Food trucks emblem of Durham's 'D.I.Y. District'

jwise@newsobserver.comJanuary 27, 2013 

— Chef Stacey Grisham said he was a little concerned about cold weather Sunday, but he needn’t have been.

“It looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day,” he said at about noon, as he and more than 30 other vendors were opening for business at the food-truck rodeo in Durham Central Park.

The Refectory Cafe, where Grisham is head chef, was making its first appearance at a food-truck rodeo on the cool, but sunny, afternoon.

“It’s just a current culinary trend that we wanted to be part of,” he said. “We thought it was cool.”

So, apparently, did the customers who were streaming in even before the announced opening time of 12:30 p.m. and who had the Durham Farmers Market Pavilion jammed, and parking at a premium for blocks around, by 2 p.m.

“Great turnout,” said Mauro Parziale, who was selling “great New York hot dogs” nearby. “The cold weather makes people hungry.”

Sunshine, food and the festival atmosphere were the main attractions, but the crowds that come for the frequent food-truck gatherings at Durham Central Park are emblematic of the energy flowing into the district once known as Durham’s Tobacco Row.

Restaurants and nightspots have turned the district north of downtown, near the Durham Bulls’ former Durham Athletic Park home, into arguably the hippest part of town.

“It’s wonderful,” said Lauren Galentine, lunching on a slice of pizza and taking in the scene. “It’s a beautiful part of the city.”

The rodeo wasn’t the district’s only hub of activity Sunday afternoon. Two blocks away, another food truck was serving outside the Motorco nightclub, where a country band was scheduled earlier in the day. Across the street, yet another truck was open and music was playing for a sidewalk crowd outside Fullsteam Brewery, which was launching its Cackalacky Ginger Pale Ale.

“Should be a rocking good time,” said Fullsteam founder Sean Lilly Wilson.

Fullsteam opened a month before Motorco, setting up in part of a former 7-Up bottling plant. In 2012, restaurateur Greg Hatem bought the 30,000-square foot building and plans to open a Durham branch of his popular The Pit barbecue restaurant alongside Fullsteam this coming summer.

“With all that’s going on there ... it’s just a great neighborhood,” Hatem said. “That’s where we want to be. It just feels a lot like where The Pit is in Raleigh.”

‘Organic transformation’

There’s more. Beyond Motorco’s parking lot, restaurateur Andy MaGowan turned an architecturally quirky, but long-abandoned, gas station into the Geer Street Grill in 2011. Across the intersection of Geer and Foster streets, T.J. and Maggie McDermott had renovated and reopened King’s Sandwich Shop, a World War II-era institution that had been closed for three years.

Two blocks back toward downtown, a construction site is the future home of Durham Central Park Cohousing, a 24-unit condominium building. Next to it, a design firm and a glass company have finished a $965,000 reconstruction of a commercial building and moved in. Just to the east, a block of 1940s apartment buildings is under renovation and new single-family homes are in various stages of construction.

“A couple of years ago, you could have bought the whole block for $100,000,” said real estate dealer Bill Anderson. “There’s not one of those (new houses) going for less than $220,000.”

The icon of downtown Durham’s renaissance is to the south, across the ridge where the city began, at the American Tobacco complex, Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Durham Performing Arts Center and Diamond View office buildings. But the north side of downtown is coming into its own, in its own way.

“It’s really been the neighborhood of organic transformation from the street level up,” said Bill Kalkhof, CEO of Downtown Durham Inc.

“I call our area the D.I.Y. District,” said Wilson, the Fullsteam owner. “It’s full of independent, scrappy businesses that have been making a go of it in spite of, or perhaps because, of the bad economy.”

‘Lying fallow’

Developer Bob Chapman, who has remodeled three buildings in the area – including Geer Street Garden – since 2006, said the old warehouse district had “lain fallow ... with a few exceptions been undiscovered.” The district – where tobacco was auctioned on as many as 13 floors and farmers, buyers, bankers, politicians and assorted hangers-on packed the sidewalks – declined after the market closed in 1986.

The Durham Bulls’ return to the 1939 Athletic Park in 1980 brought back some life. The Bulls left for the DPAC in 1995, but that year also brought the suggestion of creating a central park to spur redevelopment and bring residents into the area.

Kalkhof said the current vigor fulfills that long-term vision.

“It’s happened faster than we thought,” he said.

Now, residents are coming and other people, too. “Marry Durham” was staged on Rigsbee Avenue, heart of Tobacco Row, in 2011. Motorco hosted the InterNeighborhood Council’s Neighborhood Hero Award ceremony last October. At Sunday’s rodeo, a sidewalk sign advertised a Mardi Gras parade on Feb. 12: processing from the uptown plaza down Rigsbee Avenue to Fullsteam and Motorco.

“It’s a real credit to the creativity and energy in our community,” said Kalkhof.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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