It’s been a long year—the longest, we wrote back in March in a story about Zoom fatigue, online learning, and COVID-related school closures—and here we are, emerging on the other side, not necessarily better off but, as many of our most impactful stories of the past year suggest, with at least some glimmers of hope for the future. From our breaking reporting from inside Durham’s COVID hotel to our exclusive feature on Pioneers Durham—and all the stories of feral cats, contaminated water, affordable housing, and the challenges facing the restaurant industry that have come in between—revisit 2021 with us through our most widely read, affecting, and important stories.

1Released Inmates at Durham’s COVID Motel Say It’s Just Another Prison

In early January, Leigh Tauss got an exclusive look inside a Quality Inn on Hillsborough Road in Durham where the state’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) held inmates recently released from prison who may have been exposed to COVID-19. But the former inmates say they were being held involuntarily and complained of poor conditions, bed bugs, rodents, leaky roofs, no access to laundry facilities, bad food, and other issues. They couldn’t access health care, they said, and the risk of contracting and spreading disease was ever-present. While this was undoubtedly a scary time—pre-vaccine, when COVID cases were beginning to surge and hospitals were filling up—the COVID hotel, which the state closed in May, was controversial and protesters demonstrated outside the hotel regularly, decrying conditions inside. Several ethical questions arise from such a setup, and our reporting brought deserved scrutiny to DPS and how it treated inmates who were, by all other accounts, entitled to go free.

2After a Month of Public Comments, Orange County Sends Buc-ee’s Back to the Drawing Board

Last winter, Sara Pequeño followed plans for Bucc-ee’s, a Texas-based gas station chain, to build a massive gas station, restaurant, and convenience store hub in Efland in the northern part of Orange County. Pequeño followed the story for several months, from when the Buc-ee’s plans first came into view for Efland residents and when they went before county commissioners in a series of public hearings to when the county commissioners sent plans for the gas station back to the drawing board and when the Buc-ee’s plans ultimately were scrapped in early February. The stakes for residents, who were facing “a 120–gas nozzle behemoth—one of the largest gas stations in the United States—built on top of a watershed that feeds directly into Seven Mile Creek, then the Eno River, then the local water supply,” couldn’t be overstated. This story shows the power res- idents can have in shaping what kind of a community will exist for them in the future.

3. Family Members of Inmates Who Died Allege Negligence at Johnston County Jail

In January, prison staff at Johnston County jail found Eric Cruz, a 23-year-old arrested on burglary charges, dead in his cell. Another inmate in the jail told the INDY he had heard Cruz, who had kidney disease, begging the jail staff for help in the days before he died. Thomasi McDonald reported that Cruz’s death was “the latest in a series of inmate deaths at the Johnston County jail over the past two years.” Two inmates died at the jail in 2019; another died of suicide in 2020; and a fourth man, Robert Perniciaro, was found hanging in his cell on January 6. Perniciaro later died at the hospital. Johnston County sheriff Steve Bizzell defended his staff, but the pattern is troubling. We hope to bring you an update on the situation at Johnston County jail next year.

4. Women Came to Hope Church Looking for Fellowship and Healing. Disrespectful Behavior from Church Leaders Drove Them to Leave.

In February, writer Katie Jane Fernelius put the spotlight on Hope Community Church, the fast-growing, multicampus megachurch where women had come for healing but were met with disrespectful behavior from church leaders instead. In her long, throughly reported piece, Fernelius details the accounts of three women who allege a range of transgressions spanning several years, from sexual assault and harassment by church staff to being ignored when they brought their concerns to church leadership. Pastor Mike Lee, who founded Hope Church in 1994 and led it for nearly three decades, left the church after our story was published. (Readers have told us Lee retired.) Churches, by way of their spiritual influence and attraction for those who may be vulnerable, hold powerful positions in our communities, especially here in the South. That’s why churches and religious organizations should be held accountable for their roles, the work they do, and the positions they take.

5. White-Dominated Arts Institutions Are Keen to Diversify. But Are They Willing to Give Up Power?

In July 2020, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, a group called North Carolina Black Artists for Liberation released a petition calling on local visual arts institutions to develop and implement racial equity plans “with measurable goals in the areas of hiring, organizational culture, leadership, and organizational transparency.” It was specific, and it had a goal: six months to get the work going. Brian Howe, former arts and culture at the INDY, reported on the petitions (which took the form of local and statewide institutional asks) in 2020 and followed up in early 2021 to see what changes, if any, had been made. The result is a detailed, up-close piece with leaders at Ackland Art Museum at UNC–Chapel Hill, Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, VAE Raleigh, and the North Carolina Arts Council.

