When Stanley Rose decided to open a small business on Angier Avenue, commerce was booming for the dealers selling drugs on the sidewalks and prostitutes walking the streets.
“Maybe 15 drug dealers standing there,” said Rose, pointing one way down the street and then the other. “Prostitutes over here. People doing drive-by shootings.”
But when Rose, 58, of Durham, stood before Rose Paint & Body Shop last week, he was bragging about new sidewalks, street lights and lots and lots of drains.
“Look how many you got there,” Rose said. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Right in this little area.”
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Rose is describing the $4.8 million City of Durham streetscaping project that gave new shine to a commercial corridor near the intersection of Angier Avenue and Driver Street in East Durham.
The project extends about 2,000 linear feet on streets lined with storefronts and stand-alone shops. The new sidewalks are lined with brick-colored pavers, decorated with benches and boast areas with young trees and flowers.
In the 1980s, the area with a small downtown feel was booming, longtime residents and small-business owners said. But crime started to sneak in, chasing away banks and other businesses and leaving only barber shops, convenience stores, auto body services and a variety of churches.
In the early 2000s, community leaders started to advocate for the area, asking the city to address dilapidated housing and crime, while organizing community activities in which residents stood on corners waving signs at drug dealers across the street.
Around 2005, Durham city officials moved forward with an initiative to target five commercial corridors in struggling neighborhoods, said Kevin Dick, director of the Durham’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development.
“One of those places is East Durham,” Dick said.
Owners are key to transition
The project, which is similar to a streetscape project that helped make over downtown Durham, is meant to send a symbolic message to the larger business community and update infrastructure, Dick said.
“This is a place where the public sector is interested in attracting private investment,” Dick said, using carrots such as modern infrastructure to make vacant or underutilized lots “as conducive to opening a business as possible.”
Anticipated projects near the area, such as the East End Connector, a nearly $200 million, 4.5-year highway project that will link Durham Freeway (N.C. 147) and U.S. 70, and a light-rail station are also expected to bring more traffic to the area.
Meanwhile, the dilapidated houses that once plagued the neighborhoods are being replaced with Habitat for Humanity homes and private developments. Other houses have been rehabilitated, covered with fresh coats of bright blues on streets lined with yards that are mostly maintained. Other nearby improvements and investments, such the Holton Career & Resource Center and the Maureen Joy Charter School’s moving to Driver Street, have also help fuel the area’s transition.
“If you go down this street, they probably got 10 to 15 houses they just built,” Rose said.
Small-business owners, such as Rose, Samuel & Sons barber shop owner Samuel Jenkins, Triangle Trophy owner Roy Alston, 77, and Dennis Garrett have been key players in the area’s transition, Whitley and others said.
Garrett, 52, opened Love and Respect, a transitional home for recovering addicts and felons, in the community in 2002. He said people on Angier Avenue were calling 911 52 times a week.
When Garrett moved in, Rose and others were already working to fight crime in the community, so Garrett and the people who lived in his houses along Angier followed suit.
They didn’t call the police, but told drug dealers directly to move on, Garrett said.
Garrett said his and others’ actions led to a noticeable change by 2006.
Since the project’s ribbon-cutting earlier this month, small-business owners said they are already seeing an uptick in business, which declined as much as 50 percent during the 19 months of construction.
Owners described different strategies and concerns moving forward.
Surviving by diversifying
Joe Bushfan, 53, of Durham, bought a building with three spaces on the corner of Angier and Driver, and turned a former pharmacy there into Joe’s Diner, a breakfast and lunch spot that specializes in hot dogs that officially opened in January 2010. The building, renovated with the help of a $200,000 city grant, initially housed an Internet cafe, which never took off, and turned into overflow seating for the diner. It also housed a TROSA grocery, which closed after about two years.
Bushfan has survived by diversifying his revenue and turning the grocery space into a commissary used by about 30 different food truck businesses.
Most of the diner’s customers live outside the area and tapping into the local community has been one of his biggest challenges.
Bushfan said he had tried giving away hot dogs and offering lower-priced options. Now, he is working to take EBT, a modern form of food stamps.
Other owners in the area said that if current and future businesses want to pull from the community, they have to interact with people in the area and offer affordable products and services.
Jenkins said when he isn’t cutting hair, he’s sitting on a chair in front of his store listening to music, waving at honking horns and talking to people walking by.
“The business must welcome every opportunity they can get to welcome the community,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins, who owns one of the oldest businesses in the community, said he has two hopes. One is that more businesses will move in and the area will take off. He also hopes the success doesn’t result in rising rents and gentrification.
Jeffery Warren, 52, of Durham started working in a barber shop in the area in 1998 but left in 2002 because of the crime.
“It was very uncomfortable,” he said.
He opened Signature Kutz on Driver Street in April 2010. Four other barbers work in the space with six total chairs. To cater to the local community, every Monday and Wednesday he offers $5 cuts for kids 10 and younger and $7 for everyone else.
Those specials add up to about 25 percent of his revenue, he said.
Waiting for the area to pop
As bad as the neighborhood was when Rose opened in 2000, it got worse over the next five years.
People never stole from his shop, he said, because he fed the locals when they were hungry. On Thanksgiving and one day every summer, Rose shut down his business, fried chicken and fish, and fed the neighborhood.
“Sometimes we fed 500 people,” Rose said.
About five years ago, Rose said, he had enough, and he put out a for-sale sign. He took the sign down after the city installed cameras on the street and announced the streetscaping project.
Now, Rose said, he’s just waiting for the area to pop, like downtown Durham, which is pricing many businesses out.
“Everybody needs a place to make their business start and grow,” he said, pointing to empty lots across the street. “This is the perfect start.”