Durham: Finding Authenticity

This article by Mark Hough originally appeared in Planetizen, on April 20 2014.

There is a great Facebook page titled Dirty Old 1970s New York City that self-identifies as “The official page of the dirty, old, affordable, real, honest, gritty, rough and tough New York City of the 1970s.” It is essentially a visual ode to the unglamorous and mostly forgotten urban landscape that existed in that city before yuppies and Rudy Giuliani started making it all rich and clean. Some will argue that the grainy photographs posted to the page reflect the “real” New York a lot more than the shiny new skyscrapers, glorious parks and relatively safe and pristine sidewalks we see out there today. This romanticized view of that specific time and place has made New York City neighborhoods like the East Village and Fort Greene symbols of all that is being lost to gentrification.

New York is obviously not the only city dealing with these types of issues, which go way beyond losing Mom and Pop storefronts to Starbucks and Duane Reade. The news is not all negative, though. Regularly cited data continue to show people moving back into urban cores, and cities of all sizes and in all regions are trying to figure how to attract them. Examples from different cities show that people – young adults in particular – want to live in communities with distinctive character; the anywhere and everywhere places built across suburbia through the 1990s don’t cut it as much anymore. Gritty places, it seems, are cool.

Durham, NC, where I live, is a good example of this. It is a former tobacco town and player in the region’s Research Triangle Park, with a downtown full of historic architectural character and a lot of highly educated and creative people. It also has a longstanding and partially deserved reputation for having dangerous neighborhoods, bad schools, and a problem with poverty. The fact that it is a bit rougher than neighboring cities Chapel Hill, Cary and Raleigh has never been in question. Whether that is a good or bad thing, however, depends on who you ask. Durham locals cherish the city’s rich diversity, thriving food culture, arts-oriented eclecticism and vibrant energy – elements that apparently also appeal to those in the coveted creative class judging by how many of them have been pouring into town in search of an authenticity of place that is increasingly hard to find.

Durham’s downtown started changing fast once the booming regional economy lured developers to restore and repurpose the gorgeous old tobacco warehouses into apartments, offices and retail in the early 2000s. This is a familiar story by now, as remnants of industrial urban pasts are being transformed into contemporary successes all over the place. The part of Durham’s renaissance I find most interesting is not the high-end developer work, however, which was pretty easy to predict; it is the small-scale, organic revitalization that has occurred in a quirky, long-forgotten neighborhood just north of downtown, next to the baseball stadium at the heart of the film, Bull Durham.”

American Tobacco Campus, Durham, NC. Photo Credit: Mark Hough

The small area, which has regrettably been tagged “NoCo” (North of Corporation), is part of a transitional zone between downtown and surrounding residential neighborhoods. It has an eclectic mix of buildings and warehouses united only by geography. Besides a venerable garden supply store, there had not been many successful businesses in the area in recent years. This all changed in 2010 with the opening of two vanguard endeavors: Fullsteam Brewery, which opened in an Art Deco former 7UP bottling plant, and the hip music venue Motorco, located across the street in an old modernist car dealership. Their immediate success created a momentum that led to the opening of several restaurants, bars, artist studios, a coffee shop, hair salon and other eclectic offerings. Now the neighborhood is regularly packed with food trucks and Duke University students mingling with hipsters, young families and other locals who appreciate its lack of polish and don’t care that there are none of the perfectly paved sidewalks or matching site furniture you find in most downtown redevelopments these days.

Even though Durham planners don’t get much credit for the success of NoCo since it seems as if it developed by accident (it has also become known as the “DIY District”), their foresight to add the core of the neighborhood to its existing design district right before Fullsteam and Motorco opened has helped it to evolve carefully. The new zoning encourages a diversity of uses and favors pedestrians by getting rid of cumbersome parking requirements. The rules for development are flexible enough to keep things from getting generic, but also have enough teeth to keep out developers with plans that would change the character of the neighborhood filled with mainly one-story buildings.

cocoa and cinnamon
Cocoa Cinnamon, Durham, NC. Photo Credit: Mark Hough

For me, this neighborhood transformation perfectly embodies Durham’s scrappy personality.  From a broader perspective, it reflects what I see as a movement. People want to be in places they care about, and seem eager to push back against the grating habit we have of over-designing and over-planning everything in a well-intentioned effort to control what we think places are supposed to look like. Perhaps cities are seeing this too, and are ready to just let things happen a little. And this is good.  

Herb garden outside of Geer Street Garden restaurant, Durham, NC. Photo Credit: Mark Hough
Herb garden outside of Geer Street Garden restaurant, Durham, NC. Photo Credit: Mark Hough

Don’t get me wrong – I love designed landscapes; but I also value places that are rooted in community and allowed to be whatever they are, without the pretense of design guidelines, prescriptive standards and the like. So what if a sidewalk is a little crumbled and there is some barbed wire atop a fence here or there. It’s called real life. We all know the broken window theory, but need to stop overcompensating against it all the time. Gritty can be good in places. And just like with 1970s New York City, there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of dirty.

Featured Image: Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, North Carolina. Photo Credit: Mark Hough

About the Author: Mark Hough, FASLA, is a landscape architect, writer and teacher. He lives in Durham, NC, where he works for Duke University.