6. Scott Crawford’s Journey to Sobriety Guides His Vision for a Healthier Industry

When a sprawling, multipart “as told to” interview with Scott Crawford was first on the table, we were hesitant—could an interview stand on its own at that length? It could. Crawford’s story about alcohol- ism, addiction, and the sharp edges of the restaurant industry is gripping. “I will never forget how much I enjoyed the feeling of that burn,” Crawford began the interview, speaking of his first drink at the age of 11. “It was warmth, confidence. It was all the things I was lacking in one sip.” Certainly no one would accuse Crawford, now sober and a five-time James Beard Award nominee, of lacking confidence. His journey to falling in love with the restaurant industry and becoming sober feels essential during a time when the hospitality industry, long known for being neither particularly supportive nor sustainable, is shifting its norms. “Restaurants are truly magical, amazing places,” Crawford concluded toward the end of the piece, “but the magic can’t exist if the culture is toxic.”

7. A Teenager Was Attacked at a Black Lives Matter Vigil. Now, She’s Working to Fix the State’s Hate Crime Law.

In her April story, Sara Pequeño wrote about Kalkidan Miller, a teenager who was attacked by a man at a Black Lives Matter vigil and is now working to change North Carolina’s hate crimes law. Following the terrifying physical attack against her, Miller, who was 19 at the time, began working with lawmakers in the state house and senate to craft language for the state’s Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The bill aims to change the definition of a hate crime, consider it a felony, and require reporting of hate crimes at the state level. North Carolina’s current hate crimes statute, at two sentences long, is woefully inadequate. And while House Bill 354 didn’t get a hearing this session, it’s certain to be back in future sessions. Meanwhile, Miller, who was successful in adding ethnic intimidation to the charges against her attacker, is continuing her work as a speaker and advocate.

8. Asian American Business Owners in Durham Describe Fear Amid National Rise in Hate and Violence

One of the most important aspects of the INDY‘s hyperlocal reporting is the way our writers can take national trends and contextualize them for our readers. This is what writer Hannah Miao did in her story about Asian American business owners in Durham during a time when discrimination, violence, and hate crimes against Asian Americans were spreading in the United States due, in part, to misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. In the weeks after a shooter in Atlanta targeting Asian American businesses killed six women, Miao spoke to Secrets Pho & Noodle Bar owner Kenny Wong and manager Henessee Asaro as well as ZenFish Poké Bar owner Janet Lee about the hardships they were facing. These hardships included attempted burglaries of their businesses as well as racist abuse and harassment leveled against them—all compounded by an unprecedentedly trying time for all those working in the food service industry nationally.

9. Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Experience with UNC is Emblematic of a Common Struggle for Black Women in Academia.

One of the most maddening, politically volatile, and frankly depressing stories to emerge in the Triangle this year was the saga of UNC–Chapel Hill’s botched hiring of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist (and UNC alumna) Nikole Hannah-Jones. To quickly recap: UNC’s journalism school and dean Susan King wanted to hire Han- nah-Jones for a Knight Professorship in Race and Investigative Journalism but were stymied after megadonor Walter Hussman Jr.—the journalism school’s new namesake—raised objections. After agreeing to hire Hannah-Jones without tenure, the Board of Trustees then voted again to hire Hannah-Jones with full tenure, but by that time, Hannah-Jones had had enough and turned down the offer. In her story, Sara Pequeño chronicled similar experiences Black women professors have had with the university and how the dearth of Black women on the faculty has hampered the university’s ability to recruit faculty and students, educate students, and create a vibrant, inclusive campus culture.

10. To Survive, Many Triangle Arts Organizations Applied for Federal Aid. Are They Getting the Help They Need?

For nearly two decades, Byron Woods has been writing for the INDY Week and charting the world of Triangle theater—its ups and downs, its three- and five-star productions. During COVID-19, that attention has been trained entirely on the pulse of the local theater ecosystem: How would local companies, already running on razor-thin margins and dependent on live productions, continue to make art and survive? Over the course of several pieces, including this one, Woods conducted dozens of interviews, closely reporting on music venues and local arts organizations as they clung to fundraisers, Zoom improvisations, and federal grants like the Save Our Stages Act. By June, when this piece was published, numerous local organizations still had not gotten the relief they needed; by October, when Woods published the follow-up, “Post-Vaccines, Local Theater Companies Take Stock of What Was Lost—and What Comes Next,” the stakes had become clearer, as some organizations folded and others soared ahead. It’s import- ant documentation, all of it, but as we head into the new year with the threat of a new variant, the work is ongoing.

