Braggtown, like many predominantly Black neighborhoods in Durham, was settled by formerly enslaved people.
Liberated from the vast Stagville plantation at the end of the Civil War, these men and women migrated south of the Eno River a few miles to what was then a rural Durham County crossroads.
Today, residents of Braggtown are at another kind of crossroads for their community: the proposed development of hundreds of upscale homes and apartments that could level forest land in the neighborhood, cause property taxes to rise, and squeeze out low-income residents.
It would be the kind of transformation that has hopped around Durham for years, as the city’s resurgence has made overlooked – and often neglected – neighborhoods targets for private investment.
“There was a time, 12 years ago, when downtown was pretty boarded up [with] not much investment,” former City Manager Thomas Bonfield said in August, shortly before retiring. “People wanted Durham to be different. And I think that we have worked really hard across a lot of sectors to create a different Durham.” But this transformation, Bonfield said then, means the city and its communities need to determine what they want from Durham’s growth.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Constance Wright, vice chair of the Braggtown Community Association. “It just hurts to see how all the different parts of town that I’ve lived in has been either gentrified, or a highway has gone through it, or the houses are no longer there.”
“And then when you hear a city council member tell you that if somebody buys an empty lot beside your house,” said Wright, “and wants to build a million-dollar house beside your house, that your property taxes are gonna go up because of that house and there’s nothing you can do about it. I mean how does that sound?”
Already, community opposition led the Durham Planning Commission in August to vote against two adjacent rezoning proposals that would allow nearly 900 apartments, townhouses and single-family homes on around 180 acres, mostly woodlands, in Braggtown. The majority of the land is owned by Leonard B. Shaffer of Joven Properties, a longtime developer in Durham.
Despite the commission’s vote, the planning department staff says that the development is compatible with city guidelines, and the matter goes next to the City Council. A hearing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 16.
Life in Braggtown
Over time, parts of Braggtown have become a vibrant commercial hub with hundreds of businesses catering to a predominantly Black and Hispanic clientele.
It is a reminder for some of the other communities of color that were displaced in the 1970s by urban renewal and the construction of the Durham Freeway. Those are painful memories for longtime residents such as Wright and Vannessa Mason-Evans, chair of the Braggtown Community Association.
“I have lived in Braggtown all my life,” said Mason-Evans. “I am a descendant of slaves from both sides of my family. My mother’s side were slaves from Granville County and my father is a descendant of slaves from the Chatham County area.”
Gentrification, by its very nature, targets communities that don’t have a lot of resources to put up a fight. They are often neighborhoods that have struggled to gain political power and win amenities and attention from City Hall.
Braggtown residents are mostly lower-income and people of color. According to census figures, the typical median household income is around $32,000, less than 60 percent of the county average. More than a third of the residents live below the poverty line. Housing is modest. The median value of owner-occupied homes is $108,000, about half the county average, and three-quarters of the community’s housing are rentals.
All this makes it a challenge for people like Mason-Evans and Wright, who are trying to convince politicians and potential allies that Braggtown wants to shape its own destiny.
For years, they haven’t had much help.
“We’ve been wanting a community center for years ever since I was a little girl; my parents wanted a community center,” said Mason-Evans. “But the city has never given us that, and they’ve always said we were annexed out. And they have never wanted to give us any type of funding,” Mason-Evans said.
So getting after-school programs and other services has been a struggle, she said. The only community space available to a select few residents was a private recreation center at the Oxford Manor apartments.
A community organizes
In an effort to revitalize and beautify the community, Mason-Evans helped found the Braggtown Community Association four years ago. Wright would join the Association shortly after.
Mason-Evans has worked with the Parks and Recreation Department to clean up Lakeview Park, to reopen a closed-down county library branch this year, and to establish a Braggtown community garden.
In Red Maple Park where Wright lives, the community holds neighborhood clean-up events and has been working with TreesDurham, an advocate for urban forest preservation, to plant trees in a park rebuilt in 2015.
