It’s hard to comprehend the vast history behind this city, having only lived here a little more than a year, but the bits and pieces I’ve picked up along the way have been fascinating. Endangered Durham, Gary’s blog prior to his award-winning website, Open Durham, became a handy tool as I sought to learn more about my new home. So, when The Carolina announced Gary’s live storytelling event, I went straight to the box office.
The theater had to be close to capacity, with many well-known Durhamites filling the plush seats, including architect Scott Harmon, who introduced Gary, City Councilman Mike Woodard and his wife, Sarah, and Carolina Theatre President Bob Nocek. A Durham timeline was projected on the screen as folks filed into Fletcher Hall, with some well-known topics, like Bull Durham Tobacco, Duke and food trucks. But before food trucks, two ominous words stood next to a bullet point: “Durham Dies.” Well, that made things interesting before Gary had the chance to take the stage and read off the city’s numerous slogans over the years, including his personal favorite, “A Roaring Old Place,” which he referenced throughout his lecture.
It’s impossible to relay the entire oral history Gary laid out, which was peppered with sound bites of old tobacco auctions and interviews that captured the memories of long-time Durhamites; clips of recorded music; and images of past ads, commercials and photos, all intertwined with Gary’s narration.
Among the highlights were: the picture painted of Bart Durham - our namesake who donated his land for the railway station that would become Durham - as both a moral doctor and a man who enjoyed his liquor and knew how to have a good time; downtown hotels that, one after the other, became houses of prostitution; the liquor houses of Hayti during the Prohibition era that had club-like atmospheres with music, dancing and gambling; the almost singsong voice of a tobacco auctioneer as Lucky Strike and Chesterfield buyers raised their bids; the blues music of Blind Gary Davis; the barbecue at Turnage’s; the segregated live music venues like The Stallion Club and the Durham Armory; drive-ins, hot dogs and Royal Ice Cream.
Eventually, we got to those ominous two words, when folks moved out of the segregated, economically slumping downtown and into the suburbs of Hope Valley and Forest Hills. With them came shopping centers, like Northgate. Ideas for urban renewal took hold, and many buildings in downtown were wiped out to give Durham developers a clean slate. Hayti was destroyed; the freeway and Downtown Loop were built. Durham went quiet. The deconstruction and reconfiguration of the streets drove people away from downtown.
Gary ended his story by highlighting all that has gone right in Durham in the past five years - despite all it’s been through, there is still that strong, authentic, persistent personality. He mentioned that when he attended CenterFest in previous years, he thought the city hired actors to come in for the day and fill the streets of downtown. This year, though, he knew his community was out in full force. That is the only Durham I have ever known, and it was inspiring to see and hear, in such candid and wonderfully dirty detail, just where that city came from.