In the spring of 2001, Bill Bell boarded a bus destined for some of Durham’s struggling neighborhoods. The soon-to-be mayor rode past West End streets that had all the infrastructure for houses, yet remained full of vacant lots. He passed the former site of the Few Gardens housing complex, where, while Bell served as a Durham County commissioner, a two-year-old girl had been killed in a drive-by shooting.
“What I saw was the need for a large-scale neighborhood revitalization. It didn’t mean going in and repairing housing one at a time,” Bell recalls. “To me, it was almost like a barrel of apples. You can have some good apples. Put a bad apple in a barrel, pretty soon the whole barrel becomes affected.”
In his sixteen years at the city’s helm, an era that will end in December, Bell has taken aim at the sort of endemic poverty he viewed on the bus tour. During his 2003 State of the City address, Bell announced the first target of a sweeping effort to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods: Northeast Central Durham, especially Barnes Avenue, a residential area across from the former Few Gardens. He stressed the need to replace dilapidated homes with new, affordable ones, reduce crime, and attract businesses.
In that same speech, Bell also described the beginnings of a different revitalization project. He cheered the fact that renovations had “kicked off” at the American Tobacco campus, a sprawling complex that had been the heart of Durham’s once-thriving manufacturing industry until it closed in 1987.
Since Bell took office, Durham’s downtown has seen a stunning renaissance. According to data compiled by Downtown Durham Inc., since December 2001, when Bell was sworn in, $1.7 billion in public and private investments have flooded the 0.8-square-mile area in the form of tech start-ups, world-class restaurants, and trendy hotels. Downtown will add thirteen hundred new housing units in the next few yearsten times the number of units that existed in 1995. Many have already been snatched up.
In short, downtown Durham has gone from a place to be avoided to a place to be celebrated: the tastiest town in the South, the number one housing market in the U.S., America’s fifth geekiest city, to name a few recent accolades.
But while Bell would deliver his 2004 State of the City speech from American Tobacco’s Fowler Building, he wouldn’t announce the completion of Eastway Village, as the Barnes Avenue affordable housing development would be known, until 2010. And today, fourteen years after Bell identified it as a priority, Northeast Central Durham remains ground zero of the city’s poverty-reduction efforts.
“This is unlike anything else I think we have done,” Bell says. “When we talk about the revitalization of downtown Durham, we knew what the goals wereto readapt the tobacco factories into places that are livable, for jobs, etceteraand you knew after a certain period of time if that has been accomplished. Poverty is different. To me, it’s an ongoing effort. It’s not suddenly that this number of people have risen out of poverty and you can say goal accomplished.”
Despite these efforts, the city’s poverty rate ticked up from 15 percent in 2000 to 19.2 percent in 2015more than forty-five thousand residents living at or below the poverty line, which in 2015 meant an annual income of $24,036 for a family of four. Lost in this figure are the massive disparities from neighborhood to neighborhood. While some parts of Durham have single-digit and even less-than-1-percent poverty rates, in other neighborhoods, half the residents struggle to make ends meet.
And so, as the seventy-six-year-old Bell enters the final months of his final term, the city is grappling with this dichotomy of simultaneously being a “best place to live” and a locale that is out of reach for so many. Bell will doubtless be remembered for his leadership in transforming downtown. But for those who didn’t share in that growth, the past sixteen years are perhaps better summed up by the fact that poverty rates in some neighborhoods have more than doubled.
Put simply, the poor are being pushed outwardnorth and east, specificallyfrom a flourishing downtown, says Melissa Norton, a senior researcher at Duke who studies gentrification in Durham.
“Over the past fifty years, poverty has been, in terms of density, very much concentrated in the central city, in particular the south and eastern sides of downtown,” she says. “What we’re seeing right now is a lot of dynamic change in the central city and the geography of poverty.” Thus, she continues, a situation exists in which poverty is “massively concentrated in certain parts of the city, and there are certain parts of the city where you’re really insulated from having to see real poverty.”
