes to mind.” No Durham, so I ask specifically.

“I would have to know the area better,” she says.

What she does know of Durham is that “the crime rate is higher, but then again you have some well-established, beautiful homes out there, some million-dollar homes that are absolutely gorgeous, but they have property around them.” She explains that these homes are OK even though they’re in Durham because the property encloses them in “their own little communities.”

The second Realtor welcomes me to the office and takes me to a big, wall-sized map of the region, a makeshift real-estate situation room with pins marking properties. She begins explaining every city. “Cary is upper-middle class, tends to be suit-wearing, office-going, college-educated transfers from up North. Cary has a lot of homes that have very strict restrictive covenants. In other words, you’re not planting a tree, painting your house or parking your pick-up out front without somebody, some Nazi neighbor, giving you permission. These places are still–they’re starting to grow, they have a real small-town, country feel to them. Same with Garner–starting to grow, but small-town feel.”

“Morrisville,” she says, her voice rising with enthusiasm, “another place very similar to Cary, and we’re seeing a lot of growth. And that’s another area where”–she pauses, thinks–“where it takes money to live, and it has a certain”–another pause–“quality of life, associated with money.”

She goes on to explain about Wakefield and Knightdale, then to cap it off she waves her hand across the map, showing me the take-home message for each region, which city is “money, money, money, money,” which is “value, value, value, value,” and finally where it’s “impossible, absolutely impossible, to buy a home there affordably.”

Finally, after the crash course in Triangle real estate, I’m a little confused as to why she never once even mentioned Durham. So I ask.

She responds with a long, uncomfortable pause, and then she says with a sort of whimsical sadness, “Honestly, I would have to do some homework. … I have sold things in Durham, we’ve been to Durham, but it’s not exactly our back yard.” She explains to me that “Durham’s got a very mixed reputation. You would have to watch the news and look at the newspapers and make up your own mind about Durham.” She begins saying that she does think people who live in Durham tend to like it, then passes the question along to a colleague.

“Well, what about in, do you know anything up towards Durham? Do you know anything up towards Durham?”

The colleague sighs, and then says, “KB homes. I, I just don’t like the quality. I’ve seen the homes, that’s the only thing I’ve been to over in Durham, trying to get people in those pockets where you got a little … family feel.”

In “mystery shopper” reports performed by Pinkerton Shopping Services for the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, the same result was found in every trial. Few Realtors said anything outright negative about Durham; they seemed entirely reluctant to even mention the city. Durham was only brought up when it was unavoidable, as in “What city is closest to RTP?” Or to give it a jab, like “the school system merged some years back, and it has been a mess ever since.”

“You know what? If you want to be up in Durham, or in that direction,” my agent says, “Morrisville–I’d feel better living in Morrisville than I would in Durham because Morrisville is more open, more yuppie. Durham I think you need to know the neighborhood, and I don’t, and you’d have to drive them. And I’m not trying to chase you away, it’s not like, you know, I don’t do Durham. I have and I will, but it’s not my strength.”

She finishes her pitch for Morrisville, which she says in summation has “a lot going on. It doesn’t have the congestion of Cary, it doesn’t have the reputation of Durham.”

Waiting for an oligarchy

I would imagine Durham is pretty dangerous…. I don’t read the Durham paper, and if there was anything [good] about Durham in the Raleigh paper, I don’t know that I’d pay attention to it. My opinion is that Durham gets a lot of publicity for its crime, sometimes an undeserved reputation for its crime.

–Professional/student outside Starbucks at North Hills Mall in Raleigh

Durham’s populace has its own role in the problem. People in Durham are generally appreciative of the arts, welcoming of diversity–and of a singular political stupidity. Some of the best things to come to Durham have been in spite of voters, who seem to prefer the egalitarian attitude of an historical outpost resistant to the imminent strains of corporate interest. It’s partly this blue-collar humility that keeps Durham off the grid for most of America, and those who know of Durham know it as either a suburb of Raleigh or a city with a large black population, an epicenter of violent crime–and assume an inherent causality between the two.

