I’ve only lived in Durham for six years, but I might have turned into a townie.
See, there’s this religious historian named Diana Butler Bass, and she just released a book about finding God in, among other things, your neighborhood.
Bass talks about the “God of the Horizon” – the Creator drawing all creatures toward our truest, most peaceful, most connected selves. We meet this God, she says, when we walk in the woods or support low-impact farming or commune with family or friends while watching baseball.
In an excerpt published in The Atlantic magazine this fall, Bass wrote about attending St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hope Valley in the ’80s, when she was a grad student at Duke. Bass narrates a familiar story of what happens when other people move in and change the places we call home. In this case, home is a quaint, woodsy, country-club suburb, but change a few details, and Bass might just as well be talking about downtown Durham or Ninth Street or Central Park.
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“Huge planned developments sprang up, complete with schools, private pools and associations,” she wrote. “The new communities bore old-fashioned words like ‘chapel,’ ‘farm,’ or ‘woods,’ in their names, to give them an air of tradition.”
Woodcroft, Five Oaks, Falconbridge, I’m looking at you.
“The old Hope Valley neighbors … could be an exclusive lot,” wrote Bass. “(They) had a hard time with these pop-up communities, seeing the new people as interlopers and the new developments as intrusions on the landscape. At the church, a tribal war broke out between those who sought to maintain the old neighborhood and the newcomers who had begun to attend the church. In the short term, the old-timers won. It was, in a word, unpleasant.”
I’m among the DURbanites who fancy ourselves above all this tribal nonsense. We live in central Durham precisely because we want our neighbors to be different from us. We’re city people. Bring it on. Let’s mix it up.
Except with those suburban South Durham people. Or those Chapel Hill people. Or those kids from New Jersey. Or, God forbid, those Cary or Raleigh people.
These developers come in here and build these enormous apartment buildings with the swimming pools and the game rooms and the concierges, like if they call them Church + Main or 605 West or Liberty Warehouse it’ll make us feel all urban-y and we won’t notice there’s nowhere to park. I can’t even go to the farmer’s market or food-truck rodeo anymore for the agoraphobic reaction that will ruin my weekend. Don’t even get me started on paid parking on Ninth Street or on that poor guy who got tased at the grocery store. I’m hoping Vaguely Reminiscent or Runaway or somebody will make a T-shirt that says, Durham: It’s Not For Panera). That way, everyone will know which tribe I’m in.
I’m afraid the God of the Horizon is not beckoning me to such snobbery. Still, Bass salves my troubled conscience, pointing out Durham’s historic collection of tribes: Black Wall Street, tobacco unions and Duke associates, for example. Today, you could add raised-bed gardeners, runners and restaurant-workers to that list.
“Human beings are tribal people,” Bass writes. “We always have been and always will be. … Durham, like all dynamic cities, has a history of tribes clustering in community. For a city to succeed, however, tribes must work together. When the tribes found a larger common purpose – like supporting education or building a successful local economy – the groups managed the tensions.”
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when building the local economy was almost inarguably good for everybody. Now a lot of us aren’t so sure. I like artisanal ramen noodles as much as the next guy. But I don’t want to live in a city that only caters to people with cosmopolitan tastes and graduate degrees.
Could one go so far as to say that preserving Durham’s various “tribes,” particularly the working class, demands slowing down the local economy? I don’t know. But we’ve at least got to make sure the growth includes everybody.
More than 70 local businesses have signed onto the Durham Living Wage project, promising that their employees will share in the economic development. Durham CAN has been lobbying for affordable housing near the transit station and American Tobacco. And, yes, Panera gives away a whole lot of food at the end of each day for hungry people. Durham’s got worse problems than chain restaurants or fancy apartments. I guess if we want a just and fair community, we’ve got to look for alliances wherever we can.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. Contact him via www.jessejamesdeconto.com.