In many ways, this story begins with Durham’s incorporation in 1869. From the outset, a divide existed between the wealthy landowners who built the city’s textile and tobacco factories and the people who worked in them. Those at the top accumulated wealth through their businesses and assets, while those at the bottom lived paycheck to paycheck.
“If you multiply that over one hundred and fifty years, you have some sense of why, say, in terms of housing, how hard it was for people who made really minimal wages,” says Robert Korstad, a history and public policy professor at Duke University.
When Durham’s factories began their slow decline in the 1950s and manufacturing jobs moved to other North Carolina cities, it was easier for the laid-off white workers to find new jobs. Segregation, discrimination, and policies like redlining, in which banks refused to give loans in black neighborhoods, reinforced the divide between working-class blacks and whites. Areas redlined by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1937including Hayti, Northeast Central Durham, and West Endstill have some of the highest rates of poverty and lowest homeownership rates in Durham.
Other than the shutdown of Durham’s factories, perhaps no single event has had as much of an impact on shaping the city’s economic landscape as the construction of the Durham Freeway. Beginning in the late 1950s, scores of homes and largely black-owned businesses were torn down to make way for N.C. 147, chopping existing communities with concrete and separating those residents from the growth that prompted their removal.
Along with the Durham Freeway came urban renewal, a program in which cities nationwide were given federal money to clear so-called blighted areas. In Durham, many of the demolished structures were never replaced; black residents were often displaced into inner-city, low-cost apartments and public housing, and many white residents retreated to the suburbs.
If you ask Bell, downtown Durham’s revitalization began with the 1981 opening of Brightleaf Squareformer tobacco warehouses renovated for restaurants and retailand the construction of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995. But little was taking place besides those projects.
“There was no life in terms of people, no life in terms of the building structure,” Bell says.
With the reopening of American Tobacco in 2004 came a surge of investment in office space, tech start-ups, and restaurantsand new, better educated, wealthier residents who wanted to live within walking distance of it all.
“What we’ve seen in the last ten years is Durham really position itself as a winner in this new economy,” Norton says. “You have to be really educated to take part in that economy.”
It’s a transformation that has made Durham North Carolina’s “hippest” city in the eyes of Vogue magazine and the “Silicon Valley of the South.” But it’s also left portions of the Bull City’s population in the dust. The city’s poverty rate is higher than that of the state (17.4 percent) and the country (13.5 percent). And according to census data, 48.7 percent of Durham residents living below poverty level are black.
“We’re building for the whiter, richer new people that are moving to town,” says Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson. “We’re not building grocery stores and pharmacies and banks in east Durham, and that’s what we need to be building.”
On a sweltering Thursday afternoon in downtown Durham, those braving the heat outside seem only to be in transit, rushing from one place to another. They’re pouring out of the county human services complexes near Dillard Street, waiting in the shade for buses, relishing that first kiss of air-conditioning after walking through the doors of The Parlour ice cream shop on Market Street.
There’s a hum of trucks idling, bass and reggaeton bumping from cars at stoplights, the tinny thud of construction workers banging on metal, a lone trombonist in the parking lot of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. In the rare quiet moment, one can detect a slow, low whir, like an elevator steadily ascending. It’s a crane, periodically rotating atop the under-construction One City Center, a twenty-seven-story tower of retail, office, and apartment space being built at the corner of Main and Corcoran. Half a mile down Main Street, construction continues on a new $71 million police headquarters, a gray behemoth that, for now, seems to mark the edge of downtown development.
The Golden Belt and Cleveland-Holloway neighborhoods are on the front lines of this outward push from downtown.
With development looming, Golden Belt residents in 2010 lobbied the city council to designate the area a local historic district. Much of the area had already been listed in the National Register of Historic Places before the district was approved last year, creating another layer of approval for demolition, construction, or modification.