Durhamites have something special–a thriving black middle class, a refreshing ethnic amalgam, creativity that seems to come from the water like fluoride. And yet they seem to want to keep it to themselves by complaining about development and allowing themselves to become a bull’s-eye for an insidious kind of misconception. As a result, Raleigh gladly accepts new tenants that should have been Durham’s, welcomes the cash flow through its restaurants and shopping centers that props its economy, watches new middle-class families move into houses that aren’t cheaper in neighborhoods that aren’t nicer. These are the people who are advocates, who write the checks for their children’s fund-raisers, who get involved in the community. These are the people who drive 15 miles an hour all the way to work every morning in RTP while Durhamites go 65 the other way. People don’t need to be told twice that Durham is where the “texture” is; they read between the lines when a Realtor says, “Well, they’re trying really hard with their schools,” and Durham is damned by faint praise while homebuyers are spirited away to stay forever east of the park.

But whenever someone has a big idea, something to put Durham on the map, voters turn it down.

Back in 1936, with Durham endeavoring to build an airport, public sentiment suddenly turned and voters killed the bond issue. Fast forward half a century, and the first shot at a new stadium for the Durham Bulls and a parking deck for the American Tobacco factory complex was voted down in a $11.28 million bond referendum, and the city almost lost the Bulls to Raleigh. Goodmon said screw it, I’m getting it done, and people said he was crazy. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park had to be funded with certificates of participation–public borrowing at a higher interest rate than voter-approved bonds–so without a brazen baron in Jim Goodmon and people like Mike Hill realizing a vision and attracting major businesses to Durham, it would still be an ex-tobacco town that did an OK job adjusting to technology while it let Raleigh take credit for RTP and Duke take credit for itself. And Durhamites forget they own half the airport.

When John Burness came to Duke, one of the first things he looked for in Durham was the five people you need to get around a table to make something happen. In Durham, he couldn’t find it. To some extent it existed in Charlotte, in Raleigh. But in Durham, no one was quite sure who to talk to to get a project rubber-stamped. There’s no oligarchy, no centralized, de facto governing body, no influential corps tying the business community to the public sector. As a result, you have a city where “the Chamber has a theme, DCVB has a marketing brand, and we kind of have a brand,” says Kalkhof. But they’re completely disaggregated, and each agency is pitching a different idea of Durham. “My preference is we have one brand, and that each of us take our own particular area of influence and play off of that singular brand. …

“It’s a daunting challenge to try and change the direction of the battleship called image,” Kalkhof laments, especially when you don’t know where the wheelhouse is.

So Durham is just too democratic. Back when he was a county commissioner, Mayor Bill Bell pushed meetings back to 4 p.m. so folks could attend. But the more Durhamites become involved, the messier things get. And transparency, that vital tenet to a fully functioning democracy, does its part to curse the land. Everybody I talked to lauded the “openness” of Durham. Here’s a city with a perceived crime problem, and instead of calling in the public relations firemen when something actually does happen, Durham puts crime information up on a public access Web site so everyone can see exactly what crimes took place where. And now it’s making the “crime mapper” real-time.

The war room

Durham has a reputation of being really rough, especially downtown. But I volunteered there and I didn’t get that feeling. I felt really welcomed … but I think that’s the normal perception.

–UNC undergrad

It’s 3 p.m. on an overcast Thursday and Reyn Bowman stands alongside East Morgan Street talking into a reporter’s microphone while a WRAL news team looks on. This is a chance to get his gospel out, so Bowman articulately answers the reporter’s questions, continues to talk even when the tape stops rolling and the woman with the camera is adjusting the tripod. This an opportunity to set the record straight about Durham, but as president of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, Bowman is working against 50 years of institutional reputation.

The visitor’s bureau is the war room for Durham’s public image; Bowman coordinates a cadre of staffers furiously combating misconceptions. Bowman’s bible, his handbook in fighting the good fight against damaging misconceptions, is a book called Marketing Places by an image guru named Philip Kotler. “Images aren’t easy to develop or change,” Kotler says in his book. “They require research into how residents and outsiders currently see the place; they require identifying true and untrue elements as well as strong and weak elements; they require inspiration and choice among contending pictures; they require elaborating the choice in a thousand ways so that the residents, businesses, and others truly express the consensual image, and they require a substantial budget for the image’s dissemination.”

