At the turn of the century, Durham was known as the kind of place where you didn’t go downtown after dark. Two decades later, it has a different reputation. It’s a hub of creative energy and development, a city with a spot on up-and-coming lists. But it also has a new set of challenges, balancing its past with its future, maintaining its rich heritage amid a wave of change. Here, four residents—a city council member, a professor, and two writers—imagine how this plays out. 

Charles Becker

Having lived in Durham since 2003, projecting out two decades is similar to making a projection from 2003 to today. If one looks around carefully, much of the future is already written. At the same time, there are aspects that are highly uncertain, and the sensible approach is to lay out scenarios.

Easy forecasts

• Durham has about 275,000 people today. Twenty years ago, it had about 100,000 fewer people. Even though the growth rate has slowed, the annual increment has not. Twenty years from now, Durham will be a city of 375,000–450,000 people. I’d put my money on the latter.

• Durham will complete its transition in terms of the spatial distribution of social classes from that of a late-twentieth-century Southern city (poor central city; wealthy suburbs; moribund downtown; thriving suburban malls) to that of a French city (wealthy, chic center; ordinary folk on the periphery served by drab malls).

• The large number of apartments constructed in the last few years that cater to young, single professionals will lose their appeal as the structures age and their residents realize that they aspire to live in something more than glorified dorms. As current residents move up and out (putting further demand on single-family housing in the city), they’ll be replaced, as will the structures.

• Density will increase substantially, especially as a third of the adult population will not own (or at least regularly drive) a car or truck, thanks to driverless cars.

• The city still won’t be ideal for light rail—though eventually, a meandering track will be built to RTP, RDU, and Raleigh in the southeast and Chapel Hill to the southwest. Rather, the city will operate a dense network of moderate-size buses, which will be free and will link to larger buses to Raleigh and Chapel Hill. The model: Denver-Boulder (which isn’t free yet).

• The central core downtown area will stretch from Ninth Street to City Hall to Alston in East Durham, heading south across 147 to N.C. Central. By 2050, dense central city functions will extend from Fayetteville and 54 to RTP to Durham Tech and up to N.C. Central.

• Large numbers of low-income, elderly, and disabled people will continue to be displaced (and increasing numbers will be white). Affordable housing programs amount to no more than a drop in the bucket, but enhanced social services, transportation, and subsidized grocery delivery will offset some of the dislocation effects. 

• Americans will continue to get sick, and the number of top-twenty universities will remain at twenty, so demand for Durham’s core industries (pharma/tech and Duke) plus their spinoffs will remain healthy, even when the economy crashes, and the government can’t resort to fiscal stimulus because Congress has been running trillion-dollar deficits during a boom.

• The gross regional product of the Durham-Chapel Hill MSA will hit $100 billion.

Area of uncertainty

• Durham schools are not nearly as bad as they’re made out to be, but until middle-class folks regard them as good, they will deter many families with school-age children. They are slowly headed toward a tipping point that could lead them to look more like Wake schools—in which case, housing prices will shoot up further.


• Durham will elect its first Hispanic mayor by the 2040s.

• Parking around N.C. Central will be a hot political issue.

• There will be camps of coastal refugees located on the fringes of the city (hat tip: Clarke Thacher, also of Durham).   

• The toppled Confederate war memorial statue outside of the old city hall will be replaced by a statue of former Mayor Bill Bell, who will increasingly be recognized as one of the greatest mayors of his generation.

• Durham will still be a one-party city.

• As downtown Durham spreads south, more and more walkways—some with commercial activity—will be built over 147, which will become semi-submerged. Alternatively, Durham central city land prices will rise to the point where the city has its own “big dig” like Boston. In contrast, I-85 remains a real barrier, even though much of the best food and shopping exists to the north of the freeway.

• Highway 751 is gridlocked from 54 all the way to 64.

• Federal statisticians will remove Chapel Hill from the Durham-Chapel Hill metropolitan statistical area. Instead, recognizing that there is an uninterrupted urban area from Chapel Hill to Pittsboro, there will be a new “Chapel Pitts” MSA.

• The young man who operates the Pollo Veracruzano Brasado food truck over at the corner of Club and Geer in East Durham will finally be recognized as one of Durham’s greatest chefs.

Charles Becker is a research professor of economics at Duke University who teaches an urban and real estate economics course that focuses on Durham.

Thomasi McDonald

Speculation about Durham in 2040 recalls the West African word “Sankofa,” which translates as “go back and return what was lost in order to move forward.”

