This weekend, for Juneteenth, the celebrations and commemoration of the end of slavery at the Hayti Heritage Center came with a deeper purpose: they served to usher in a new era for the Hayti district, the culturally rich neighborhood along Fayetteville Street that’s one of the Durham’s most historic. Hayti, the hope is–through economic development and investment in the neighborhood’s historically Black community–will be reborn. 

But what led to Hayti’s languishing in the first place? Simply, locals know, the construction in the 1960s and early 1970s of Highway 147, a misnamed “urban renewal” initiative that destroyed 4,000 homes and 500 businesses in the neighborhood.

Hayti’s devastation by highway construction during this period in U.S. history isn’t unique. In Dallas Magazine this month, writer Peter Simek delves into a parallel narrative in that city’s past, when the construction of Interstate 345 tore right through the Deep Ellum neighborhood, severing it from downtown Dallas. 

Deep Ellum boasted grand hotels in the 1890s that, by the 1960s had become two-bit hotels, Simek writes, as he examines the neighborhood’s trajectory through a pair of news stories—one from 1966 and one from 1971—from the Dallas Morning News. There was a misconception at the time those stories were written that Deep Ellum was a dying community.

But that wasn’t the case.

“The gambling halls and saloons of the 1930s become the cobblers and pawn shops of the 1970s,” Simek writes. “What the old News reports miss is that this isn’t evidence of a neighborhood that is dying; it is a neighborhood in chrysalis. But then, I-345 violently interrupts this lifecycle. Deep Ellum never gets the chance to complete its regenerative process.”

Even an artistic boom in the 1980s, propelled by an abundance of old warehouses and vacant storefronts—cheap real estate space for artists and musicians to open galleries, clubs and studios—couldn’t restore the sense of community that was lost with the construction of the I-345.

Simek writes:

Hayti operated along a similar trajectory to Deep Ellum. The population of the community, formed by freedmen in the 1840s, flourished with Black-run businesses, a library, a hotel, a theatre, and the Lincoln hospital, from that time through the 1940s when urban renewal efforts that predated the highway began displacing residents. Highway 147 was just the final blow, a way, as Simek puts it, of “providing two services at once: a path for progress and historical erasure.”

As Hayti flourishes once again—as it becomes reborn—what are the losses to that community that can’t be underestimated? And, moreover, how can we make sure that the spirits that remain not just of Hayti, but of all the historic neighborhoods in Durham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and the greater Triangle, aren’t lost even more?

As Simek writes:

“Whatever you call it, that intangible quality is the real ingredient that makes cities and neighborhoods great. You can’t plan it or build it. You can’t fund it through philanthropy or market it in a tourism brochure. It isn’t ‘walkability’ or ‘urbanism.’ It takes generations to take shape. If you’re lucky, you capture it by carefully preserving all the beautifully ugly conditions that feed it life.”

Because if you lose that, Simek warns us, it’s gone forever.

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