One hundred and sixteen years after its founding, Walltown, one of Durham’s oldest historically Black neighborhoods, finally has an official gateway.

A wide brick lectern, the result of more than two decades of community lobbying, was unveiled at a joyful celebration of intergenerational advocacy on West Club Boulevard last Saturday.

Before the big reveal, Walltown residents paid homage to the neighborhood’s founder, George Wall, who worked as Duke University’s first custodian in the early 20th century after gaining his freedom from slavery. By building a house on a vacant block next to Duke’s East Campus, residents remembered, Wall laid the foundations for the area that would become home to generations of Black working-class families in Durham.

The sign was unveiled in front of the Walltown Recreation Center, a building that Walltown Community Association (WCA) member Brandon Williams describes as another marker of community organizing.

In the 1950s, Walltown residents elected a man named Frizelle Daye as the “Bronze Mayor” of the neighborhood, Williams says. Daye, who worked as a janitor at city hall, used his “proximity to folks in power” to secure land for a community center in Walltown. Because the city didn’t give Daye any funding, residents pooled their resources and constructed a one-room building themselves.

The neighborhood’s current recreation center, which broke ground in 2009, stands on the same piece of land as its predecessor.

“You have this history of working-class Black folks who just figured out how to navigate a society around them, despite the discrimination and structural inequities present,” Williams says.

This history, he says, is what fuels the community in its current fight.

Walltown has experienced rampant gentrification since the turn of the century.

As Durham ascended to the top of “Best Places to Live” lists and wealthy, white transplants sought homes in the vicinity of Duke and downtown, lifelong Walltown residents—thwarted from building wealth by decades of redlining—started to be displaced by rising property taxes. Developers, spotting opportunity in residents who were struggling to make ends meet, swayed many to sell their homes, and then flipped the properties for a tenfold payoff.

So in 2018, when a global real estate firm acquired Northgate Mall—a neighbor to Walltown since the 1960s—and announced plans for a dramatic transformation of the 55-acre property, the WCA, determined to protect its community from further gentrification, sprung into action.

The firm, Northwood Ravin, had announced plans for a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development with public plazas and retail, office, and residential space. WCA members decided that they would draw up a plan, too.

WCA members spent a year canvassing and holding focus groups within Walltown, asking residents what they hoped to see at the Northgate site, and then organized with seven other neighborhoods to form a Northgate Mall Neighborhood Council (NMNC) and survey folks in surrounding neighborhoods. In September 2020, after gathering feedback from more than 600 residents, the NMNC created three alternative site maps for the new Northgate.

Each map included components of their equitable, community-centered vision: a significant portion of affordable housing, with first right of purchase and rental provided to low-income Walltown residents; affordable retail, including a grocery store; accessible green space that bridges Walltown Park with the other side of Guess Road; a transportation hub for buses and bike riders; and sustainable infrastructure to reduce flooding.

For a while, the WCA members felt like they were making progress: while Northwood Ravin wasn’t particularly engaging, the city council seemed receptive to their vision and willing to advocate to the developer on their behalf. They’d also succeeded in adding Walltown to the city’s Longtime Homeowners Grant Program, which assists owners with rising property taxes.

Then, in a virtual meeting two weeks ago, Northwood Ravin announced it was abandoning its original site plan.

The new plan, as spokespeople revealed, is largely dominated by a life sciences research campus, with a few restaurants and a central one-acre green space. To the WCA members’ dismay, the map no longer includes any residential space.

“For our vision for what needs to happen there at the site, not having housing is really a nonstarter,” says Williams. “The other benefits don’t make a whole lot of sense if we’re not building them around people.”

Northwood Ravin did not reply to requests for comment for this story, but one of the firm’s attorneys, Patrick Byker, attended the Walltown gateway unveiling on Saturday. Byker told the INDY and a handful of concerned residents that including residential space in the project would be “financially unfeasible” but that the firm is planning to help the Walltown community through “job creation.”