Durham’s development traces back to the interdependence of wealthy white industrialists like the tobacco magnate Washington Duke and African-American entrepreneurs like John Merrick, who founded N.C. Mutual. At the crux of that racial cooperation was the industrialists’ need for the labor supplied by black workers in the textile mills and tobacco factories. Those past labors are the foundation of the prosperity the city enjoys today. 

It was a unique partnership. The Mutual—eventually the largest black insurance company in the world—was founded in 1898, the same year white supremacists overthrew a multiracial fusion government in Wilmington. By the 1940s, NC Mutual was the economic engine that created a flourishing black middle class and the now-vanquished Black Wall Street District.

The demand for inclusion that first informed black thought is now infused into the city’s DNA. The spirit of inclusion was behind a resolution over fifteen years ago that declared Durham a sanctuary city that would protect undocumented residents. It was at work last year when the newly elected sheriff refused to partner with ICE.

And yet, nearly fifty years ago, Durham’s black neighborhoods were destroyed by federal programs that displaced thousands of residents and crushed hundreds of black-owned businesses. The city’s black community hasn’t recovered. 

Downtowns should be surrounded by attractive neighborhoods. That makes the broken promise of urban renewal all the more embittering. Imagine what a revitalized Hayti could have meant to the city’s quality of life, job opportunities, and cultural richness.

Earlier this year, The News & Observer reported that N.C. Mutual, which as recently as 2000 had $77.3 million in revenue and 258 employees, is under “rehabilitation” by the state’s Department of Insurance, an attempt to bring the company back into solid financial standing after it lost money for years. That’s telling.  

What happened with Durham’s urban destruction of Hayti during the 1960s and early ’70s had mirror images in black urban centers across the country, which were cleaved by the interstate highway system. Not coincidentally, the gentrification of communities near Durham’s downtown is being replicated in those same areas all over the U.S. Some fifty years after white flight, there’s a return of reclamation and displacement that feels like colonization.

At the heart of what Durham will look like in twenty years are issues of equity and who has a significant investment here, especially in housing and entrepreneurship. It seems the greatest equity will be held by private developers who are constructing new housing while wholesale displacements and evictions take place across the city. The red, white, and blue signs popping up in and around downtown that read ”Stop Evictions Now!” say it all.

What the city looks like will have a lot to do with how the African-American community—to borrow from Voltaire—cultivates its own garden. One of the more uncomfortable facts behind integration was black Americans’ abandonment of their economic integrity and what was built by the sweat of their own brow.

“You have some black folks who think the white man’s ice is cooler,” Vivian Austin Edmonds, daughter of legendary Carolina Times founder and editor Louis Austin, told me in the early 1980s, when she was the paper’s publisher.

Henry McKoy, director of entrepreneurship at N.C. Central, told the N&O in June that “at least in economic terms, integration went one way,” while “the dollars of the African-American community went out of the community and into white companies.”

How the city’s black presence will be shaped over the next twenty years will require a new type of activism that focuses on greater participation in local politics, preserving and supporting existing institutions like N.C. Mutual and Mechanics & Farmers Bank, while creating new businesses and opportunities among ourselves.  

The old Hayti district and Black Wall Street can and should be more than a memory. They are templates of what can be accomplished over the next twenty years. African-American residents should rebuild Hayti and Black Wall Street in their own beautiful black image. 

Black liberation theology minister Paul Scott best summed up what’s required for moving forward when he spoke with the INDY last month: The key to stopping black-on-black violence and black disempowerment is black culture and black power.

Thomasi McDonald is a staff writer for the INDY. He was previously a reporter for The News & Observer

Charlie Reece

What will Durham look like in 2040? 

I am confident about some things, I have fears about others, and I have fervent hopes about still others. Mostly I believe that what Durham looks like in 2040 depends on the choices we make together over the next twenty years.

I’m certain that there will be a lot more people living in Durham in 2040. My fear is that our growth will drive us to make unsustainable choices about what kinds of development we allow in Durham, where we allow that development to take place, and who benefits from that development. My hope is that the new comprehensive plan for Durham that is currently being written will chart a course that allows us to grow in ways that protect our natural environment, promote density and walkability, and that reduce sprawl.

I’m certain that more people will mean more cars in Durham in 2040. My fear is that we’ll see a tsunami of automobile traffic that will result in more gridlock on our roads, more dangerous streets for folks who walk and bike, and greatly increased greenhouse-gas emissions. My hope is that we can make the critical investments necessary to build a Durham that is far less car-dependent, including investments in our bus system and in protected bike lanes and greenway trails.