So every time Durham’s crime problems are inflated in a newspaper column, every time something is wrongly attributed to Raleigh, every time a blogger slanders the city with distorted information, Bowman sends his corps out to investigate the source. “You have to look at it, track not where the misinformation appears but where it comes from.” This is key, because “if you can trace it back to the source, that’s where you make a difference.” Half of Bowman’s job is detective, teasing information out of regional mouthpieces to trace an inaccurate tidbit back to wherever it came from. Part of it is being a prosecutor, and Bowman takes no prisoners. When a radio producer from Clear Channel pop music station G105 used a machine gun effect to introduce Durham, Bowman called and made a big enough stink that the producer responded by publicly painting Bowman as a killjoy and putting his phone number on the air.

Bowman has internalized the mission and in many ways takes it personally, but he goes to bat for his city. “Durham wanted it. When they formed us, it was with the sole purpose of communicating about Durham to the outside world. It wasn’t that we had a better mousetrap, it was just our job.” And the job has become increasingly political: “Like all politics, you used to be able to be above it all. These days, if you don’t answer with an equal degree of force and with better information than you just got body-slammed with, then you’re presumed guilty. And Durham can’t just let that happen anymore.”

Bowman takes it seriously because he’s dealing with “people’s livelihoods–schools, neighborhoods … relying on you to make these changes rather quickly. A community thrives when its businesses thrive, when there’s tax base to fund its schools. That can’t happen if there’s something even mildly discouraging to people, if folks have so many options they don’t have time for you to make your case a second time.”

Mayor Bell’s vendetta

A few hours after my April conversation with Mayor Bell, he stood in front of a TV camera being beamed live across the world on CNN’s Larry King Live. A reporter ushered him in with a segment on Durham, and Bell waited patiently while he finished the monologue, telling the national audience how the allegations have “tested racial tension in a city already strained.”

When Larry King prompted Bell, the mayor dove at the reporter: “Just the comment that I heard earlier about racial tensions being strained in the city of Durham, that is not the case. It wasn’t the case before this. … Durham is not a city with strained racial tensions.”

Earlier that day as I sat in his office, Bell explained why the reporting on the city has been so inaccurate. He explained how a critical ingredient to the “perfect storm” that made the rape case so compelling to the news-consuming public was the setting, and to illuminate racial tension as a spicy sidebar to the story, it became necessary for “racially divided” to be swiftly and silently substituted for just plain old “diverse.”

“There’s no division here of that magnitude,” he told me that morning. The idea of a racially divided city “in my opinion, it’s very much inaccurate. … With the KKK [cross burning] 10 months ago, this community came together and said it’s outrageous that this could happen in Durham. Even with the situation that has happened at Duke and the allegations, you’ve had demonstrations, but I think they’ve been pretty representative of all genders and races.”

I have a friend who is the president of the NAACP at Duke, and she routinely expresses to me her frustration with the apathetic consensus that racism withered sometime in the past–with Sherman’s March to the Sea and the fall of the Confederacy, if not then perhaps in Selma, Ala., and Lyndon Johnson’s celebrated passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or if not then, than maybe in L.A. sometime after Rodney King lay on the pavement taking blows from boots and nightsticks. Maybe the silver lining in the lacrosse case and the cross burnings and the general appraisal that Durham is a town rife with racism is that the country is acknowledging its own stain; here in this little old tobacco town tucked south of the Mason-Dixon line, racism has reared its head, and it’s an important thing to be cognizant of.

But just as there were cross burnings here last summer and the vitriolic exchange on Buchanan Street, Durham responded with demonstrations representative of all sectors of society, each one offended by the events. Think branding again: A few compelling flare-ups, and Durham is irreparably racist. But I don’t think branding tells the whole story here; I think it’s more than just a few compelling anecdotes that are swaying opinions.

There’s an irony here. Durham’s African-American community makes up about 44 percent of the population. The city has a black mayor, the largest black-owned investment company in the United States, the historic black Wall Street, a thriving black middle class. It has successful black people. There is a precept none of the people I talked to would assert but most implied–that people outside Durham can’t quite swallow what the city has because it’s hard for them to imagine whites coexisting with successful blacks. That may be part of the reason “there are some white folk who would much prefer to live in gated communities and have their own little comfortable world,” as Burness explained to me. “Durham looks less comfortable to those kinds of folks. The very diversity that those of us who live in Durham find to be a significant plus, some people find to be a negative.”