The proposed life sciences campus would provide lots of job opportunities for residents who don’t have college degrees, he said; at places like Pfizer, people who only have high school diplomas are “pulling down really good money.” The pitch was clear: the developer’s representative was trying to convince residents that Northwood Ravin is on their side.

Residents seemed appreciative of Byker’s presence but were understandably skeptical of his motive.

It took decades for Walltown to get an official gateway. How long will it take for developers to storm through it?

Though Northwood Ravin’s new site plan is a stark repudiation of the WCA’s community-centered proposal, it may come with a silver lining.

To enact its new vision, the firm must file a rezoning request to change the property’s “commercial center” classification—which currently prohibits the construction of a life sciences research campus—to “commercial general.”

According to city council member Jillian Johnson, the rezoning case, which will go to the council for approval, will allow councilors to fight for the WCA’s proposal in a way they previously could not.

“The Walltown Community Association, doing all this planning, was a little bit ‘activistic’ at the time, because there weren’t really any actual levers for influence,” Johnson says. “But a rezoning case is completely discretionary on the part of the city council. So now there is a really strong opportunity for this community vision to have influence on this site.”

Johnson, while clarifying that she won’t make a decision about the rezoning until the public hearing—and noting that it’s illegal to deny a rezoning request based on the existence, or lack thereof, of affordable housing—says she feels “very comfortable” withholding her vote until developers “do better.”

“This is an ideal spot for some dense residential development,” Johnson says.

Over the past few years, Northwood Ravin has been dismissive of the council’s requests to incorporate the WCA’s vision into its plans, Johnson says. And because the firm’s previous site map was within the property’s zoning code, she says, there wasn’t much the council could do to change its mind.

While advocates have pushed for the council to initiate its own rezoning, and thus ensure that the development would incorporate components of the community’s vision, Johnson says this wasn’t feasible.

“You can have a city-initiated rezoning,” Johnson says. “But once a property is in the process of being developed, that becomes legally complex and is not generally a good idea … for us to try to use the rezoning authorities—there would be a lawsuit and we would lose.”

Nate Baker, an urban planner who serves on Durham’s planning commission, says Johnson’s fear of losing a lawsuit is questionable, adding that “it’s disappointing that our leadership is so afraid of doing anything progressive.” There are plenty of ways the city could have taken action in recent years, he says. (Baker spoke with the INDY on his own behalf, and his views do not necessarily reflect those of the city’s planning commission.)

“They could have done a small area planning process on that site and then used the power of zoning to implement that,” Baker says. “We can regulate uses: what is or is not allowed on the site, the arrangement of what’s on the site, the infrastructure. Creating new city blocks that weave into the existing fabric of surrounding neighborhoods on that site, for example. [The council] had plenty of time that the neighborhood was asking for help, long before this subdivision was submitted.”

Though council members have missed opportunities to take action, they still have time, Baker says.

“Durham is at a crossroads about how we engage and empower residents around the issues of growth and development. The Northgate Mall redevelopment is an indicator, and maybe even a harbinger event, that shapes what Durham is and who we become.”

Going on Byker’s presentation at the unveiling, Northwood Ravin’s vision for the Northgate property is one that would be familiar to George Wall and Frizelle Daye, where Walltown residents work blue-collar jobs at the conglomerate across the street. Instead of investing in the WCA’s proposal, the firm is offering, at best, proximity to leadership.

Brett Chambers, a NC Central University professor who spent childhood summers at his grandmother’s house in Walltown, says that Byker’s pitch is reminiscent of empty promises he’s heard from other developers in Durham.

“They always say, ‘You’re gonna be benefited. We’ll have job creation.’ And all they’re doing is lining their pockets,” Chambers says. “I don’t want the people that are left in Walltown to only have cashier jobs and clerk jobs and janitor jobs. I don’t want the next young man to have to grow up and only have that choice.” 

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