I’m certain that some Durham residents will still suffer from poverty in 2040. My fear is that far too many people will come to see this as inevitable, and that we will shy away from bold initiatives as a result. My hope is that we will never accept poverty in Durham, and that we will find new ways to empower our neighbors to access the resources that everyone needs to thrive—resources like housing, food, and health care.

I’m certain that racism will still be a pernicious force in Durham in 2040. My fear is that our social and political culture will merely pay lip service to the need for racial equity, and that nothing of substance will have been done to address structural and systemic racism in our community. My hope is that our elected officials will have the courage to center racial equity in every decision we make, that our community will have a fuller understanding of how white supremacy is deeply embedded in our structures of power, and that Durham will make choices that reduce the impact of racism here.

I’m absolutely certain that we can make Durham a safer, more resilient, and more prosperous community in 2040. My greatest fear is that Durham will fail to rise to our own greatness, and that the status quo will exert powerful inertia to block meaningful progress. My fervent hope is that all of us will commit ourselves to spend the next twenty years rejecting our fears and making our brightest hopes for Durham a reality. 

It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. It will take all of us working together, committing ourselves to our common life together.

So let’s get to work: 2040 will be here before we know it.

Charlie Reece was first elected to the Durham City Council in 2015. 

Alexis Pauline Gumbs

And that was how the sacred land once known for the sweetness of tobacco and then more recently for cancer research and farm-to-table restaurants returned back to the discipline of breathing. Yes. Anywhere in the world you would know the people of Durham by our laughter. And it helped us deal with the temperature of the air, our nuanced core muscles, our tears.  

Some say at first we laughed to keep from crying. Because how else could we explain to the children why the cheap duplexes for millionaires had already fallen down. Or how so much of the economy had been planned based on the needs of people who came to visit for an average of four years and then mostly left. Or what it took to remodel the high-rises when the imagined tech individualists had never moved into them and the migrants from what were once the coastal North Carolina towns pushed inland did come and did move in and actually liked each other. So many internal walls had to be knocked down. So many fixtures built for glitz had to be reinforced for long-term use. Try to say it with a straight face, how the rain-processing gardens on the roofs of the downtown apartments had once been empty space that no one walked on except to fix an air-conditioner. 

Once even cheaper construction prices and other words for “cool” convinced the prospectors to prospect elsewhere, it became genuinely funny, just the word “plywood” and what it had been once, what it had done. Ply wood? What an absurd sentence. It became funny to even say it once the trees began taking back what they first made possible. 

But I would say the muscle memory of laughter is strong in the people and older than all that because, right now in 2040, Durham is still what it was, land quenched by the love of the old ones, the Occaneechi band of the Saponi Nation who spoke with the Eno River and their children who speak now with its healing authority informing every collective decision. Durham is still what it was, dirt made into bricks by Pauli Murray’s grandparents, a place where black people dream of freedom and build it. 

Durham is what it could be, imagined by the people who stayed.

And we cultivated our laughter, tuned it in our guts with what it took to turn cancer back into medicine, blood money back into blood relations. We harmonized our laughter through our exasperation with the complexity and work of true coalitions, with what it took to create safety beyond policing, to reclaim farmwork with dignity, to place genderqueer black prophet Pauli Murray at the center of our history. We deepened our laughter with the work of being accountable to each other beyond ego and authorship, laughed at ourselves as we learned the difference between owning ideas and sharing them. 

All over the world now they hear Durham. Laughing. 

Maybe it’s true what the developmental psychologists say—that babies laugh not because adults are funny or absurd, but because laughter is a primordial release valve. It’s what happens involuntarily when we realize that what we thought would kill us didn’t. 

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is the author of M Archive: After the End of the World, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, and co-editor of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines.

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One reply on “2040 Vision: What Will Durham Look Like in 2040?”

  1. Development FOLLOWS transportation. I continue to read otherwise intelligent people talk about density as a precursor to fixed-guideway transit. In no other conversation about transportation and development do we argue that we need “density” to support a road, airport, port, etc.. The reality is that transportation determines our pattern of development. You build a freeway and an interchange, automobile-dependent development pops up at the interchange. You build fixed guideway transit and density follows. Preferably you build it through areas where there is existing development that is already walkable or can become walkable, but you build the infrastructure, and development follows. Oh, and sorry, but buses facilitate the same pattern of development as cars. Fixed stations along fixed routes give developers, home buyers, business owners a sense of security that their investment isn’t going to be impacted when the bus route and stop moves. Imagine if we could just move interchanges or roads. It’s fixed and being fixed matters Rail lines and stations, like roads and interchanges, are fixed. Development FOLLOWS transportation. If you are sitting around waiting for density, good luck waiting. It’s the wrong way to think about mass transit.

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