Those Left Behind: Downtown Durham a Case Study for Questions of Equitable Growth and Prosperity (Part 1)

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Part one of a two-part series on the Downtown Durham Roundtable: A Promise of Progress for All?
A discussion hosted by the Kenan Scholars program and the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at MDC in downtown Durham on Sept. 21.

With an average of 20 new residents a day, Durham, North Carolina is booming. And no wonder. The boarded-up storefronts and abandoned warehouses of decades past have been transformed into trendy eateries and gleaming high-rises. A vibrant cultural scene, a burgeoning commercial district and a reputation for hipness have turned the city’s downtown area into the very picture of urban success.

But as business booms and real estate prices rise, local government and community leaders are looking for ways to ensure that all Durham residents, not just those directly involved in the downtown renaissance, reap its benefits.

On Friday, Sept. 21, many of those leaders met for the Downtown Durham Roundtable: A Promise of Progress for All?, a discussion hosted by the Kenan Scholars program and the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at MDC in downtown Durham. They reviewed the achievements and shortcomings of Durham’s urban renewal, and raised questions of equitable participation, economic parity, displacement and gentrification for an audience of students from Duke University, North Carolina Central University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Durham’s Hillside High School.

Michael Goodman, senior vice president of real estate for Capitol Broadcasting, was part of the public-private partnership responsible for the construction of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the American Tobacco Campus, two projects in the early 1990s that helped jumpstart Durham’s rise to prominence. “American Tobacco wasn’t a real estate project,” said Goodmon. “It was an agent of change.”

But the changes weren’t all positive. As downtown began to attract more commerce, developers razed existing real estate to make way for newer, pricier space. Newcomers snatched up older homes at rock-bottom prices, displacing long-time residents. Many Durhamites, especially African Americans and low-income residents, felt not just overlooked, but completely pushed aside.

“The black community wasn’t included in Durham’s re-rise,” said Henry McCoy, director of entrepreneurship for the North Carolina Central University School of Business.
As to why African Americans, particularly those in the business community, were not part of the revitalization efforts, Andrea Harris, senior fellow with Self-Help Credit Union, pointed to historically lower incomes within the black community and the uneven application of public policy. “The norms don’t work for all groups,” said Harris.

Bill Bell, who served as the city’s mayor during most of downtown’s rebirth, said the negative consequences of the renewal process were unintentional. “I don’t want anyone to think there was an effort to push black people out of Durham,” he stated. “We spent as much time on neighborhood revitalization as we did on downtown.” Bell pointed to the Rolling Hills mixed-income development as one of the city’s successful efforts to both improve and maintain historically black neighborhoods.

A bigger consideration than local efforts in the discussion of gentrification and displacement is the proliferation of outside developers in Durham, said Mayme Webb-Bledsoe. The senior neighborhood coordinator for the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership outlined how her organization has partnered with local neighborhoods for 20 years to undertake projects that are married to the specific needs of the community. “Most of the time,” said Webb-Bledsoe, “[outside] developers don’t talk to community people.”

McCoy agreed. “It’s hard to have community engagement and community context” when developers are not local, he said.

The panelists were in agreement that downtown Durham will continue to grow, and that open and honest dialogue between community leaders and developers will be needed to ensure the process brings prosperity to all. In the end, said Webb-Bledsoe, “The most important thing is to create space for these conversations to happen. Learn to listen to each other.” And added Harris, “to ensure policy works for everyone, especially for our most vulnerable.”

For more on the Kenan Scholars Program, visit the website. To see a full schedule of Kenan Institute events, click here.