Moses Ochola remembers when downtown Durham was a ghost town.
He also remembers there was life there, hidden away: touring jazz musicians who owned and lived in the old buildings, his parents’ own four-story Palace International, a haven for immigrants, Peace Corps alumni and Duke internationals.
Ochola, 31, was still a teenager when Palace International burned on Parrish Street in 2001. Insurance adjusters blamed a lightning strike – a natural cause – and didn’t pay out enough to rebuild.
The Palace abdicated for six years before resurrecting on Broad Street in 2007. The burned-out eyesore of a building remained downtown until Austin Lawrence Partners finally demolished it a year and a half ago to make way for the 27-story City Center Tower.
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“Gentrification is real,” Moses says.
And he’s trying to do something about it.
Over the years, the building at 1104 Broad St. has housed an auto dealership, a Randy’s Pizza location, bars, a nightclub and now Joe Van Gogh and the Palace. Today, the basement, which most recently had been home to the Mid-South Fencers Club, has become an event space called The Vault.
I live on Clarendon Street, close enough that I’ve been hearing the bass thump of dance music and the emptying of glass recycling bins, signs of the nightlife that has sprouted in The Vault since it opened last year.
What I didn’t know is that Moses is trying to renew his father’s original mission: Making a space for African diasporic culture in Durham, with a new emphasis on the diaspora more than the African. Moses says The Vault is for “old Durham, black Durham.”
Back before 9/11 made visas harder to get, he says, The Palace was a magnet for people all along the East Coast wanting to hear live music from Africa. Though it’s now known as a restaurant and a caterer for events like Music in the Gardens at Duke, Moses says the food was his mother’s idea, an addition to the entertainment venue, which once had two dance floors, a mezzanine lounge and even a boxing gym on the top floor.
The Palace, he says, continues to attract the Peace-Corps types. African immigrants, he says, have their own informal networks of sharing and selling food out of home kitchens. “They’re not necessarily going to flock to African restaurants,” he says. “It’s very liberal, white Durham. It’s people who are connected to Africa in some way. It’s not an exotic thing for them. It’s something that they’re willing to try.”
But The Vault draws a different crowd. Every first and third Thursday, it hosts The Downbeat, a free “hip-hop happy hour,” with a full bar and live band. Earlier this month, I went to hear the six-piece NKOGNITO with sax, keyboard, guitar, drums and not just one but two of those thumping basses. A few dozen African-American 20- and 30-somethings made up the audience, surrounded by dim LED bulbs, purple and blue, hanging from the ceiling, and exposed brick walls that make for a urban, industrial-chic ambience.
“Black Durham doesn’t have a space,” Moses says. “I’ve been very intentional about making it a comfortable space for black Durham.”
He concedes that jazz venues like Beyu Café and The Shed have built diverse audiences, but they tend to skew older.
Young African Americans, he says, often go to Raleigh for nightlife. Downtown Durham, he says, doesn’t feel welcoming to them anymore because they’re so far outnumbered.
“Something bad can happen to me because of how I look,” he explains. “It’s subconscious.”
Moses says his own roommate takes a different approach, patronizing bars and restaurants with mostly white clientele, insisting he belongs. Likewise, Moses himself helps to organize “Black August in the Park” at the Farmer’s Market in order to “interrupt those white spaces and challenge the redevelopment that’s going on.”
But that kind of activism isn’t for everybody. “There is a lot of people in Durham that never go out in downtown,” he says.
Thus, The Vault.
“I want them to have ownership of the space,” he says. “If you have a room full of white people, the old Durham says, ‘Oh, this is not for us.’”
As one of the white people from somewhere else who have moved into the historically black Walltown neighborhood behind The Palace, I felt welcome at The Vault. But it bodes well for Durham to find a space that wasn’t designed for me.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. You can reach him in c/o firstname.lastname@example.org