Does our town seem to have been putting on a little weight lately?
You might get that impression, or something like it, from some of the new construction adorning this hip, happening, hustling City of Exciting Stores.
For instance, the new 506 West apartments on Chapel Hill Street. Truth be told, almost anything would have been an improvement over the razor wire and general dilapidation of the old Holiday Inn that was on that site, but the sheer mass of what’s there now looms over the street like a squatting sumo wrestler.
For instance, the new apartments going up on the Loopward end of West Village, rearing out of the ground in a proclamation of dominance such that they block the view of the old Duke tobacco factory from Durham’s History Hub.
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The scale of the Bull City’s inner city is changing for the bigger. Ground has yet to be broken for the 26-story tower across Corcoran Street from the Hill Building – itself a Kentucky company’s swanky hotel taking the place of what was Durham’s multi-billion dollar hometown bank – but renderings of how it’s going to look reveal another case of overwhelming bulk.
As for what’s going in where the city’s last tobacco-auction warehouse has come down and what that’s going to say to the greensward of Durham Central Park – well, we’ll see. As for what may go in where the SouthBank building – admittedly, no gem of urban inspiration – remains, well, nothing’s official but, again, think big. Real big.
Overall, our hip, happening, hustling town center gives the impression Durham is suddenly mainlining steroids. With whatever implications that may suggest.
But ah! Such is progress. None can deny that our inner Durham has a thumping heartbeat again, at last. But, truth be told, the old business district of a couple decades back may have been a bit somnolent but it wasn’t the corpse our latter-day boosters sometimes make it out to have been.
What urban renewal left behind may no longer have been the “medieval warren,” as the late Durham raconteur George Pyne described it,but it had charms of its own.
Taking a lazy stroll of a Saturday afternoon, you never knew when you might happen on something to give you a Wow-that’s neat sensation: a patch of turnip greens tucked away beside a business’s back door, an old advertisement for Chiclets or Doublemint still legible through graffiti and chipped and faded paint.
Some perfect stranger might offer you a great deal on a Rolex, or some semblance thereof, and if you preferred a Patek Philippe or Cartier he’d have a veritable showroom on the inside of his overcoat.
Life? Of a weekend, it was no farther away than the Old Courthouse, where inmates of the top-floor county jail were carrying on conversations with their friends down on the sidewalk.
Of a weekday, you might see Oscar Matthews, the street preacher, come through a decorous bank lobby proclaiming “The devil made you do it, and he's going to get you for it!” and the only reaction a “Hey, Oscar” from someone glancing up from his desk.
Durham grit was alive and well. It hadn’t been turned into a brand. Of course, times change, great things happen and a town can’t be run like a museum. The future is upon us, the New York Times is saying nice things about us, the ol’ tax base is expanding and if somehow the new built Durham makes one think of Godzilla on the horizon – oh, well. It just must mean we’re getting old.