The area code for Durham, North Carolina is 919. And so, at 9:19 on a Friday night in June, about twenty teens, mostly African American, converge on the city’s main square. Known as CCB Plaza for the bank that once stood here, it’s a square block surrounded by hotels and safeguarded by a one-ton anatomically correct bronze bull named Major.
The kids look uncertain; it has started to rain. They turn to one of their leaders, 34-year-old Pierce Freelon, who looks at the sky and shrugs his assent. A laptop comes out, followed by a speaker, and a bassy beat spreads over the square. A circle forms. Then come the words that initiate every Friday night here.
“Say ‘Cypher, cypher!’” a voice calls out.
“Cypher, cypher!” 20 voices respond.
In the language of hip-hop, a cypher is a gathering for freestyle rap. This one is organized by Blackspace, a project that Freelon runs inside a downtown tech hub. Durham’s weekly event showcases the kids who take Blackspace’s hip-hop class, but it’s also open to all who want to test their poetic chops. “Everyone’s our friend,” says 17-year-old Khamisi Jackson. “You don’t even have to be a rapper. We’re open for anyone to come in and basically do whatever they want.”
The themes jump from Jesus to gentrification to sunflowers to black youth leadership. “You be the voice of your generation,” one poet says. “You be the difference.”
Strangers wander over. The circle widens. “Y’all come in,” someone calls. “Don’t be scared.” Families with toddlers and dogs appear, along with a middle-aged county official and her husband. The rain picks up; the kids cover the laptop with extra layers of plastic. Within an hour, the circle has widened to 100—a racial and generational cross-section of the city. The weather has driven almost no one away.
The memory of that night sticks with me. For months, I’ve been thinking about the craft of building a community: how to stoke economic vitality in a city without leaving cultural vitality, in a form that’s shared with everyone, behind. If community means anything, it seems, it should create a shared sense of belonging.
Durham, a city of 260,000 where I’ve lived for more than 30 years, seems like a place that has figured out this formula. Civic life is an obsession here. We elect social justice activists to City Council; our local institutions push back against the national animus toward immigrants, Muslims, and those under the LGBTQ umbrella (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer). We support small businesses, particularly ones that pay a living wage. On the streets, people say hello to each other.
But building community, I’ve found, is not like building a house. Or, more accurately, it’s like building a house with a bunch of partners using different blueprints, while others are disassembling the foundation and yet others have confiscated some of the tools.
When I arrived in the city as a reporter in 1985, I couldn’t find a welcoming pub, and I had to drive five miles into the suburbs for a decent pizza. Hearing live music meant leaving town. Without a vibrant streetscape, people didn’t walk. Economically, the city was hurting, too. The tobacco and textile factories that defined Durham’s economy were shutting down. In the 1960s, an expressway cleaved the city center in two, wiping out a neighborhood called Hayti, once known as the “Mecca of Black Capitalism.” Even after 20 years, downtown had not yet recovered: Many of its buildings were vacant, and its streets emptied at 5.
Today, Durham is enjoying a headline-grabbing renaissance. Downtown pulses with microbreweries and international dining. A once-empty tobacco factory now boasts apartments, a public-radio studio, and an artificial river. (“The mark of a successful city,” The Atlantic’s James Fallows writes in his new book, Our Towns, “is having a river walk, whether or not there’s a river.”) Another old cigarette factory has become a biotech incubator. Jazz and R&B pour from clubs. Cocktail bars sling $16 coladas.
By one survey, Durham is now the South’s fifth-most diverse mid-sized city. But its economic resurgence is not being distributed equitably. In a city with no majority race, the patrons of these businesses are disproportionately white. Likewise, white professionals are buying up houses in central-city neighborhoods, driving up prices and making it harder for people of color to remain.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the story of urban America in the 21st century. “People have fallen back in love with cities,” says Gustavo Velasquez, an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama administration and now a program director at the Urban Institute. “You have a complete reversal of what we saw back in the ’70s and early ’80s. Now the place to be is as close to the major job centers as possible.”