So is racism a problem in Durham–or is it a problem outsiders have projected onto the city because of their own discomfort? Where does the racism really lie?

A month or so earlier, Independent editor Richard Hart had assigned me the task of exploring the source of Durham’s image problem–where it came from and what it does to the city. He put me on the story not because I was the most qualified writer he had, but because I was the least. As a Duke undergrad, I’m a blank slate–I’m new to Durham, and I came with the same stock of single-minded perceptions installed in all of us who, for one reason or another, have a casual interest in Durham. As Burness told me, “Duke students are among the brightest in the world, but on this issue I think they’re phenomenally ignorant.” For this story, my naiveté allowed me to start from scratch.

What I found was too many would-be Durham leaders unready or unwilling to speak publicly on Durham’s behalf while a few formed a voice for the city. I found Realtors from competing regions saying and not saying whatever they wanted about Durham, unchecked and unchallenged. I found a kind of eminent domain invoked in the public mindset, wherein that which rightfully belongs to Durham is gradually annexed by a place called “Raleigh-Durham,” and when people suffer the inevitable inconvenience of superfluous syllables, Raleigh-Durham becomes just “Raleigh.” As hotels and restaurants drift through awareness from Durham to Raleigh, the space left is filled with images of crime and murder and a school board lunging at each other’s throats. People prefer Raleigh either because they don’t know Durham or because they think they do.

As a result, this is what Durham loses–more than a third of the money spent on shopping, dining, entertainment and general spending that comes out of visitors’ pockets and the one-way valve feeding the tax base those visitors become, because they put money into the pot and don’t take it back out. And assuming for a moment we’re not talking about tourists but business leaders looking to relocate, Durham’s missing the opportunity to bring jobs, bump up spending, generate corporate philanthropy, increase its bond rating and attract investment.

“I’m someone who raises a lot of money in this community for a lot of different reasons,” Downtown Durham Inc.’s Kalkhof tells me, “and when you get CEOs to locate in your community, your chances of getting philanthropic dollars is a lot better. If they are bringing down people who are relocating, those are people who bring wealth and stability to a community. Those are the people that if you go into the school system and that particular school needs computers, they’re the people who write the checks and make stuff like that happen.” But many of them aren’t coming to Durham.

For Mayor Bell, subduing the stirred up misconceptions has become “part of my job,” and he’s learned that “the only way that gets prevented is if you call the paper to task when they do reporting like that.” In that vein, he’s been throwing rhetorical barbs at the various media that have been giving the city so much attention recently. “Are you guys coming back a year from now to see where we are as a community?” Bell fights back whenever he can, as he did on CNN later that night. But after Bell’s segment was done, his mic cut and his message silenced, the reporter came back on the air.

“I heard the mayor say he thought this was an issue that was not really having that much of an impact on the community in the way he heard in the report. I have to disagree with that. … What it has done is, it has magnified the underlying distrust that has existed for many years in this community, distrust between those who attend Duke University, many who are white and many of those who live in the surrounding community who are black. There has been a lot of underlying distrust between the two groups. This case, in some way, seems to have magnified that.”

Larry King: “Thank you, Jason, on the scene, doing superb person work.”

Durham: Image
When asked the basis for their bad image of Durham…

In Wake County:

  • 39 percent based it on crime
  • 24 percent based it on ethnic conflict at public meetings
  • 12 percent said it wasn’t clean
  • 8 percent based it on a friend’s experience
  • 6 percent based it on personal experience

In Orange County:
  • 43 percent based it on crime
  • 22 percent based it on ethnic conflict at public meetings
  • 6 percent said it wasn’t clean
  • 11 percent based it on a friend’s experience
  • 8 percent based it on personal experience

Source: Digiton Public Opinion Survey done for Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau

Durham: Crime
Compared to nine other cities its size in the Southeast, based on 2004 Uniform Crime Reports, Durham had:

  • 14 percent fewer violent crimes
  • The same number of homicides
  • 6 percent fewer rapes
  • 5 percent more robberies
  • 32 percent fewer aggravated assaults
  • 5 percent fewer property crimes
  • 16 percent more burglaries
  • The same number of larcenies
  • 30 percent fewer motor vehicle thefts

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