Revitalization of Durham shifts focus to community

By Kelcie Landon

Dee Blake and Australia Clay enjoy a good meal and better conversation at Joe’s Diner. (Staff photos by Kelcie Landon)

UNC Staff Writer
The Durham VOICE

It is unseasonably warm for January, and people are taking advantage of the break from the cold. Folks are sitting on their porches, chatting with neighbors who walk by. One man gets his foot tangled in a newspaper and pauses to kick it off the sidewalk.

The paper, an old and tattered copy of The New York Times, ruffles in the wind. It remains unnoticed by people who are not typically affected by its stories of the stock market and the war on terror. But on Jan. 7, this international newspaper hit home when it listed Durham as the 35th best place in the world to visit in 2011.

The article commended Durham’s downtown food scene, which landed the city a spot above Kosovo and Miami. However, it takes a trip off Main Street to truly experience everything this growing and revitalized community has to offer. Durham is best seen through the eyes of the people who call the city home.

Australia Clay, a volunteer fundraiser for Duke Hospitals, summarized it best when she said, “A new history is being made in Durham.”

Clay emphasized that the houses that are now being torn down were once someone’s home, where they lived, raised a family and had Christmas dinner.

Lee Clayton and April Ross are optimistic about the direction Northeast Central Durham is going, especially because of the many community programs that are being offered throughout the city. (In an earlier version of this caption, April Ross' first name was listed incorrectly due to a reporting error. The VOICE apologizes and regrets the error.)

Wendy Garrett said that a strong sense of community has kept her in Northeast Central Durham for the past 57 years.

“We have a family-oriented lifestyle,” Garrett said. “We try to look out for each other. We have a heart for people and each other.”

Interconnectedness and pride fuels the fire that has led to the revitalization of Durham.

“They’re bringing the city up to speed. They’ve torn down a lot of bad neighborhoods and built nice houses,” said Lee Clayton, an employee of Durham Public Schools.

Every couple of blocks, the grayish-brown monotony of city life is interrupted by brightly colored houses. These neighborhoods, which have replaced housing projects but are still traditionally low-rent, have been built true to Durham community form, complete with wrap-around porches that foster relationships with neighbors.

But there is more to a town than nice houses. The restaurants of Northeast Central Durham are being revitalized as well. As Clayton put it, “You’re in hot dog country now.”

Historically, the corner of Angier Avenue and Driver Street was not the place to spend the day. But talk to some of the guests at Joe’s Diner, home of the one-pound hot dog, and those days seem to be a distant memory.

Dee Blake, director of development for Duke HomeCare & Hospice and first-time customer at Joe’s Diner, was just as drawn to the atmosphere of the restaurant as she was to the food.

“It’s like an old-time diner where people just stop and talk to you. People are just warm and friendly,” Blake said.

Tyrus Thomas, who moved to Durham in November 2008, helped with the demolition to clear the corner lot that would eventually become Joe’s Diner.

“When I was coming here in 2005, it was just bad,” Thomas said. “I met Joe in ’08, and he wants to do greatly for the community. You can get good food here, and just think, there aren’t many restaurants within walking distance around here.”

It might take a quick walk off of Main Street, but the residents of Northeast Central Durham know there’s more of value than just downtown.

Prefer a printer-friendly version of this page? Click here for a PDF.