From the comfort of an avocado-green vinyl chair in Preservation Durham’s second-floor office, Ben Filippo can see the fruits of historic restoration: The TeerMark building, the Durham Hotel and the former Jack Tar motel, are all examples of mid-century Modern architecture that have been saved. Other cities may have bulldozed them.
Filippo is the new executive director of Preservation Durham, succeeding Wendy Hillis, who resigned after more than three years to become a consultant. Filippo starts his tenure during a pivotal time in Durham’s cultural history. Development pressures jeopardize the central city, especially in residential neighborhoods that are old but have not been designated historic. And when these areas receive that designation, they risk becoming gentrified.
“In Durham, financing models prevent first-time or low-income homebuyers from investing in historic properties,” Filippo said. “We need to be creative so everyone can participate in preservation.”
In addition to his work with AmeriCorps, Filippo’s resumé includes food systems coordinator with Carolina Farm Stewardship and manager of the South Durham Farmer’s Market. He lives in Old East Durham.
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Durham is a much different place since Preservation Durham started in 1974. With the new challenges and development pressures of a growing city, how will the role of Preservation Durham change?
Filippo: A lot of people are attracted to Durham because it’s unpretentious. We have housing and building stock that is very working-class, and that’s really attractive. But the question is how do we retain housing stock for a new generation of teachers, post office workers, firefighters, teachers? How do we re-create working-class housing?
In our historic neighborhoods we have dozens of long time residents, but the cost of the upkeep of those old homes is very, very challenging, especially for elderly citizens. We have an incredible base of nonprofits and financial institutions, and all are doing their own thing and focusing on their own piece of affordable housing. Hopefully Preservation Durham can bring together those resources to create a strategy to keep long-time residents in their home, to retain the equity in these families, to save well-built homes and keep them. Durham has a chance, as it grows rapidly, to figure this out before it’s too late.
The proposed demolition of a 100-year-old house on East Trinity sparked a discussion about saving homes. What’s the different between old and historic? How do you determine when a building is worth saving or should be torn down?
Filippo: It’s not any one person’s decision about what’s worth saving. It should come from neighbors and community. The Trinity Avenue house, that issue came from long-time neighborhood residents concerned about the loss of a small single-family home, which we’re losing rapidly. It is in their interest to try to retain that home because they feel it is important. Our role is to organize, help with resources. The neighbors are still trying to find solutions for that house. It’s not been torn down yet.
Gentrification — meaning displacement of long-term residents from an area — can happen after a neighborhood is designated historic. Cleveland-Holloway is an example. How does the organization preserve and protect the historic neighborhoods, such as through its Places in Peril designation, without displacing residents?
Filippo: Places in Peril hasn’t really been a tangible program in the last year. It’s still critical for us to be advocates for cultural and architectural history, but we may not be reviving it. When it started it was needed, when Durham was tearing down a whole lot of buildings and the market for buyers wasn’t there.
It’s not any one person’s decision about what’s worth saving. It should come from neighbors and community.
I’m interested in how do we help militate against displacement in neighborhoods with historic status. How do you stabilize homes and homeowners before the historic designation — because then home prices and values go up? Long-time residents are vulnerable to so many different variables: proposition from developers or an internal family disputes over the house itself. If there’s not enough money to repair a house and none of the family has money to do it, and an offer comes through, it’s a reasonable financial choice to let go of the home. We want to feel confident people can hold on to their home. Another piece is the commercial buildings. They are often very small but are dotted throughout our neighborhoods. If the neighborhoods can’t occupy or own those economic centers, it creates a vacuum of wealth.
As an organization, Preservation Durham can be the subject of political pressure from developers and affordable housing advocates. It’s also has a reputation for appealing to largely white and affluent Durham residents. How do you propose that Preservation Durham become more inclusive?
Filippo: You’re never going to make everyone happy. But if you have others speak within the community, their voices will make your argument louder. We need to build a coalition of real estate brokers, financial institutions, developers, attorneys and general contractors who work with minority communities. They have just as much interest in preservation, regardless of race and economic background. We have to create a space everyone is admitted to.
Besides funding, what is the greatest threat to historic preservation?
Filippo: A lack of a coordinated effort between the city and community. Success comes from thoughtful municipal leadership that listens to an organized community: Can we come together to make progressive and thoughtful choices? This isn’t just about displacement of people, but displacement of economic centers, businesses and culture. When you lose that, you lose a whole lot more than a person or the buildings; you lose the story. We can’t lose the stories of the people that built this place. Because if we do, what is Durham?