Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal encouraged city and county residents to volunteer with the city’s boards, commissions, and community-based organizations on behalf of a “city in crisis” still recovering from a global pandemic and unprecedented gun violence.

O’Neal, while delivering her first “State Of The City” address three months after being sworn in, also said it’s past time to rebuild the Hayti District, the historically Black residential and economic hub destroyed more than a half-century ago by the federal urban renewal program.

“I am struck by the fact that there are two Main Streets in Durham,” O’Neal said. “Yes, on one end of Main Street, you see the high-rises, the shops, and the amenities that illustrate the leaps toward prosperity that many in Durham have experienced over the last few years. On the other end of Main Street, you see a community that has not kept up with the prosperity. Main Street runs through the heart of Durham. The time has come to stitch the quilt and make Durham equitable for all.”

For all of Durham to share in the city’s prosperity, O’Neal described a “rebalancing” that takes into account neighborhoods “negatively impacted by urban renewal and decades of neglect.”

“The Black community, and thus Durham, has never recovered from the loss of the 150 businesses in Hayti,” she said, before announcing that the city “is supporting a partnership between Hayti Heritage Foundation and the Urban Land Institute on a mission to explore the redevelopment of the Fayetteville Street corridor.”

The redevelopment, O’Neal said, will have “a community-centered mindset, ensuring the community is involved in both planning and economic participation.”

The mayor did not say if the “community-centered mindset” would include the input or participation of officials with Hayti Reborn, the Durham developers who asked the city council for a public hearing after their proposal to develop a residential, economic, and educational hub at Fayette Place in the Hayti neighborhood was not selected by the Durham Housing Authority.

“Hayti will come back,” O’Neal said. “We want prosperity in every corner of Durham.”

In addition to shared prosperity, O’Neal talked about creating safer neighborhoods, affordable housing, infrastructure, public health, the pandemic, and the importance of being “an inclusive and welcoming city.”

O’Neal told city residents that 21 people have applied for the council seat left vacant when Charlie Reece resigned last month to move to Paris with his family.

“Holding public office is serious business, and I am grateful that we will have a strong pool of candidates from which to select,” O’Neal said. “We intend to choose an applicant who will represent the interests of all Durham residents.” 

In her estimation, a better Durham starts with “creating a safe city and safe neighborhoods for all.”

“Our city is in a crisis, and gun violence is taking the lives of far too many of our residents and our young Black males,” the mayor said. “Over these past few months, since I have taken office, gun violence has marched towards seemingly new levels of violence and chaos. Just this past week, we have seen six deaths.”

“I also want to recognize the city-wide trauma that our residents are feeling,” O’Neal said after offering condolences to families who have lost loved ones to gun violence. “We are a city in pain. And we are struggling to make sense of the violence we continue to witness.”

In advancing the cause of citywide volunteerism to help the Bull City heal from gun violence grow and become stronger, the mayor pointed to a question Martin Luther King, Jr. asked in 1957: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

“Find any local organization, especially where our youth are involved,” she suggested. “Zoom has provided a great way to read to a class, offer a tour of a local museum through a video and volunteer to assist [at] a school an hour or two each week. Food pantries, school supply drives, neighborhood cleanup and beautification, coding brigades, libraries, literacy and youth organizations, gun violence prevention groups … the list goes on. Bring a friend or two and grow the network that we need.”

The mayor shared a bundle of high points, including a partnership between the city, the county, and Duke University to make available loans to small businesses that have been affected by the pandemic.

The initiative, known as the Opportunity Loan Fund, has disbursed $860,000 funds to 39 businesses, with 29 owned by people of color or women. 

“There are $140,000 of city funds and $800,000 of county funds remaining in this Opportunity Fund to provide low-cost financing via loans of $5,000 to $35,000 to eligible businesses,” O’Neal said. 

The city’s first Black woman mayor also touted the more-than $50 million the city is set to receive from the federal American Rescue Plan that will be used to offset revenue losses as a consequence of the pandemic.

 “These funds can be used to address other community needs,” she said.

O’Neal praised the YouthWorks Program, where 1,500 young people between the ages of 14 and 24 have applied to participate in a summer program that “allows our young people to develop critical skills and explore career opportunities through paid summer internships.”

She added that the number of interest applications the program received are the largest in recent history. 

“More than 77 percent of those who have submitted interest applications are between the ages of 14 and 17 years old,” said O’Neal. She noted the importance of employment outlets as a young person in her own life trajectory. 

“My first jobs were with the city of Durham as a teenager,” O’Neal added. “I worked for the Fun Caravan, as a tennis court attendant and as an assistant in the Law Library at the Law School that I later attended and led as Dean.”

O’Neal also lauded the efforts of the city’s transportation department, noting that Durham was awarded a $9 million federal grant for a 1.76-mile-long, multi-use trail along an abandoned Norfolk and Southern rail bed to connect pedestrians and cyclists from north Durham to the downtown district. 

O’Neal began her nearly two-hour address with a story about her paternal grandmother, Cora O’Neal, a quilter who taught the craft to girls in the West End neighborhood where she grew up.

“She was known to collect bags full of scrap material. Each scrap was different—not one looked exactly like another,” O’Neal said about her grandmother’s work. 

“They consisted of assorted colors from various garments, bedspreads, towels, curtains,” the mayor continued. “She patiently and painstakingly taught us how to stitch them together to make warm and beautiful quilts. Her quilts cover me at night and inspire me by day to believe that we can each connect to make a quilt that covers Durham with safe neighborhoods, stable housing, well-paying jobs, and quality schools.”

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.