The Unflappable Soul of a Changing City

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Back in the fall of 2016, I took my first class at The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. The class was titled Documenting Durham, and this blog post was the result of my studies:

Durham was never supposed to be my destination. In fact, Durham wasn’t even on the radar. After 25 years of living in the desert of southern California, I was ready for a new adventure. Looking for something different, culturally as well as geographically, I was ready to move almost anywhere and North Carolina’s appeal was definitely beckoning. I decide to relocate to downtown Raleigh as I had spent a few days there over the years so it had some familiarity. However, an afternoon in Durham shortly after making the cross-country trek had a major impact on my plans for the future.

One sunny Saturday afternoon back in August of 2014, I approached The Bull City and it was a memorable visual experience I will not soon forget. A rusting, seemingly-useless water tower atop a very stoic building that once housed Liggett-Myers Tobacco. A porous-brick, free-standing wall which was nothing more than a remnant of a defunct tobacco warehouse and a painted directional sign pointing me to the ghost of a restaurant that was once The Liberty Cafe. A larger than life rainbow colored fish against a deep-green, flaking-paint background in the center of town affectionately referred to as The Green Wall by locals. And an orange-canopied copy center featuring a retro, mid-century font promising printing while you watch. My initial approach to Durham was this cacophony-like mixture of color, nostalgia, grit, rust, and creativity. My love affair with the city was born.

As with life though, mine included, nothing stays the same. Now, The Green Wall is gone, demolished to make room for a 27-story glass tower soon to be Durham’s tallest building. The rusty water tower has been painted as the cigarette factory gets a new, repurposed life. The Liberty Warehouse wall has been engulfed by a large, nondescript apartment building. The only lasting visual from my initial visit to Durham is SpeeDeeQue Printing. The orange canopies and the sentimental sign remain in tact.

Two blocks off the city’s downtown center and catty-corner from the larger-than-life bronze bull statue that has to be one of the city’s most photographed icons, SpeeDeeQue has enjoyed it’s current location, virtually unchanged, for 29 years. Originally established across the street when it opened over 40 years ago, the business was forced to move when the first location was demolished to make way for the Marriott. Although SpeeDeeQue remains a downtown constant, changes abound in all directions. A construction crane consumes the view from the front window. The street, East Chapel Hill, is subject to closures and parking has been reduced to a minimum.

Although the scene may sound grim, Elizabeth Driver, who runs SpeeDeeQue these days and is the grand-daughter of the printing business’ founder, welcomes the changes occurring through out the city. She may have concerns regarding parking and increasing rents but she is also benefiting from new business created by the resurgence of Durham’s popularity. “My biggest concern is that we retain a tight-knit community,” Driver answered when asked about a vision for Durham’s future. I wondered if the current tight-knit community can absorb the onslaught of newcomers but Driver seems to think so.  According to Driver, Durham’s assets are the city’s inhabitants. She has made a point of utilizing her corner location to promote local causes and events because she believes as the population grows, personal relationships must continue to be a priority. They are key to the city’s future.

Next door at Through This Lens GalleryLori Vrba is preparing for an upcoming show. Through This Lens has a mission to bring new and thought-provoking work to the public eye and strives to encourage the public to study, explore, and enrich themselves through photography. Vrba is delighted to be included as part of the gallery’s goal. It’s her first time to show at Through This Lens and she’s excited about Durham’s reaction to her work. Through This Lens is also the ground floor anchor for Durham Arts Place.

Durham Arts Place may be one of Durham’s best discovered secrets. The building once housed one of the city’s most popular restaurants. The Palms was open 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year and was known for its sizzling steak. Their advertising proclaimed good food, popular prices, and good service. Today, the same building houses downtown Durham’s creative epicenter with studios, galleries, and creative work spaces. Purchased nearly 21 years ago by Dan Ellison, he envisioned Durham Arts Place providing affordable rent to some of the most creative people in Durham.

As an attorney, Ellison provides services to those in the arts and creative endeavors. He is also an adjunct professor at Duke University and maintains a high profile in Durham’s art scene. He has been involved with the Durham Arts Council for over 15 years and has been on advisory boards of multiple creative-based area organizations. Originally from New York, Ellison came to Durham by way of Miami to attend Duke University. He has remained here ever since. 