11. How Crook’s Corner Lives On in Kitchens across the United States

In early June, Crook’s Corner announced its closure—news that marked the end of 40 years of business, and the end of an era. Within a day, the news was in The New York Times and the subject of national tributes, and for good reason. Though it would be impossible to pay a full tribute to the legendary southern restaurant—and its lore of honeysuckle sorbet, Atlantic Beach pie, and shrimp and grits—a worthy tribute also gives flowers not just to the current Crook’s but the Crook’s of founders Bill Neal and Gene Hame, the Crook’s that has made its way into restaurants around the Triangle through mentorships, and the Crook’s that has traveled by cookbook recipes to kitchens all over the world. Infused with academic research and admiration, Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme’s tribute does just this. “Good restaurants,” she wrote, “beget good restaurants.”

12. Several Prominent Triangle Restaurants are Shifting Away from Tipping. Is a Fairer System on the Way?

During the past several years, consumers have begun to find unfamiliar new terms like “fair wage charge” and “automatic gratuity” appearing on restaurant bills. Tipping, long the norm in the hospitality industry, has come into question, especially during the pandemic, when restaurants have been struggling to break even and restaurant workers are even more at the mercy of things out of their control. During this time, Lena Geller wrote, “the discourse around tipping grew more critical, and some Triangle restaurant owners saw an opportunity to start chipping away at the industry’s cast-iron conventions.” She went on to interview workers and restaurant owners at local institutions like Pizzeria Toro, Lantern, and Monuts that have shifted their tipping models. Geller, a part-time editorial assistant at the INDY, is also a longtime restaurant worker and writes from the keen, knowing perspective of both a journalist and someone who has refilled hundreds of drink orders. So much of the inner workings of restaurants is obfuscated; here’s a story, though, that untangles the system and clearly spells out the terms.

13. After Years as Mandolin Orange, Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin Knew It Was Time for a Change

Sarah Edwards’s summer story on one of the Triangle’s most beloved homegrown bands neatly captured the past year and a half, especially for those who work in the arts, in a COVID-cracked nutshell. Partners Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin, known for years as the band Mandolin Orange—a name and a band both synonymous with North Carolina, as the story notes—changed their performing name to Watchhouse in an era that itself has been synonymous with change and released a self-titled album under the new moniker. “There’s a line in the Watchhouse song ‘Beautiful Flowers,’” Edwards wrote, “that seems to speak to that restless tension, as it trickles planetary decline down to its particulars. In the song, lamenting a butterfly that has been crushed against a window shield, Frantz gently croons, ‘The summer- time blues, they’re burning red hot.’ It’s one of the best lines on the album, landing with a perfect spark in 2021.”

14. Legacies of Lincoln: Parts I, II, & III

In a three-part series we published this summer, writer Joel Sronce connected the dots between the civil rights movement in Carrboro and Chapel Hill to the legacy of the Mighty Tigers, the Lincoln High School football team whose players and members were active in the fight for equality in the region and across the state. Taking us back to the high school homecoming games and drug store sit-ins of the 1960s, Sronce documented, through dozens of interviews and archived material, how Lincoln players would lead their team to victory on some nights, while on others, they would be arrested for refusing to leave Chapel Hill’s Colonial Drug store. The movement extends to the present day, where students—with some football players among them—are carrying the mantle of equity and equality in a school system that has some of the highest levels of learning disparities in the state.

15. Is Raleigh’s Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin Breaking City Code by Feeding Feral Cats?

In one of the year’s strangest and most entertaining stories, Leigh Tauss looked at the hypocrisy that sometimes undergirds decision-making by elected officials and the unfair—if unintentional—consequences of those choices. In response to a venomous pet cobra escaping and roaming a North Raleigh neighborhood, the city council weighed an ordinance that would prohibit keeping dangerous animals as pets and would, among other things, ban feeding feral cats. At a meeting, Raleigh mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin said the feeding-feral-cats piece went too far, remarking that she feeds feral cats and doesn’t think people should get in trouble for it. Turns out feeding feral cats has already been illegal in Raleigh for years, and people have been cited for doing it. Immediately after the mayor’s comment, the city’s animal control department suspended enforcement of the code that outlawed feeding feral cats at the behest of the city attorney. To make matters worse, an animal control employee who publicly criticized the mayor’s comment was placed on leave.

16. A Pandemic Plus Longstanding Lack of Support from Legislative Leaders Means Wake Educators Are Leaving the Profession

Reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—school closures, mask mandates, virtual academy—students, parents, and educators alike have experienced a tough year. In a story this fall, Jasmine Gallup report- ed on the staggering number of teachers who, during the pandemic, have opted to leave teaching. Their reasons varied. Some educators hadn’t received a raise in years; others were stressed out about the pandemic, overworked, and anxious. On top of this, school support staff, including nurses, teach- ing assistants, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and janitors, were quitting in droves as well. It was enough to make the Wake County school board take notice. This month, the board voted unanimously to give raises to all school employees and raise the minimum hourly wage to $15 an hour.

