Durham News: Opinion

June 3, 2014

Jesse James DeConto: The beauty of this place

OK, so now we’re in Country Living.

OK, so now we’re in Country Living. For several years running, national publications like the New York Times, Southern Living and Bon Appetit have been patting Durhamites on the back, telling us what a great place we have to live and play and eat and drink. But this latest write-up in Country Living has me a little conflicted.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: Every time one of these things comes out, I remember how smart I was for leaving Carrboro and investing as an urban pioneer way back in 2009. (Some of you are like, ‘Wow, he was so brave.’ And some of you are laughing at my presumption, and that’s part of the beauty of this place: There’s always someone Durtier than you). I love that the Surf Club only serves its liquor straight. I love that the national press commends a music venue like Motorco, where I get to play. Of course, I love that they noticed The Makery shop, where my sister Katie and her friends have given so much of themselves.

But, Country Living? Are we country living? Hey, you out there in national medialand: Don’t forget, we’ve got Merge Records, and Arcade Fire won a Grammy! Magnolia Grill won a couple of James Beards! (I know it’s closed. Shut up). I heard a gunshot the other night, and I doubt it was aimed at a deer. Is this the stuff of country living?

You’ll have to forgive me for being a little sensitive. Maybe you can relate. Durham is the biggest city I have ever lived in, in my life, by two-fold. The second-biggest is Manchester, the biggest in the whole state of New Hampshire – Manchvegas, we called it – and only half the size of Durham. I like to think of myself as a city-dweller now. Pathetic, I know.

Country Living called that area over by Fullsteam, “North Carolina’s DIY District.” The brewery’s founder, my friend Sean Wilson, claims to have coined that term for the neighborhood. Who can dispute that? I’ve heard rival names like “Central Park” or “NoCo” thrown around. (NoCo. “North of Corporation.” Ugh).

My question is, if we’re country living, do we get to have special little names for our neighborhoods, to have something so grand as a “district”? Brooklyn, just one of NYC’s boroughs, has more than 2.5 million people. Williamsburg, supposedly the hippest ’hood in Brooklyn, has more than 125,000, more than half as many as our entire city.

I was in San Francisco recently, shopping in a vintage-clothing store in Haight-Ashbury, and I asked the cashier to recommend a place for dinner. “In the Haight?” he asked. “Nowhere. The food is terrible. Go down the hill to Cole Valley.” Seriously? There were almost 30 restaurants within a few blocks. None of them were any good? Can you imagine any of our neighborhoods being dense enough with restaurants that you would say, “No, don’t eat in Brightleaf. The food is terrible. Go over to American Tobacco”? The question is, what do you want to eat? You might have to drive across town to find it.

Maybe that’s what makes us country living. Durham, like other small towns, has to stand or fall as one.

When I was moving to Durham, I thought I wanted to be able to walk to Whole Foods and Ninth Street and to have Watts Grocery, Green Room and Broad Street Café right around the corner from my house. The Café has closed, and that’s too bad, but I don’t mind having the new Harris Teeter within walking distance, and life is good over here in Walltown.

Still, I find myself over by Fullsteam as often as anywhere else. It takes me about 25 minutes, but I can even walk over there. (Incidentally, if walking or driving makes more sense than taking public transit, you might be country living). I dig Geer Street Garden’s salads. (I don’t know why they failed to mention those, or the existence of the brewery, or the Farmer's Market, or the lovely old ballpark, in Country Living). Anyway, that’s what I call it: the Over-by-Fullsteam district. Maybe that makes me sound like a country mouse. Bless your heart.

Jesse James DeConto is a journalist, author of the spiritual memoir “This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World,” songwriter with the indie-pop band The Pinkerton Raid and arts pastor at Durham Church. Contact him at www.jessejamesdeconto.com.

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