Durham's fortunes move in two directions

January 5, 2014 


A Durham father reads a bedtime story to his three sons by lantern because their power got cut off when they got behind on payments.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

The City of Medicine, the cultural Mecca, the up-and-coming “place to be” that Durham is for many of its 230,000 residents and its Triangle neighbors, might as well be a foreign land for those trapped in poverty and despair.

Former presidential candidate John Edwards found a theme in one of his campaigns of “two Americas,” one a land of boundless opportunity where enterprising people could soar, the other where too many were bound by poverty and frustration with a ceiling on their dreams.

The contrast is stark in Durham, a city that has by any definition boomed in recent years, from its American Tobacco Warehouse district to the ever-expanding reputation of Duke University to its development as the place to go for cutting-edge restaurants. The city’s Performing Arts Center has surpassed Raleigh’s as a draw for live entertainment of all forms.

But The News & Observer’s Jim Wise reported as the new year dawned that for all of the truly wonderful things going on in the Bull City, a huge number of its residents, over 19 percent, live in the official definition of poverty. That’s nearly 45,000 people.

In the Durham Public Schools, 65 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. That’s no surprise to school officials, who every day see kids coming in without adequate clothing for winter, hungry, possibly homeless or on the verge of it.

It’s pretty hard to tell those hungry, cold kids to work hard in school because education will be their path to a better life. How is a child supposed to concentrate when a stomach is empty? How is that child to understand schoolwork when there is no one at home to help at a time when schools are asking more of students and their parents?

And how can a child possibly dare to dream when sometimes there is distress and even violence in the home because of the financial strains on parents, many of them single?

Because of Durham’s positive strides, because of its improved image as a part of the Triangle, it’s a place where people without work go to find it. But if they don’t find it, notes long-time city council member Howard Clement, they have no money to go back to their previous towns. Then there is the state’s failure to help. Doubtless many of the poor residents could have benefited from the expansion of Medicaid, which Republicans in the state legislature rejected, along with an extension on unemployment compensation.

There is not an overnight solution. The truth is, Durham’s leaders have worked on the issue for years, with limited resources. Duke and N.C. Central University also are active in the community, in many ways more active than people know.

But as noted by Reyn Bowman, retired head of the city’s convention and visitors organization, local governments remain the force to bring people along. City and university leaders are going to have to renew efforts to pull up some of Durham’s residents who are drowning onto the wave of prosperity.

That means money for jobs programs, outreach to provide health care and more involvement with public schools to take advantage of places to pull disadvantaged parents and their kids together. In other words, though many groups would say they’re doing all they can, they will have to do more.

For Durham isn’t just about the business and entertainment successes. Those things don’t happen without smart, creative people, and lots of them. Now those brains and that energy have to be focused on those left behind.

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