On a crystal-clear Saturday morning so cold that you could almost see it, hundreds of people lined both sides of Main Street to see the Bull City’s first Christmas parade in over five years.
“Can you believe it’s been 10 or 12 years?” asked James Walker, although it hasn’t been quite that long. The 66-year-old retired nurse was dressed for the weather in tweed overcoat, suede gloves, hat and scarf. Walker, who moved to Durham from Georgia in 1998, was warmed for a moment by memories of city parades past.
“The bands were wonderful,” he said. “Just the people coming together was good for me.”
Happy memories notwithstanding, Cynthia Booth, a city spokeswoman, said the last time the city hosted a Christmas parade was in 2009.
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Booth said the city halted the event due to construction projects going on throughout the downtown district.
“It was hard to have a direct route,” she said.
The completion of those projects has helped to usher in a new era of revitalization in the district. Several establishments that did not exist several years ago were doing brisk business Saturday with warm drinks, food, live music and art all tucked in the layered, evergreen folds holiday fellowship.
“I think it’s good for our city, and the effort to highlight all of the good that’s down here: the people, the food, the culture,” said Tanisha Bolden, a physician who co-owns the Beyu Caffe, a live jazz restaurant and coffee bar on Main Street, with her husband, Dorian, who was behind the counter Saturday morning taking menu orders from a long line of customers.
“It’s a wonderful testament to how far downtown Durham has come,” said Bob Barrier, who works in biostatistics at Research Triangle Park. He attended the parade with his wife, Kimberly, a Durham County health employee. “It’s just amazing how much has changed. It’s wonderful.”
The parade route started in front of the county health department, at Main and Dillard streets, and ended at Duke and Main streets. The big-shouldered voice of Otis Redding singing “Merry Christmas Baby” from a DJ’s loudspeaker soon gave way to the blast and roar of motorcycles driven by members of the police department’s motorcycle unit. The swirling, helmeted ensemble moved in circles, cut figure eights and sped up and down the street like urban cowboys.
Shane Sangster, a native of Nova Scotia, Canada, lived in Raleigh for 19 years before moving to Durham six years ago. He showed up at the parade with his wife, Melissa, and their 4-year-old son, Ryan. They were joined by their neighbors.
“My wife is always looking for something we can do as a family,” Sangster said. “She saw this. We partnered with our neighbors and came out.”
Mayor William V. “Bill” Bell, the parade’s grand marshal, wore a red Santa hat when he hopped out of a Thunderbird convertible and walked down Main Street, waving and speaking with the parade-goers. The longtime mayor enjoyed a warm reception. In between the mayor’s stroll and Santa Claus rolling through, perched high on the day’s last float, was a whole lot of fun, music, cheers, and lots of hand-waving.
The mayor was followed by a second car that carried state Sen. Floyd McKissick. A color guard gave way to members of the 82nd Airborne All American Band from Fort Bragg. Then came community groups, including champion little leaguers sporting their team caps, a samba drum troupe, the Grinch, cheerleaders, young people in police athletic leagues, the women’s basketball team at Duke University, a symphony of honking horns from the trucks of the city’s solid waste division and Girl Scouts. Then there was New Orleans-like revelry from the BullTown Strutters, who played a version of “Jingle Bells” that would have fit in with a Mardi Gras. Of course there were the city’s best high school bands, anchored by members of the “Sound Machine,” North Carolina Central University’s, elegant, cool, high-stepping stream of holiday music.
Lolita Flood, 40, of Raleigh, face wrapped in checked scarf and leather, stood near the Five Points intersection and waited for her 17-year-old daughter to saunter down Main Street with the Dancing Jewels, a Durham dance group.
“I have been out here since 8:30. I wanted to get a good spot. I’m excited.” Flood grew up in Roanoke Rapids. “There was nothing shocking about the bands or the floats. So I look forward to seeing a naturally big parade.”
Booth, the city spokeswoman, said the parade “was something the mayor wanted to see happen. It was something the residents had been requesting. He was hearing from people who wanted to bring it back throughout the years.”