17. At Ideal’s Sandwich & Grocery in East Durham, There Are a Lot of Layers

There are always a lot of layers in any enterprise, but at Ideal’s—a sandwich shop that opened in late summer on Angier Avenue—the layers are especially thick. And the parts are integral, with drool-worthy, “oozing cross-sections,” as Lena Geller wrote: “Eating an Ideal’s sandwich sans bread would be like carving the minerals out of a geode; sure, the insides can stand on their own, but the outer casing is integral to the magic.” Owners Ian Bracken and Paul Chirico opened it quietly over the summer as they settled and got to know neighbors. For a while, the shop functioned as something of a partially open “sandwich speak- easy,” though lines down the block quickly betrayed its burgeoning popularity. Another layer: Ideal’s opened in a quickly gentrifying part of Durham, and when Bracken and Chirico applied for grants, city council members were initially skeptical of Ideal’s promises of community accessibility but were won over. Under Geller’s attentive reporting, the story of a sandwich shop is about much more than just meat and cheese.

18. A New Bill in Congress Would Allow Survivors Exposed to Contaminated Tap Water at Camp Lejeune to Sue the U.S. Government for Damages

This summer, Lewis Kendall wrote a long piece about a bill in Congress that would allow former Camp Lejeune service members and their families to sue the federal government for damages related to contaminated drinking water. Kendall spoke with several former service members and their relatives whose health had been impacted by water contaminated by volatile organic compounds, including PCE (tetrachloroethylene) and TCE (trichloro- ethylene). Thousands of people who served at Lejeune during the 1950s through the 1980s saw family members and them- selves get sick with illnesses ranging from cancer to adverse birth outcomes, which was attributed to drinking contaminated tap water. For years, these families have been prohibited from suing the federal government for damages but the bill—the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021—would change that. The bill has stalled in a U.S. House committee since it was introduced in March, but advocates say they are hopeful it has a chance at getting through.

19. The Triangle Housing Shortage Has Escalated Since the Onset of the Pandemic and The Triangle’s Municipalities Can Address the Region’s Dwindling Stock of Affordable Housing—if They Act Quickly and Decisively

In this two-part series, Jasmine Gallup looked at the Triangle’s affordable housing crisis and how the region’s major cities, including Durham and Raleigh, arrived at this point. But instead of simply spell- ing out doom and gloom, dire as the situation is, Gallup’s solutions-oriented pieces suggested steps local officials, developers, nonprofits, residents, and many other stakeholders can take to address the problem and help stem the tide of homelessness and displacement before it’s too late. In the first part, Gallup spoke with home- owners and renters at risk of displacement and talks to housing experts about how cities like Raleigh can slow gentrification through loans, tax relief, rent control, land trusts, and affordable housing preservation. In part two, Gallup looked at some different solutions, such as using inclusionary zoning, pursuing land banking, and, aspirationally, getting the state legislature on board with policies that lead to the creation and preservation of affordable units. The takeaway from both pieces is clear—the housing supply is dwindling, but local leaders still have the opportunity to act quickly and decisively to address the problem.

20. What Happens When a Non-LGBTQ-Affirming Church-Meets-Coffee-Shop Comes to a Particularly Queer Part of Durham?

The prospect of a homophobic church with “a millennial aesthetic and emphasis on food, friends, and fellowship” opening in prime real estate space in the heart of down- town Durham had social media all abuzz before writer Sarah Edwards spoke with the church/coffee shop’s leader to confirm that, yes, Pioneers Durham, set to open this winter, really is non-LGBTQ-affirming. But the story does much more than establish this basic fact. It’s a look at a changing down- town in a growing city and what role, if any, a conservative church with an enterprise aspect built-in will have in shaping a grow- ing, changing community into the future. This well-written, deeply reported story is an astute character analysis, too—nothing is more telling than when Pioneers pastor Sherei Lopez-Jackson tells Edwards she had a vision of her “running away from something in a wedding dress.” We’ll definitely be following this story into the new year.

21. Her Take

Kyesha Jennings knows every corner of Carolina hip-hop. Since 2018, Jennings, who teaches at NC State, has been covering festivals and reviewing records for the INDY; since mid-2020, she’s trained her focus on educating and uplifting readers through the recurring column “Her Take: On Carolina Hip Hop.” In this past year, Jennings has followed buzzy up-and-coming artists like Charlotte’s DEVN and Kaze4Letters, but “Her Take” has also shone light on other essential parts of the industry, from local hip-hop podcasts and videographers to creatives and graphic designers like Joseph “Headgraphix” Headen. The column also honors the writers who have paved the way: in her August 11 column, Jennings interviewed nurse and pioneering blogger Nancia Odom, who spent several years documenting the local hip-hop scene. Every column ends up functioning like an oral history, scholarly lecture, remixed playlist, and love letter all rolled into one. We’re lucky to run it.

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