I recently moved back to Durham after a year and a half away. A lot can change in a year and a half. A higher cost of housing, a skyline pierced by new luxury condos, and a whole lot of white people running the streets without being chased—the running of the bulls?—greeted me seemingly out of nowhere upon my return. 

But these things don’t come out of nowhere. Cities are planned.  

Is this my fault? I’ve been traveling the country as a writer and speaker gushing about how wonderful Durham is, at the same time national magazines have been including Durham on their top-ten lists. I want everyone I love to move here. Some people actually have. My partner and I were on the cover of Durham magazine some years back declaring Durham “the L-Word [they meant LESBIAN] capital of the South.” Am I complicit in Durham becoming dangerously trendy to gentrifiers? That wasn’t my plan.

I wouldn’t recognize myself without the artists and organizers of this city. Fifteen years ago, when I moved to Durham from NYC to start life after college, this was a place with a scale of inspiration and action that held me accountable as a writer and educator. I was relieved to find a home without the high turnover and shallow social scenes of the places I’d lived before. In Durham, I found an intergenerational majority-people-of-color community where children, elders, and everyone in between expected me to keep my word and show up as a participant in a community with revolutionary histories and aspirations. I’ve made my love for Durham public, because Durham has mothered me in a way that deserves acknowledging.   

What does mothering have to do with it? 

I mean mothering in the sense that Alice Walker talks about it in her essay “Democratic Motherism.” Mothering is a life-giving approach to community. The words on the front of the Durham County Human Services building, designed by the late architect Philip Freelon, are one definition of the mothering I am talking about: “Durham’s vitality is built on the health of our residents and the capacity of our community to foster and advance the wellbeing of every citizen.” 

Alice Walker imagines Motherism (as opposed to capitalism) as a system of relating to resources, governance, and structure based on what makes the community and the world more life-giving. And while Black women, like the women of SpiritHouse, ancestor organizers Cynthia Brown and Nayo Watkins, activist Mandy Carter, and Black mothers who are elected officials—such as Satana Deberry and Jillian Johnson—are a major part of how Durham has mothered me, it’s like Alice Walker says: “Mothering is an instinct, but it is also a practice. It can be learned.”

That means everyone can do it. And that we all have a responsibility for creating communities that are as life-giving as possible. You could call Phil Freelon’s lifelong decision to design schools, museums, libraries, public service buildings, and bus stations, instead of prisons and strip malls, a practice of mothering the thousands of people who move through those spaces. 

Mothering by design. 

So when Patricia Harris, the first licensed Black woman architect in North Carolina and a member of the committee to create the Durham 2020 Masterplan (released about fifteen years ago) writes a letter to The News & Observer saying, “Our accelerated growth has now placed too many who ride the bus, under the bus,” or when visually impaired artist Nikki Brown reports to the Human Rights Commission the ways that the free Bull City Connector discriminates against people with low incomes and disabilities who most need accessible transportation by not stopping at the Durham Transit Station, I have to wonder if, instead of a new masterplan, we need a motherplan

Durham has long been under a masterplan in the poetic sense of the word, where “master” refers to the slaveholding patriarchal owner of a plantation. Much of Durham was once a plantation owned by the Stagg family. The interests of Duke University, founded by the slaveholding Duke family, shape the contemporary growth of Durham. The university (where I got my graduate degree) was the largest donor to the 2020 Cultural Master Planning process (after the city itself). Is there another way to plan?

While reading the Cultural Master Plan, the 2017 update of the Downtown Masterplan, and the Durham Comprehensive Plan, I noticed that, by intention or mistake, the filename for the Comprehensive Plan PDF is: “8384_OTHER_PLAN__MARK_UP_VERSION_305581_445340.pdf.” 

Hmm. Other Plan

For me, mothering is indeed how we create an/other world. What would a m/otherplan for Durham look like? 

Stay tuned. 

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.

INDY Voices—a rotating weekly column featuring some of the Triangle’s most compelling writers and thinkers—is made possible by contributions to the INDY Press Club. Visit KeepItINDY.com for more information.

Next week: UNC-Chapel Hill political scientist Jonathan Weiler. 

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com. 

2 replies on “A Motherplan for Durham”

  1. This by far is the weirdest flex don’t know what your agenda towards white people are but its definitely giving off racist vibes don’t know what white people had to do with this article but okay. Yeah Durham’s changed a lot more shootings/robberies/sex trafficking also everyone keeps moving to North Carolina of course the cost of living is going to go up? Your right Durham isn’t what it used to be can’t walk outside without being worried if I’m going to get snatched again am I going to get a gun pulled on me. I’ve seen more of my Hispanic people and more African Americans here than I ever did in Florida. Again don’t know what your agenda of hate towards white people is but we don’t need anymore of that disgusting energy anymore.

  2. As beautiful as Durham is,there are shootings everyday… The Hells Angels own several businesses in Durham, yet are less of a danger than the 8 Trey Gangster Crips that run Hoover, McDougal and Bentwood. Bloods are here too, along with MS 13 and a dozen other offshoot clicks. You might get raped in our county jail, maybe even killed. East Durham has open air prostitution and drug dealing happening around the clock. College students are attacked often with some victims losing their life. If you love Durham, then take a walk through McDougal Terrace sometime… Pick your time carefully though.

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