That in-migration has costs, though. In Washington, D.C., where Velasquez focuses his energies, “we are losing more minorities and more low-income people than gaining.”
That’s why I keep thinking about the cypher in the rain. On the surface, it was an explosion of pure egalitarian joy: the coming together of Durhamites of different races and ages to make poetry together. But it was also a deliberate effort to reclaim the commons—and a commitment to black youth that they are essential to city life, and worth whatever effort it takes to keep them here.
Pierce Freelon, the Durham-born founder of Blackspace, told me that 20th-century highway-building and 21st-century gentrification are, to him, flip sides of the same phenomenon: the pushing of a city’s most vulnerable to the periphery by free-market forces that open an increasingly wide chasm of racial and economic inequality. “Community,” he said, “is about thwarting that trajectory.”
Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs: Level One
One way to think about the ingredients for a solid, well-rounded community is to use psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, which start with basic survival requirements like food and shelter. While food security is a serious concern, shelter—a home you can afford—has been the primary battle in Durham.
I’m hesitant to overuse the term “gentrification” because it is so loaded, so overworked, and so vague. But whatever you want to call at it, the housing problem is getting worse. In 2015, Governing looked at low-wealth neighborhoods in the United States’ 50 largest cities and found that 20 percent had experienced sharp spikes in home values since 2000. That compared to just 9 percent in the 1990s.
The trend is taking a wider and wider toll: A 2017 study by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene showed that people displaced from their neighborhoods were twice as likely to be hospitalized for mental illnesses. One cause is “root shock”—the distress that comes from being torn away from one’s social networks.
“In nearly every other industrialized nation besides the United States, there is near-consensus that purely private land markets will not meet the needs of the poor,” wrote Peter Moskowitz in the 2017 book How to Kill a City, “and so measures have been taken to ensure that at least some land remains off the market or subject to regulations that make it affordable.” But local governments in the U.S. tend to encourage high-end residential and commercial growth. That might augment the tax base, Moskowitz writes, “but it also reshapes what cities are, turning them into explicit supporters of inequality.”
Durham isn’t as expensive as San Francisco and New York. But three-figure rents here are disappearing, and the median home is now listed for sale at $283,000. And Durham’s local officials have limited options to offset the trend, thanks to North Carolina state law. “We have a legislature that is using its power to clamp down on cities,” says Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. “There are many things we’d like to do in Durham that we can’t.”
For example, municipalities here are barred from practicing inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to set aside a percentage of their units for lower-income families. Should cities go rogue, the state legislature can yank funding for essential needs like public transit, or bully a city, as it did when lawmakers ordered Durham to extend water and sewer into an environmentally sensitive area.
I’ve watched the housing crisis play out in my own neighborhood, which is sandwiched between downtown and Duke University and mirrors the city’s demographics. For much of my 30 years here, I was calling in gunshots nightly. Now century-old bungalows and Craftsman-style houses are being renovated and flipped for ten times what I paid in 1987. Crime has gone down, for which I’m grateful. But in today’s free market, older residents, artists, activists, and working-class families, all of whom gave this neighborhood its texture, are often priced out.
There is one thing, however, that has helped our neighborhood remain economically diverse: Around the time I moved here, my neighbors welcomed a nonprofit with an innovative homeownership model. The Durham Community Land Trust fixes up houses and resells them to families earning below a certain income. (Land Trust families own their buildings, but not the land underneath; instead, they sign a renewable 99-year lease.)
Nationwide, there are about 300 community land trusts, according to the National Community Land Trust Network, and they have deep historical roots: 19th-century utopian thinkers, Israel kibbutzim, and India’s gramdan system of private land donated back to the village. Families buy the houses at below market prices; when they sell, it must be to another qualified buyer, at a modest mark-up limited by a formula. This keeps the houses permanently affordable. The trust has also provided credit counseling to help prevent foreclosures and worked with residents to advocate for better policing and infrastructure. “We consider ourselves to be in the trenches with people in this community,” says executive director Selina Mack.