“My dream has always been to have an eating community where, you know, people can just walk and pull food off the trees,” Wright said.
This was the community trying to improve Braggtown, Mason-Evans points out, actions that have increased local developers’ interest in the neighborhood.
In an effort to save the history and heritage of Braggtown, the community association zeroed in on the proposed housing development along East Carver Street and Old Oxford Road. It would remove a broad swath of woodlands at a time when one of the city’s highest priorities is the preservation of its tree canopy.
This has brought on a partnership with TreesDurham. One of the developers originally agreed to preserve about 20 percent of the trees. Community opposition boosted that commitment to 21 percent.
“The environmental justice concerns of clear-cutting forest within a historically Black neighborhood are . . . important to consider,” said Jason Arrol, a Braggtown resident and community association member during the August planning commission meeting.
“We’re getting development that is centered around urban sprawl,” said Katie Rose Levin, executive director of TreesDurham. “The main purpose is to build a lot of houses very quickly with the most profit for the developer. The design aggravates climate change, cements a reliance on fossil fuels, creates flooding and heat islands and heat sickness because there’s no emphasis on conservation.”
The community is dissatisfied with this 21 percent increase, calling for at least 35 percent. They’re also calling for guarantees of affordable housing.
“In the beginning, they only want to give us 10 affordable houses,” Wright said. “That was a slap in the face. Then they turned around and they said 20 affordable houses. That’s still a slap in the face.”
“We’re trying to collaborate and make a beautiful community for Black and Brown people,” said Mason-Evans. “We’re trying to make sure we have affordable housing for people and that we’re not just making our community beautiful for [the city] to come push us out and let white people come live in this community.”
The fight for Braggtown has become a template of sorts for other neighborhoods looking for a more equitable development process.
Three miles to the southeast, across I-85, sits the Merrick Moore neighborhood, where resident Bonita Green is worried about 400 acres of woodland purchased for development in her community and surrounding ones.
“Our concerns are around safety as well as the environment and affordable housing,” Green said, noting that as trees come down and developments go up, property taxes have also increased.
Like the Braggtown residents, Merrick Moore won a recent rezoning skirmish. At a Sept. 22 meeting, the planning commission voted unanimously against the Merrick Moore rezoning proposal. A final decision, as with Braggtown, will come from council in six to eight weeks. But Green described the vote as a victory.
The Walltown community has also been working with the city and developers to understand what the renovation of Northgate Mall will mean for them. Dataworks NC, which seeks to empower citizens, highlighted community concerns around resident input during this development. One typical comment gathered by the group: “I’m concerned that the developer does not respect or understand the community, and as a result will change the community for the worse.”
The view from the planning commission
The planning commission, an advisory body made up of community experts and residents, is calling for a system for development that prioritizes public input.
After the Aug. 11 commission meeting, planning commissioner Nate Baker outlined his concerns with Durham development in a recommendation letter to the city council, explaining that although the developer has met all city requirements, the considerable community push back is indicative of a broken system.
“Durham needs significant overhauls and comprehensive amendments to its development regulations that make Durham more green, walkable, sustainable, and equitable. That overhaul would benefit neighborhoods like Walltown and Braggtown, who are fighting for things that could simply be requirements.”
He said that more needs to be done proactively by governmental institutions to support community efforts, noting that although the increases in trees saved and in affordable housing are good, they “STILL not are not good enough”.
Levin echoed Baker’s sentiment, highlighting that although the planning commission has been consistent in its call for systemic change, the planning department has been consistently pro-development.
“The planning department needs to work with the communities to create a vision of what they want to see, and then the planning department should clearly articulate those visions to the developers,” Levin said. “Right now the planning department just starts with what the developers want, and then works backwards to see how they can make that work.”
The planning commission’s votes against the Braggtown and Merrick Moore rezonings do not guarantee a rejection of the proposals by the city council.