Like downtown, Golden Belt’s roots lie in the city’s manufacturing heyday, taking its name from the Golden Belt Manufacturing Co., which initially made cotton tobacco bags. The warehouses reopened in 2008 with lofts, artist space, and retail. Scientific Properties, which bought most of the factory in 2006, has also rehabbed several of the remaining mill houses, along with Habitat for Humanity.
“These were boarded-up houses,” says DeDreana Freeman, president of the Golden Belt neighborhood association and InterNeighborhood Council of Durham. When Freeman moved into her Worth Street home in 2007, she says, the house next door was leaning and had to be propped up. “The revitalization that happenedyou could call it gentrification if Habitat hadn’t gotten involved and some of the homeowners hadn’t stayed,” she says.
Contrast that with the nearby Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood, where intense investor activity pushed home prices up by 490 percent from 2005–15, according to a real estate analysis by Norton. In a presentation called “The Big ‘G’: Gentrification and the Dynamics of Neighborhood Change,” she says this neighborhood was the “most shocking” of the six she studied.
Tammi Brooks, president-elect of the Durham Regional Association of Realtors, says Durham real estate prices “are on this sort of upward escalator right now.” While Cleveland-Holloway (along with Old East Durham, Old North Durham, Duke Park, and Forest Hills) is experiencing high demand, “we’re seeing a lot of pressure in all neighborhoods.”
“People are pouring in here, and the dynamic that’s mainly driving gentrification is demand,” says Steve Schewel, who has lived in Durham for more than forty years and served on its city council since 2011. (Disclosure: Schewel founded the Independent Weekly in 1983; he sold the publication in 2012.)
According to a 2015 report by Enterprise Community Partners Inc., which studied the city’s housing stock, from 2000–11, median rents in Durham went up by 22 percent and median home values by 42 percent. The result has been an affordable housing crisis.
According to the Enterprise report, there were forty-two thousand low-income households in Durham in 2013, meaning they earn 80 percent or less of the area’s median income of $73,300 for a family of four. The same report identified 6,100 income-restricted, subsidized homes in Durham, 1,240 of which could exit affordability agreements by 2021.
The situation is particularly dire for extremely low-income residents, who earn 30 percent or less of the area median income, or just $21,990 for a family of four. According to Enterprise, for every hundred very low-income households (of which there are about twelve thousand in Durham), just thirty-eight affordable units are available.
The city has dedicated one penny of its 56.07-cent property tax rate to affordable housing, generating $12.5 million since 2013. But as city manager Tom Bonfield has put it, “there’s not enough money to solve the city’s affordable housing problem.”
“We’re adding another penny to the housing fund this year. We need like five to even start making a dent,” Johnson says. “We’re just really in a difficult situation, and I think that a big part of the reason for that is that the forward thinking that happened was around how to make development happen. It wasn’t about how economic development is going to affect the low-income people in these neighborhoods going forward.”
Although he doesn’t remember the yearsometime in the 1960sJohn “Skeepie” Scarborough remembers the day that urban renewal reached his family’s business at 522 Pettigrew Street in the then-vibrant Hayti neighborhood. A man came to the funeral home and told Scarborough’s grandfather he’d be “coming through” to build a freeway.
“You’re going to be coming through here?” Scarborough remembers his grandfather asking.
The man replied, “Me and a lot of other people.”
“Well, when you come through here, I’ll be sitting right there with my double-barreled shotgun.”
Sitting in a meeting room in Scarborough and Hargett Funeral Home’s current location off Fayetteville Street, Scarborough recounts all the times the family business has been forced to move in the name of progress. From Hayti to downtown, then, to make way for a new courthouse, back to the other side of N.C. 147. Before urban renewal, Scarborough says, Hayti had its own stores, school, lawyers, contractors, and restaurants. Residents “only crossed the tracks to pay bills,” Scarborough says. But that cohesiveness was “knocked out.” It’s been estimated that forty-five hundred homes and businesses were demolished to make way for the Durham Freeway and six corresponding urban renewal projects.