A visit to his law office on the second floor reveals that Ellison is as much creative as those he represents. Crowded with elements of Americana, nostalgic memories and souvenirs of bygone times, his decor is a mix of art, sculpture, and authentic relics. A portable record player sits on an end table with a stack of 45s ready to be played. A bar, reminiscent of a Mad Men set, substitutes as a display for mid-century statues all the while paintings both hang and lean on surrounding walls. Ellison’s building is virtually untouched and has not been substantially updated or remodeled since its construction. Original details abound and he has no intention of changing that anytime soon.

“My hope is that our brand endures,” states Ellison when discussing Durham’s future. Ellison believes that Durham’s brand is creativity and individuality. Our conversation raises the question of whether or not there is any similar sized city that has as much “art per capita” as Durham. “I see Durham’s art community growing as more eyes are focused on it,” Ellison continues. He cites Moogfest, Nasher Museum, Full Frame Film Festival, American Dance Festival, Golden Belt, and Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies as reasons for increased attention on Durham’s creative efforts.

Julian Phelps, an upcoming area artist, rents space in the basement of Dan Ellison’s building. Prior to obtaining the space about a year ago, Phelps, a North Carolina native, was utilizing a storage shed in his back yard to paint. Phelps’ enthusiasm for having his own art studio would be hard to contain. He’s very excited to be part of downtown Durham’s creative movement and when it comes to talking about his studio, he literally beams. Phelps is an active participant in Durham’s Third Friday gallery tours and hopes Durham continues to invest in creative undertakings that support local artists. Although he views the changes in Durham as positive he is looking forward to a time when construction is minimized but he does have a concern that there will be enough parking. As it stands now he said, parking is at a premium. As Durham grows he also wonders if rents will increase to a point that it changes the city’s diverse make up. 

Continuing down East Chapel Hill Street, the former Holland Brothers Furniture building has undergone very little exterior modifications but its character has changed dramatically in recent months. The ground floor space is no longer retail and the building is now home to Google Fiber and Viget, a marketing and branding company. This is the first sign of corporate encroachment on this particular downtown block. Furniture store signage once adorned the top of the building like a beacon to consumers and the building’s side was once painted to attract the passerby. All of the former signs have been removed for the current occupants who have opted for simple, maybe even understated, window signage instead. Does this facade represent the fears hinted at by Driver, Ellison, and Phelps? Is it foreshadowing a community void of personal relationships, creativity and diversity? Although an attractive remodel, the building isn’t very memorable and although I know people are working inside, it comes across as lifeless which is a stark contrast to neighboring structures. 

That fear is soon extinguished by advancing to The Durham. Much has been written about The Durham, a 53-room boutique hotel, since it opened last year. This whimsical mid-century building was constructed to house Home Savings but was repurposed as a trendy hotel with very little modification to the building’s exterior. Even the hotel’s signage is a throwback to the original sign of 1969. The interior is a different story altogether. The once bank lobby is now a restaurant and a roof top deck and bar have been added. However, the original architectural vision of the building’s interior have been kept intact. Any fan of preservation would be quite proud. The Durham is a terrific example of successful repurposing. While many cities may be struggling with what to do with vacant, obsolete, large financial and institutional buildings, The Durham proves that repurposing is a viable option having become a popular meeting place for locals and a destination for tourists.

There’s no argument that Durham is growing and changing. There is a justifiable fear of gentrification. Old landmarks are being destroyed as quickly as new buildings are being constructed, and although the visuals and the landmarks that attracted to me to Durham are disappearing, I’m finding that the extraordinary creative individuals that inhabit this town are adapting to the changes.

Now I know that Durham is more than just that cacophony-like mix of color, nostalgia, grit and rust. It is more than disappearing landmarks. It is a city that values personal relationships. It is a city that promotes creativity and individuality. It is a city that safeguards diversity. With such a foundation, newcomers simply cannot change Durham’s makeup. Durham, it seems, changes its newcomers. We become the protectors of personal relationships, individuality, and diversity regardless of the city’s changing urban landscape or skyline. Durham not only welcomes all of us, it gives us purpose. We become, just like those who arrived before us, the unflappable soul of the city.

This entry was posted in Daily Journal.