Where love is the landlord in Durham

North Street apartment owner Sandy Demeree steps into her terraced garden in what was once the front yard to the small 1940s era apartment building.
North Street apartment owner Sandy Demeree steps into her terraced garden in what was once the front yard to the small 1940s era apartment building. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Once it was a run-down neighborhood, the North Street Community in Durham, and now it thrives as a true lesson in good neighbors, enlightened developers and kind hearts.

Here is a redevelopment with a purpose. Some of the residents of the apartment buildings are disabled with things such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or paralysis from strokes. Others are not. Those who are not disabled help those who are, and the result is rewarding joy for all.

North Street Community is the brainchild and project of Chapel Hill-based Legacy Real Property group, which bought a block of quadruplex apartment buildings, World War II era, in 2011 and renovated them to accommodate those with disabilities.

Andrew Howell, a Legacy partner, got interested in doing something such as this because of his affiliation with Reality Ministries, which focuses on the poor and disabled.

Much has been done, and it’s possible to see just how much by walking around the corner from one building that has been refurbished to another that hasn’t been. The difference is breathtaking.

Reality Ministries knits everything together. Many residents work there, others volunteer. The Reality Center on Gregson Street offers all sorts of programs of a social and spiritual nature.

Said Rick Hester, retired as head of building code enforcement: “They got those buildings out of the hands of all those slumlords who wouldn’t fix them up.”

Susan McSwain, executive director of Reality Ministries, lives in the community, in fact is a homeowner there.

“It’s a more whole community than I’ve lived in or experienced in the past,” she 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.”

The community does indeed seem like a throwback, in a way, to the days when neighborhoods weren’t lines of homes where people stay inside and rarely speak to one another. They’re together, and they’re happy to be together.

“Folks in the community gather there for morning prayer,” McSwain said. “We have potlucks and birthday celebrations and dance parties and all kinds of things.”

Consider that without such a place, some disabled people would be alone much of the time, perhaps with the occasional caregiver. That may not be total isolation, but it’s close. And people in such situations do have to fight loneliness, a condition uncommon in the North Street Community.

But the chance to help neighbors fulfills those who provide that help as well. Generosity, self-sacrifice ... all those good feelings are a tonic for the soul.

A community in the City of Durham, then, stands as almost a monument to what neighborliness ought to be and can be and, in this great place, actually is. That’s reality.