On a summer weekend, I visited one of my newest neighbors. Laura Friederich is a forensic chemist who, even with a professional salary, wasn’t making enough to buy a house on the open market. She’d been renting a mother-in-law unit on the periphery of town when she found a three-bedroom Land Trust house with a screened-in front porch for $141,000. “A miracle,” she says.
We sat on that porch and watched the street, which is narrow and enlivened by neighbors with long histories together. “I love how much on top of each other everybody is,” she said. “People are noisy; they’re happy; they’re partying. I really like the mess of humanity.” She also likes the land trust model: “You’re choosing solidarity or community over increasing wealth.”
But this is a complicated trade-off, as I learned from my friend Alisa Johnson, an English professor who has lived in a Land Trust house since the 1990s. “In the African-American community, homeownership is always tied to wealth development,” Johnson said. (She and her husband, like many Land Trust owners, are black; Friederich is white.) “Love the house. Love the neighborhood. Honor the commitment that I made. But when we sell, we’re going to be more deeply under water than most of our neighbors.” In other words, they won’t have the equity required for a market-rate home.
There are nonprofit models that allow homeowners to build more wealth, but here’s the rub: Once a house is sold at market rate, it’s removed from the low-cost pool. Unless and until we change the rules and incentives of today’s free market, there’s no perfect way to craft affordable community. There is only a series of possibilities, all of them compromises, creeping collectively toward a solution.
Maslow’s middle levels: work and belonging
Two years ago, I visited the port city of Cádiz, in Spain. A friend asked me to join him as he picked his up daughter from school. Our destination was less than a half-mile away, yet it took almost two hours to walk there through the old city’s winding 18th-century streets, because he had a neighbor to greet every 50 feet. There were faces to kiss and hair to tousle, an impromptu beer at a neighborhood bar, and a visit with the men in my friend’s social club.
Whenever I travel overseas, I am reminded how rarely we see this kind of community life playing out in U.S. cities. That’s why lively public spaces like Durham’s CCB Plaza are essential to a city’s self-definition—to the feeling that this is a place to live in rather than drive through.
“The square is a gathering place where all kinds of things happen,” says Fred Kent, founder of Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit. To Kent, the ideal square “is one you can improvise.” When spontaneous activities bring diverse people together, he says, the result is magic. “If there’s a Wednesday night market and you have dancing, you’ve hit a home run.”
That’s why I keep thinking about Blackspace’s Friday night cypher. It is the moment each week when the city center feels most alive with creative energy that crosses class lines. These events are a mix of the conscious and the spontaneous. But they don’t emerge from the ether: Their occurrence is the result of collaboration between Durham’s business and creative sectors.
Like many cities, Durham boasts a technology incubator that has attracted young entrepreneurial energy downtown. It’s called American Underground (AU) because it began in the basement of American Tobacco, the renovated factory with the faux river. Then, like a plant with a rhizome system, AU spread across the railroad tracks and popped up in two Main Street buildings. It markets itself as a “counter-story to Silicon Valley” for both its urban location and its efforts to nurture women- and minority-owned businesses. “We had goals of being the most diverse tech hub in the world,” says Jes Averhart, AU’s former director of corporate and community partnerships.
History suggests that Durham should be an ideal place for such a hub: The city has a long legacy of African-American entrepreneurship. In 1911, Booker T. Washington visited Durham and met “prosperous doctors, lawyers, [and] preachers” living in homes with “electric lights and steam heat and baths and all the modern equipments,” he wrote. “This was the city of cities to look for prosperity of the Negroes and the greatest amount of friendly feeling between the two races of the South.”
Blackspace opened in 2016, moving into this downtown space rent-free, and began offering classes in hip-hop, poetry, videography, coding, game design, and puppetry. Blackspace founder Freelon, a hip-hop and jazz musician, immediately recognized what this could mean for the teens in his charge: “access to downtown prime real estate” and “skin in the game at AU.”
One recent Thursday night, 10 teens squeezed into Blackspace’s suite. Kevin Joshua “Rowdy” Rowsey II, a musician and emcee who runs the hip-hop program, was assigning an exercise. “I want you to be a news reporter,” he said. “I want you to write from the voice of the community. If you can’t think of anything, just start to scribble.”
