For its 10th birthday, the American Tobacco campus invited a reggae band, an acrobat, a tobacco auctioneer and a poetry-writing fox – apt party guests to mark a decade of revival.
As crowds queued up at food trucks, the campus staff showed off the new loft hotel under construction, and the spot where the new NanaSteak restaurant will go, and the 4,000 square feet of new office space.
For anyone who remembers that slice of Durham before American Tobacco – before Tyler’s Taproom served a garlic fry, before Burt’s Bees opened its corporate offices, before WUNC’s Back Porch on the Lawn series – Sunday’s celebration made the transformation clear.
“Let’s see ... 10 years ago,” said marketing director Valerie Ward. “Lots of barbed wire. Collapsed roofs. Trees growing out of buildings. Lots of pigeon droppings. The SWAT team was using it for practice ...”
The campus that now draws visitors for Cuban tapas and Jason Isbell tickets sprung from the 19th-century tobacco business started by Washington Duke, a giant so large it was one of the original 12 companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Making Lucky Strikes, Pall Malls and Tareytons, American Tobacco grew to the largest of its kind in the world, lending Durham its identity and trademark leaf aroma.
But the doors closed in 1987, bringing two decades of decay. When Capitol Broadcasting Co. reopened the campus in 2004, smoking had become so taboo that you could hardly smoke a cigarette anywhere in the factories that once manufactured them by the ton.
But while the Lucky Strike smokestack remained, the new American Tobacco would welcome a drastically different type of business: start-ups, nonprofits, digital products. With about 3,800 people working there, Ward said, the campus now employs more than it did in the old tobacco days.
“It’s a part of Durham’s history,” she said, “and it’s very deeply rooted. It served its purpose, and now it’s serving a new purpose.”
Several hundred visitors turned out Sunday to eat grilled cheese from the American Meltdown food truck or a double from Only Burger.
They walked by the exhibit of antique farm equipment, including a 1903 Beasley plow and a fertilizer distributor from 1890. They stood in line to have the Poetry Fox bang out a composition on an old Underwood typewriter, incorporating whatever word each patron offered.
For the uninitiated, a load of tobacco sat in bales on a flatbed truck, where auctioneer Steve Nelms gave them a sample of his antiquated, mile-a-minute patter. Once he auctioned leaf in Oxford, Rocky Mount, Louisburg and Henderson. No longer.
“Not enough to make any money,” he said.
The tobacco smell may have faded from downtown Durham, replaced by the scent of gourmet grilled cheese and pints of IPA. But the grit of the place remains – etched in the red bricks.