Now the city is attempting to undo some of that damage through affordable-housing and homeownership-assistance programs.
This is most visible in the Southside neighborhood, where the city has worked with developers since the early 2000s to build mixed-income housing. One hundred thirty-two units in the Lofts at Southside sit atop a hill behind a towering water fountain. This used to be Rolling Hills, land the city repossessed twice following failed development deals in the nineties and again in 2003.
Eighty units at the Lofts at Southside are income-restricted and reserved for people with varying incomes below the area median. The developer declined to provide a breakdown of how many units were rented at each income threshold, but 98 percent of the subsidized units are occupied. According to the developer, of the fifty-two market rate apartments, 86 percent are leased.
While the Lofts at Southside are more affordable than many apartments in Durham, they still may be out of reach for some. According to guidelines from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the development can charge a person earning 60 percent of the median income up to $825 for a one-bedroom apartment, just $9 below what HUD says the fair market rate would be.
As of 2015, 48.2 percent of residents in this area lived below the poverty line. The homeownership rate is just over 11 percent, according to 2015 census data, compared to nearly 54 percent countywide.
Across Roxboro Street, colorful houses sit snugly side by side, occasionally broken up by homes under construction or for sale. Twenty-five of forty-eight homes in The Bungalows at Southside must be affordable, per federal guidelines. The city offers financing options to lower the cost for buyers earning less than the median income.
On the edge of this new construction sits a tiny convenience store at the corner of South and Enterprise streets. Omar Ali has been the manager at Raheeb Market for about ten years, but the building itself has been around since 1930.
Change in the neighborhood happened at a breakneck speed, says his daughter, Naimah Alshade.
“It was, like, superfast,” she says, sitting behind the counter one afternoon in May. “It seems like overnight all these buildings were knocked down.”
Ali says that when the new homes started going up in 2013, his customers worried they would have to move because they’d no longer be able to afford to live there. He doesn’t know of anyone who ended up leaving for that reason, but property values have indeed gone up.
Last year, when Durham properties underwent a routine revaluation, the average property tax bill in Southside went up $314. It was enough to make Southside residents appeal to the city for help, prompting discussion of a tax relief program for residents affected by city-driven neighborhood revitalization.
“If not for us having done Southside and the Lofts at Southside, those houses wouldn’t have appreciated as much as they had,” Bell says. “Then the question is, does that mean we shouldn’t have done it? I think it’s a far greater benefit having done it than it would have been to neglect it.”
T.J. McDermott’s view through the small windows of King’s Sandwich Shop has changed significantly since 2009, when he bought the Foster Street burger stand, which has existed since 1942. Then, vacant, dilapidated buildings occupied two of the other three corners of Foster and Geer.
In those early days, McDermott remembers seeing a gun-toting woman chase two men across the street near what is now Motorco. When he stopped for a Gatorade at a nearby convenience store, a prostitute jumped in his car and tried to steal the change from his glovebox. Eight years later, he’s drinking iced coffee outside, surrounded by women pushing strollers and guys in suits comparing the price of office space in Durham and New York City.
King’s has managed to stay relevant in this neighborhood partly because it’s a relic of the past. McDermott hasn’t really adapted the restaurant to its changing surroundings, but he recognizes that a time is likely coming when he’ll have no choice but to raise prices and cater to new tastes. The value of the shop’s 450 square feet doubled last year. According to Norton’s research, the average price per square foot for houses in Old North Durham grew from $76 in 2000 to $160 in 2015.
Keep going east on Geer Street toward North Miami Boulevard and a much different picture emerges. In census tract 10.02, which encompasses Sherwood Park and Wellons Village, 51.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line3,050 peopleup from 29.5 percent in 2000.
Fast food, chain stores, and auto shops comprise many of the businesses in Wellons Village. It’s not walkable. Parts of the neighborhood are almost rural, such as an unpaved residential street where an orange chicken sprints from a front yard into the street.
