The truth about Durham
by Jon Worley
My family spent the weekend in our old stomping grounds, just hanging out and attending a wedding. We spent Friday evening with friends in Durham, and inevitably the subject of the Duke lacrosse team came up.
And the sense we got from our friends is that while the rape itself was horrible beyond belief, the bigger issue for most residents is how Durham has been portrayed in the media.
I have a history of living in towns that play second fiddle. Battle Creek may be more famous, but Kalamazoo, Mich., is the larger and more powerful partner of the pair. St. Petersburg will never match Tampa for press or fame, even though at one time every area major sports team played in St. Pete and all Tampa had was the New York Yankees spring training stadium.
Durham, too, languishes behind Chapel Hill and even Raleigh in local and national sentiment. And while the movie Bull Durham gives the place a picture, that particular picture is becoming more and more dated as time goes on.
The national media has generally portrayed Durham as poor (or blue-collar), black and dangerous. Some newspaper accounts have been a bit more accurate, but television, in particular, seems to like introducing its story of the day from Durham with images of falling-down houses and the like.
The first fact check is this: Durham is not clue-collar. It is white-collar or polyester collar. And that's it. The last tobacco plant closed years ago, and the cotton mills were gone before I arrived in 1998. There are a few small high-tech manufacturing plants, but they're not massive employers. For better or worse, Durhamites tend to be high-tech professional types, service-industry types or members of that vague thing called the creative class--educated people who choose to not make much money.
Second check: Durham isn't desperately poor or in danger of falling apart. In fact, Durham spends more on its schools (per capita) than all but one other district. There's money in the area. Lots of money. And while Durham has its "bad" neighborhoods, they're not emblematic of the city as a whole.
Still, it's easy to figure out where those misconceptions started. In one of the first stories I read, a Duke senior told a reporter that Durham was "dark and scary." This is accurate, in its own way. Durham has no majority race or ethnicity. Indeed, as the massive wave of immigration continues to flow into town, both black and white percentages are falling dramatically. If trends continue, Durham will be about one-third black, one-third white and one-third Hispanic in about ten years.
That won't happen, mostly because the price of housing in Durham is skyrocketing out of the reach of most immigrants, but that trend might help you begin to see the nuances in the picture. Durham is dark, and if you don't like the dark (carry the metaphor as far as you like), then it probably is scary. Durham is not crime-ridden, but it does have more crime than most North Carolina cities. Its unemployment rate is generally below the national average, but that's high for the area. And Durham certainly has a higher percentage of black and Hispanic people than other cities in the area.
It's also true that Durham has more middle-class and upper-class black people (in terms of absolute numbers) than any southern city other than Atlanta. Durham is home to the largest black-owned insurance company in the nation as well as the largest black-owned bank. Also, the city's most notorious slumlords tend to be black--and many of them have held elected office. As has been well-documented, skin pigment does not automatically confer a conscience on anyone.
The story I like to tell about "how Durham is" is one I read in the News & Observer some time ago. A few years ago, Branford Marsalis decided he wanted to move back south. His wife wouldn't do the "deep" south, and so he looked at North Carolina. He liked Asheville and Wilmington--both are stellar arts centers--but he thought Durham had the right mix of arts, culture, big-city amenities and a nearby major airport.
So he bought a house in an exclusive Durham neighborhood called Treyburn. Soon after moving in, Marsalis introduced himself to his next door neighbor. He mentioned that he was between jobs at the moment. His neighbor took this in stride, saying "I'm sure you'll find a job soon," or something like that.
Some time later, Marsalis played a show at the neighborhood clubhouse. Afterward, his neighbor approached him, saying, "I feel so stupid. I had no idea who you were." Marsalis told the paper he liked the anonymity his new surrounding afforded him.
That's one way to look at it. The way I look at it is that a white guy could see a black family moving next door, find out the man of the house didn't have a job and not worry about it. Dark doesn't mean scary to most folks who live in Durham, be they black or white, rich or not.
Durham is also home to a sizable gay and lesbian population and is easily the most radically liberal city in the state. As one of my neighbors put it, "Hey, it's Durham. You do your own thing, and you're cool." In Durham, tolerance isn't a virtue; it's a survival skill. Every time you walk down a Durham street--even in the more suburban enclaves--you're likely to meet someone who has a completely different background than you. The folks who choose to live in Durham tend to be people who like to be exposed to new ideas and different paths of life.
Which explains why so many Duke undergrads (and national reporters, who tend to be white and educated at exclusive universities like Duke) see Durham as "dark and scary." It's a vibrant and ever-changing city, something those pampered children of the northeastern suburbs just can't comprehend. The city isn't a cesspool of poverty just because everyone in town doesn't drive a BMW and aspire to a manor on the outskirts of town.
But that's an overgeneralization. And we all know how wrong those can be.