In Sandy Demeree’s front yard, cantaloupe and sweet potato vines have outgrown their tidy raised beds and run along the sidewalk. Flowers bloom bright and water makes a soothing sound trickling from a fountain into a miniature pond.
The garden beds are shared space, where Demeree invited her neighbors to plant vegetables they liked. For her, the gardens, her home and her neighborhood are “a dream come true,” she said, symbolic of the new vitality all around them.
To see what that “new vitality” means, just walk around the corner and look at what Sandy Demeree’s home looked like three years ago: a run-down, boarded-up apartment house with a yard of packed clay and patchy grass.
Then, that was the neighborhood’s defining look; now, the defining look is one of sound repair, cheerful fresh paint (each front door a different bright color) and well-kept yards and the sense of a place where people are setting roots in new homes.
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“I do know I’m home here,” Demeree said. “And I can be who I am here.”
Demeree and her husband, Michael Toohey, live in the North Street Community: a redevelopment with a particular purpose in a reviving residential section at downtown Durham’s edge where new and rehabilitated residences are reversing a long decline.
“I’ve been impressed with what’s going on over there,” said Rick Hester, recently retired as the city’s head of building-code enforcement. “They got (those buildings) out of the hands of all those slumlords who wouldn’t fix them up.”
The North Street Community fills most of the two blocks south of Geer Street, between North and Madison streets: just east of the so-called “D-I-Y District” that establishments such as Motorco and Fullsteam Brewery have made a hip hotspot.
“What’s going on is certainly a turnaround from what it’s been,” said George Davis, owner of the nearby Stone Bros. & Byrd garden-supply store. “That whole neighborhood has gone from nothing to something. ... It’s wonderful.”
‘A whole community’
North Street Community is a project of Legacy Real Property group, a Chapel Hill developer that, in 2011, bought a block of 16 decrepit “quadruplex” apartment buildings of World War II vintage, and set about rehabilitating them for an intentional community of residents with and without disabilities such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or stroke-induced paralysis.
“It’s absolutely kind of a departure from our usual, market-rate projects,” said Mark Moshier, a partner in the firm.
The departure, he said, was the idea of fellow Legacy partner Andrew Howell. Howell was inspired through his interest in Reality Ministries, a Durham organization dedicated to fellowship with the disabled and disadvantaged.
The idea of a full-time living environment had been percolating among Reality Ministries for some time, said exective director Susan McSwain, who is also a North Street Community homeowner.
“It’s a more whole community than I’ve lived in or experienced in the past,” McSwain said. “To live in a space where these wonderful people are not kept in the shadows (but are) right in the heart of things where they belong.”
Reality Ministries has no official role in North Street Community, but it does have a major presence in that most residents are associated with it as employees, volunteers or participants in the social and spiritual programs offered at the organization’s Reality Center on Gregson Street.
Reality Ministries has also handled unofficial marketing for the community through its own network, McSwain said.
“We have a waiting list,” Moshier said. “There’s more folks that would like to be there than we have room for.”
‘A huge gift’
Some of those folks, such as McSwain and her husband, Jeff, have no disabilities. Others do, or, Moshier said, are “families (who) have bought a place where they might live for a while with their special-needs child who might be a young adult at this point.
“I think what they’re looking for is some security that their special-need family member will always have a place to live where they have support that they need,” he said.
Legacy sells its quadruplexes complete or by half, then puts the buyer in touch with an architect to design an interior to suit before gutting and remodeling the building. Zoning and concept require the buildings to remain multi-family.
Sandy and Michael Demeree live upstairs in their building; downstairs is a small apartment and a large open space that serves as a community room for neighborhood social functions.
“We’re so grateful,” McSwain said. “Folks in the community gather there for morning prayer ... we have potlucks and birthday celebrations and dance parties and all kinds of things.”
The community room opens onto a back deck that overlooks a community-owned parking lot. “We’re in conversation as a homeowners association about designing a community green space there,” McSwain said, leaving part as parking for the buildings along Geer Street.
“We’re going to put covered picnic tables out there, covered gas grills and some play space and a tool shed,” Demeree said. “And gardens.”
A community like no other
Of its 16 quadruplexes, Legacy Real Property has finished and sold 11, Moshier said. “The 12th is under construction and we have four remaining, and those are actually all out for contract so there are families that have verbally committed for those.”
Before starting the project, Moshier said a company researcher took a “look around the Internet” for other communities for special-need families.
“We found nothing that really resembled what we were going to do,” he said. “So we just went for it anyway.
“When we’re ready for prime time we would like to find a way to encourage other developers to look for opportunities to do it. I think there’s a huge need,” Moshier said.
One finished building and another to come are “Friendship Houses,” where four seminary students share apartments with four disabled residents under the combined sponsorship of the nonprofit HopeSpring Village, Reality Ministries and the Duke Divinity School.
“The key is, individuals who had experienced the gift of relationship with people with developmental disabilities and wanted more of that,” said McSwain. People who “wanted to live life in shared community with people of all abilities. .... and we also want to be good neighbors with our wider community.
“We’re not a closed community in any way, we’re a neighborhood that’s part of a bigger neighborhood and we want to be part of Durham being a thriving city for all,” she said.
Demeree has been trying to spread her own passion for growing things to youngsters in the neighborhood this summer.
“Tuesday mornings we have a little gardening-type class,” she said. “Tomorrow we’re making sauerkraut. We’ve done composting, had someone from health department talk about healthy eating.”
Demeree has drive to help the disadvantaged and disabled and she doesn’t know why, she said. Maybe a childhood bout with multiple sclerosis had something to do with it, but, “I just follow it and it comes out perfect.
“I go to karaoke on Saturday night and it makes my heart sing,” she said. “It supports my soul. I don’t understand what’s happening but I’m now ready for the week or I got rid of whatever happened in the week. It’s just wonderful. It’s just a blessing for all of us.”