Carlos Aguilera, a cashier at the Don Fily food truck, which is parked in front of the Moroleon Supermarket on North Miami Boulevard on a May afternoon, says he doesn’t see gentrification coming this far out.
“New people, they’re scared,” he says. Just the day before, he says, someone pulled a gun at the food mart next door.
Across the street is The Village, the shopping center that gave this neighborhood its name when it opened as a residential and retail development called Wellons Village in 1959. Durham sheriff and police cruisers sit in the parking lot all day.
“You get used to hearing the police sirens every single day,” Aguilera says.
Aguilera and his friend Mawfak Tawfiq are surprised to learn that almost twice as many people are living in poverty in this neighborhood than fifteen years before. They say they haven’t noticed much change in the six and eight years they’ve lived here, respectively. But they aren’t shocked to hear that there’s so much poverty.
“Seeing the number of homeless people, you can put two and two together,” Aguilera says.
Others who live and work here are similarly hard-pressed to explain what’s changed since 2000. They venture to guess that the cost of living has gone up while wages have stagnated, that the population is aging and is increasingly reliant on fixed incomes, or that the stock of older, more affordable apartments has drawn lower-income renters to the area.
According to census data, the median monthly rent in tract 10.02 has gone from $518 in 2000 to $682 by 2015 (most occupied units in this area are rentals). In the same period, the median household income only rose $453, to $26,272. Unemployment has gone up from about 9 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2015. Twenty-four percent of households earn less than $10,000 a year.
Samuel Jenkins is a product of the city’s poverty-reduction efforts. Without a matching grant from the city, Samuel and Sons Barbershop on Angier Avenue wouldn’t exist as it does today.
The space used to house Positivity Cuts, where Jenkins started working in 2004. He eventually rented the building in 2009 and bought it two years later. After the building burned down in 2011, a building improvement grant from the city helped him renovate and reopen.
Jenkins, sometimes called the Mayor of Angier Avenue, helped drive the revitalization of this block along with the Angier Avenue Business Association and the city. Among empty storefronts, the small strip seems inviting and lively. There’s a food truck and a small outdoor seating area.
Jenkins’s business is located in census tract 10.01, an east Durham neighborhood anchored around the Angier-Driver corridor that is the focus of the city’s Poverty Reduction Initiative, which was recently renamed Transformation in Ten. Bell announced the program in his 2014 State of the City address, saying he wanted to take a data-driven approach to “reduce poverty in our city, neighborhood by neighborhood, year by year.”
Bell says the initiative marks the first time that city, county, and community leaders have made a coordinated effort to address the causes and symptoms of poverty: housing, finance, jobs, public safety, health, and education.
He doesn’t think the initiative could have successfully launched any sooner.
“Prior to that, we were trying to rebrand ourselves, trying to deal with a downtown that was literally broken,” Bell says. “We had just gotten to the point now where we had had the renaissance in the downtown area, and I felt that the cityand when I say the city, I mean the communitycould really turn its attention to this issue of poverty.”
Tract 10.01 was identified in a 2014 report by the UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies as a “distressed urban tract,” characterized by high poverty rates, high unemployment, and low per-capita income. According to the report, Durham was home to eight of the Triangle’s twelve distressed tracts.
The report showed that poverty in urban areas is particularly pervasive and can be obscured by wealthier areas in countywide data. According to the report, per capita income in distressed urban tracts is lower than in distressed rural tracts, and poverty and unemployment in distressed urban tracts, like 10.01, can be double that of the county.
Transformation in Ten focuses on two census blocks within tract 10.01, which together are home to about twenty-four hundred people. (A third census block is home to the mixed-income Eastway Avenue housing development.)
It’s too early to assess the initiative’s success. The first year was spent largely on gathering data, surveying residents, and planning goals for targeted task forces. The first so-called action year was 2015. The 2016–17 fiscal year was the first that money from the city budget has been dedicated to the program.