Seven minutes later, the kids were performing their poems, many of them about police shootings of young black men. This process, and this material, would fuel subsequent cyphers. “I was never bold enough to perform in front of people,” said 19-year-old Alyssa Gurnell, who had been writing poems for years. After taking Blackspace classes, she now raps at CCB Plaza.
Maslow’s final level: creativity.
Compared to housing, the arts might seem like a trifle. But Jeremy Liu, a senior fellow at the nonprofit PolicyLink in Oakland, California, insists that integrating arts and culture is essential to developing equitable communities. “There’s a whole realm of epidemiology now that looks at social factors as determinants of health for individuals and populations,” he said. “How much agency you feel over your life actually is a huge determinant.”
Just as political engagement and protest help build autonomy, “the role of arts and culture and other creative practices in supporting folks who feel they have agency is immeasurable. It’s tremendous.”
In a report last year, PolicyLink cited several examples: When a light-rail line was built in Minneapolis, the city developed a walkable district celebrating Native American culture; in New York City’s East Harlem, local officials turned an abandoned school into affordable live-work spaces for artists and their families; North Philadelphia created the Village of Arts and Humanities, a cluster of art parks that provides jobs for youth of color.
But in the U.S., government arts funding is minuscule compared to what’s spent in Canada and Western Europe. (Per capita, Germany spends 40 times more on the arts than the U.S.) “The public often views the profession of ‘artist’ as not serious,” a team from the Urban Institute wrote in 2003. As a result, “many artists struggle to make ends meet. They often lack adequate resources for health care coverage, housing, and for space to make their work.”
This was on my mind one night last summer, as I drove to a Durham gallery called The Carrack. It was opening night for a show by a half-dozen artists called The Baghdad Battery. It looked like a magical-realist archeology museum: A concrete urn covered in chainmail sat on a Plexiglas pedestal that housed a fog machine; another dangled from a tapestry of a jet flying over Baghdad during the U.S. invasion.
The Carrack looks like a conventional professional gallery, but it’s a nonprofit, funded by the community: Artists who show their work there keep all the revenue from the sales. This turns out to be a game changer, particularly for newer artists and those without access to capital.
The Carrack’s mission has evolved over time, says Laura Ritchie, the gallery’s first director. In 2011, she and sculptor John Wendelbo started inviting friends to exhibit in a downtown loft they were renting. They couldn’t afford to pay the artists. “But we could say there’s no application fee. There’s not even a requirement to have a full body of work complete. We just want you to have a great idea, and we want to see enough of your work to believe that you can pull it off.”
I went to a lot of The Carrack’s early shows, which sometimes featured live music, short films, and theater performances. The artists literally had possession of the gallery keys, and that sparked a sense of possibility. The downtown renaissance was just taking off, and the gallery was the kind of DIY space that comported with the city’s scrappy self-image.
But just as downtown’s comeback shifted its racial dynamic, the Carrack started to feel a bit monochromatic. “The first couple of years, we were not thinking critically about that,” says Ritchie, who is white. Applications from people of color were low, “and we weren’t asking why. We were just thinking, ‘It’s free to apply. It’s zero commission. There are no barriers.’”
Just lowering the barriers, however, wasn’t enough: The Carrack needed to reach out. Richie and her volunteer team and advisory board began talking with minority artists and visiting other organizations and events. “It was not at all hard to find an incredible wealth of talent,” she says. Last year, for the first time, Ritchie says, more than half the exhibits and programs were led by, or featured, people of color.
Then Durham’s downtown renaissance forced the gallery to move—not uncommon in neglected neighborhoods that artists help revive. The Carrack relocated to a historically black neighborhood; in a further twist, now that community is feeling real-estate pressures of its own. “How do we exist as art spaces, which also end up becoming gentrifying forces?” asks Saba Taj, The Carrack’s new director. “That’s something we have to actively work against.”
