Best of towns, worst of towns -- my town

October 13, 2012 

This is an edited excerpt from “27 Views of Durham: The Bull City in Prose & Poetry.”

Every year, in a goofy tradition that I find both charming and a little strange, hundreds of residents step forward to marry Durham, filling a downtown square with their vows to love my town until “death does us part.” I’ve never had the slightest inclination to join in this public display of affection. But only recently have I come to understand why: I don’t want to marry Durham for the same reason I don’t want to marry anyone. Like every other relationship I have ever had, I fight my love for Durham when I’m in it, and miss it when I’m away from it. In short, Durham is my ultimate love/hate relationship.

It’s an odd pull, considering that I moved here for the same reason I get involved in a lot of relationships – it reminded me of a younger time. I had grown up in Raleigh, lived in New York City for much of my adult life, and then decided to move back to North Carolina in 1996. By then, Raleigh had changed, much like an old friend with a facelift gone awry. The same basic structure was there but it had a completely different overlay. It disconcerted me. The capital city seemed like the Home Shopping Network come alive, instead of the iconoclastic Southern town I remembered. I felt far more at home in Durham, mostly because it reminded me of Raleigh during my growing-up years – gritty, creative, and blessedly blue collar, yet academic at the same time. Best of all, it was as diverse as the Big Apple I had just left behind and I found that I needed that diversity to feel as if I were still in the real world.

Discovering Durham was a coming home present. Until then, my only memory of the Bull City dated back to the mid-Sixties when my fourth grade class rode in a rickety old school bus down Highway 70 to visit the Liggett & Myers cigarette factory in downtown Durham. Not only was it still okay for people to smoke back then, when we left the factory our tour guide presented each of us with a gigantic cigarette a good two feet long that had failed to be properly trimmed by the cutting machine. All the way home, my classmates and I pretended to smoke our ultra-ultra-ultra-longs. For decades, this experience shaped my view of Durham: the rich smell of tobacco, a bumpy bus ride, brick warehouses, and wiry old men with grizzled faces.

Yet here I was, thirty years later, so in love with Durham that I only dated it for a few weeks before I moved in – lock, stock, and barrel – buying a big house in Forest Hills. There I might have stayed forever. But, as usually happens whenever one of my relationships stabilizes, I found that I was bored. The unknown began calling to me. It started when I realized that there, right behind the lovely houses ... was one of Durham’s poorest neighborhoods. ... I began to test my self-imposed boundaries, driving through neighborhoods where I looked jarringly out of place in my Sebring convertible. I inched my way down side streets off Holloway and Angier, drawing stares and looks of incredulity from the residents. I had no business being there and they knew it. ... Once, I discovered a block that rivaled the ravaged streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant – only to find it was bordered by a perfect gem of a neighborhood filled with brightly painted clapboard houses and landscaped yards right out of a fairy tale. I searched the faces of the strangers I passed, wondering who they were, what they had once wanted out of life, what they still wanted, and why none of my neighbors ever talked about the existence of the poorer neighborhoods I had seen. There were two Durhams living parallel to each other, it seemed, and neither Durham wanted to cross the divide.

Katy Munger is a crime fiction writer with 14 published novels, including “Money to Burn” and “Better Off Dead,” that explore Durham’s unique social personality. She also is outreach director for Progress North Carolina. Her website is katymunger.com.

Courtesy of Eno Publishers

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