The city, the county health department, and the Durham Police Department have each dedicated staff to the initiative. The city has also expanded job training at the Holton Career and Resource Center, implemented financial literacy programs, and partnered with community organizations to set up college savings accounts for students at Y.E. Smith Elementary School.
Jenkins says the changes are noticeable. When he moved here from New York in the eighties, Driver Street had restaurants, banks, and a drug store. But by the mid-2000s, that was all disappearingeven the post office mailbox.
“That was the weirdest thing,” he says. “East Durham was left alone for like seven years in a dormant state.”
Jenkins says the neighborhood is coming back, with investments from the city, Self-Help Ventures, and Habitat for Humanity. But he says it would be unrealistic to expect that the city could totally eradicate poverty. It’s too embedded in Durhamand besides, in a capitalist society, “somebody has to be on the bottom.”
“With what they’ve got to work with, I think they’ve done the best they could,” he says. “All they can do is fix it to an extent.”
Transformation in Ten has been criticized for its timing and effectiveness. Camryn Smith, director of implementation and community education at REAL Durhaman organization Bell announced as a partner upon the program’s launchsays the initiative has been little more than a stalling tactic.
“My perspective is that poverty has not been an issue for the mayor until the [UNC] data came out,” she says. In the meantime, residents are displaced “to bring in other people who aren’t connected to the community.”
“It’s another example of institutions coming and saying, ‘We know what’s best for the community,'” adds her husband, Ernest Smith.
Looking back, Bell concedes that more could have been done to make sure residents were “at the table.”
“We were treading new ground, entirely new ground,” he says.
In many ways, Durham is stunted in what it can do to address poverty on a large scale. Cities in North Carolina are prohibited from requiring developers to include affordable units. The city also cannot stabilize rent or compel employers to pay a living wage. Instead, Durham must largely rely on things like private partnerships and housing tax credits.
“We live in a political environment that is antithetical to this idea of government involving itself and trying to change those structures,” says Korstad, the Duke professor. “Public policy right now is focused on poverty creation, not poverty reduction. There is nothing our state government is doing, or our federal government, to address issues of poverty. It’s doing plenty of things to create poverty, and it’s intentional.”
City officials and anti-poverty groups say getting land in public hands and land trusts will be key, particularly downtown near public transit and in Old East Durham, where relatively stable and low home prices make the area ripe for gentrification.
Johnson, the council member, likens the city’s efforts to control gentrification now to chasing a ball that has “already started rolling down the hill.”
“When I have asked people, ‘Was there a consideration of issues like gentrification and displacement and racial equity when this city decided to start pouring a ton of public money into revitalizing downtown,’ what folks have told me is, ‘Well, at the time we just wanted to get anyone to invest anything in downtown,'” she says. “As if they didn’t have the luxury of thinking about things like racial equity and people being displaced down the line.”
Bell says this line of criticism is “absolutely not true,” noting the work done on Barnes Avenue early in his tenure. But like the pockets of poverty obscured in this otherwise booming city, this part of his legacyimproving the lives of Durham’s pooris harder to see than the construction, crowds, and accolades that serve as proof of downtown’s transformation.
Ask Bell what he thinks his legacy is, and he’ll shake his head and say, “Please. That’s in the eyes of the beholder.”
But ask what accomplishments he’s proudest to have been a part of, and he’ll point to downtown and Southside. Where Transformation in Ten fits in is harder for him to say. He’s measured but optimistic when he talks about what the program will accomplish, and he says he’s disappointed he “won’t be around to be a part of the leadership for it.”
“I’ve obviously gotten attached to it,” he says. “But if you make a decision to stay in this job until the next thing gets accomplished, you’ll never get out, because there’s always a next thing to accomplish. What I hope is that the city is now on better footing in terms of experience, desires, and commitment to want to move in these areas, and I think that is the case now.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “One City. Two Stories.”