I have a vested interest in this week’s cover story about the revival of downtown Durham. I just about live there (a couple of neighborhoods over), my son goes to school there, I walk there, I eat there, I drink there, I shop there, I watch movies there, I hang out there, I listen to music there, I go to baseball games there, I get mad trying to drive around there. Not only that, most of my friends do, too. And that is what tells me that this time around, all the talk about downtown Durham being on the verge of taking off may really be true. Lord knows we’ve heard it before. Old-timers can sing you the jingle from the 1970s featuring the slogan, “Durham’s got it.” Soon after it came out, the story goes, the city was ranked first in the nation in syphilis and the slogan quickly faded. (It’s just a coincidence, I think, that the most recent slogan is, “City of Medicine.”)
And there are the massive projects that were supposed to be the harbingers of good times. There was the city’s investment in the new ballpark, even after voters said not to build it. The city spent an extra million dollars to hurriedly move its bus yard out of downtown in anticipation of a development boom. The land’s still vacant. It took more than a decade for renovations to start on the mothballed American Tobacco complex, and the first phase is almost done, thanks to Capitol Broadcasting owner Jim Goodman (who also owns the Bulls) and millions in city/county money and federal tax credits–hey, I can think of a lot worse things to do with our tax dollars.
But American Tobacco isn’t going to make the difference. Neither is a shiny, new theater. Making the difference will be smaller, incremental improvements–once-elegant buildings renovated and restoring life to a downtown streetscape at turns soaring and wonderfully human-scale.
As three or four restaurants become six or seven, as one or two clubs become four or five, as shrewd investors buy low and risk lots more to renovate apartments and condos, more people will live and visit downtown. Add to that a new transit station, a park and new farmers’ market planned nearby, and all of a sudden there are lots of reasons I’m running into my friends, men and women, young and old, sitting outside, having dinner and hanging out. Ultimately, my friends and I aren’t the only ones with a vested interest in reviving downtowns, whether it’s Durham or Raleigh or Cary or Garner. If these revivals give us better places to live, we all do.