Tying it all together
Reading the post-World War II history of American cities, I’m struck by the central role that political organizing played against efforts to destroy communities in the name of what developers and planners called progress. In the 1950s, New York’s “master builder,” Robert Moses, wanted to ram a four-lane highway through Washington Square Park. Greenwich Village residents banded together to stop him. Moses famously dismissed the opposition as “a bunch of mothers.” But in 1959 the mothers prevailed.
“Highway revolts” like these were soon brewing nationwide. In San Francisco, folksinger Malvina Reynolds entertained a 1964 rally with her anti-freeway song, “The Golden Octopus.” In Washington, D.C., activists distributed handbill in 1967 saying, “No more white highways through black bedrooms.”
Durham had its own highway revolt in the 1970s, when African Americans and white liberals formed an alliance to fight an extension of the expressway that obliterated the Hayti neighborhood a decade earlier. In the end, they scored a partial victory: The expressway went forward, but it was realigned enough so the Crest Street neighborhood could be rebuilt around a church that was spared.
That expressway battle helped launch a political coalition in Durham that took over local government by putting together biracial electoral tickets. The original alliance has since crumbled, but the tradition of multiracial government persists, and some of the Crest Street activists—including Mayor Schewel—are still around.
Such grassroots organizing plays a newly critical role in gentrifying cities, says the Urban Institute’s Velasquez—as a counterweight to newcomers who might not understand the need for a sense of commonweal. “Demographically and economically, cities are shifting,” he says. “You have more high-income people coming in, year after year after year, and their mindset is not in this strong mobilizing, advocacy network.”
To see how grassroots advocacy plays out in 21st-century Durham, I headed down to City Hall, where about 75 people, representing a dozen organizations, had gathered outside for a press conference. These activists were calling on the city to use the site of a soon-to-be-decommissioned police headquarters into affordable housing. Among the speakers were a retired teacher assistant, an ex-prisoner, and a woman who was left homeless after a house fire. Many held mirrors. The Rev. Heather Rodrigues of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church explained why: “What we do with the land around us reflects who we are, and what we believe, as a community.”
The event’s key sponsor was Durham Congregations Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN), a multifaith organization that works on issues involving low- and moderate-income residents. The Rev. Herbert Davis, who co-chairs CAN’s strategy team, calls it a platform for translating religious conviction into community-building—“so that you’re reading Scripture in a way that you feel called to address injustice.”
After the City Hall press conference, I had coffee with CAN’s lead organizer, Ivan Parra. He explained that the organization’s priorities are bottom-up and come from intensive listening sessions, with literally thousands of people, which the leaders of CAN’s member institutions are trained to conduct. “People are invited to talk in very personal terms,” he said.
CAN then hashes out options for smarter policies. “If affordable housing is the big problem, and we can’t get inclusionary zoning, what is the most strategic path?” Parra said. They decided to focus on one power the City Council retains, even in the face of state preemption: determining what happens to city-owned land.
Still, CAN knew the fight to build inexpensive housing on the police site would meet resistance: Some city staffers wanted to sell it to the highest bidder and use the proceeds for affordable housing elsewhere. To overcome those objections, “we’d really need to push hard, in a very public way,” Parra said.
After the outdoor event disbanded, the crowd moved into City Hall, where the council was meeting. They took almost every available seat and deputized a spokesman to address the council formally. That afternoon, following a long discussion, council members agreed to list affordable housing as their top priority in the site’s redevelopment.
Afterward, Parra sent me a text. “The craft of building community,” he wrote, “requires 1) relational face to face meetings, 2) training of leaders, 3) collective planning/analysis of power situation, 4) collective action.”
Yes, and more. It also requires a willingness to confront difficult truths about inequality and poverty. These are principles that are baked, albeit imperfectly, into this city’s value system. “Durham has a tradition of fixing problems in public,” said Parra.
If Durham’s history is proof of anything, it stands for the idea that building community is an all-hands effort that requires buy-in from everybody—elected officials, civic organizations, religious leaders, artists, and businesses. And it can only be built by lowering barriers—to owning a home, to exhibiting your paintings, to launching a startup, to gaining a voice in public policy, to feeling like you belong in the town square.