The City Council perspective
Ward 2 council member Mark-Anthony Middleton says he’s been speaking with the residents of Braggtown for quite some time.
“Many of the residents feel that this development will not only further the march of gentrification, but do violence to the culture, the feel, and flavor of that community,” he said.
Middleton commended the Braggtown community for their passion and hard work and for the progress they’ve been able to make in getting compromise from the developer without a push from the city.
Many in the community call City Council pro-development, with a seeming readiness to approve rezoning requests.
“There are some developers who feel we’re very anti-development,” Middleton responded. “I think one thing that people have to realize is that capitalism is pro-development. People need to understand that their government . . . we’re not as powerful as people think we are.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said something similar. “The problem is that the city doesn’t have the authority to regulate the housing market in any way that can prevent gentrification. We cannot tell a property owner that they cannot build at all,” she said.
Middleton went on to say that the proposal is not a done deal. Between now and Nov. 16, the developer can come back with revisions that better incorporate community demands.
“I don’t want folks to be discouraged by the seeming appearance of a Goliath-type developer with all his money. And I know that that’s a very real dynamic. But this is Durham, where we elect people that we vet and we expect to listen to people and to represent Durham values.”
Even if the city council rejects the proposal, the developer still owns the land and can do whatever they want with it within city laws. Middleton pointed out that this concept of “by-right development” is one part of the capitalist system which often leaves people out of conversations.
“The City Council needs to refuse rezonings, unless they provide what is needed for Durham,” countered Levin.
She explained that although a developer who owns land can legally develop the land without city approval, they are limited in what the city’s Comprehensive Plan and Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) outline can be done with that land. Levin points out that very often, the land cannot be developed in a profitable way unless developers go to council for rezoning.
Rezonings like this are often the best way to provide more affordable options for residents, said Johnson. “When we don’t rezone in cases like this what we’re likely to get is actually less homes and less affordability. Even though what we’re getting if we do rezone is not as much affordability as we would want.”
On properties like the Old Oxford Road tract, the current zoning under the UDO would allow for the development of bigger and fewer homes on larger lots, Johnson said. As a result, rather than developing cheaper, higher-density duplexes and apartments, the land as currently zoned can be used for expensive single-family homes. Johnson explains that without a rezoning, property values, and taxes, could only rise further.
Higher-density residences are better for the environment, Johnson said, a statement that Levin disagreed with.
“The City Council and the developers have created this narrative that more housing, or more density, equals better for the environment, better for the community, but that’s not correct,” Levin said.
Middleton and Johnson said they are still waiting for more information on the development before deciding how they’ll vote.
“I think people just don’t understand that we cannot prevent development by not rezoning something,” Johnson said, noting that a historically Black neighborhood like Braggtown expressing substantial concern for the loss of homes and livelihoods because of development is something she takes very seriously.
“I think what I need to understand more about before deciding whether this proposal is a good idea is what’s option B? I find the question of ‘what gets built there by default’, very concerning” Johnson said.
“The people of Braggtown certainly have my ear and have my attention,” Middleton said.
“Can the system be made better? Absolutely. And does money make a difference? Absolutely. But I think one lesson we can take from Braggtown is that an organized, impassioned community can meet big money toe to toe,” he said.
On the horizon
The 9th Street Journal reached out to Horvath Associates, the civil engineering and landscape architecture firm working on the Braggtown development on behalf of Joven Properties. Tim Sivers, president of the firm and lead on the project, said he was unable to comment on the project or community concerns at this time.
“Developers should be willing to sit down and talk with community members,” said Mason-Evans, “to see what their needs are and what they would like to see in their community, but so far the people that we’ve talked with, they didn’t come to us. We went to them.”
When developers were holding their community meetings, they notified residents within 1,000 feet of the project. Although this distance is above the city’s requirements, Mason-Evans said many people still didn’t hear about the meetings because “there’s nothing but woods around the particular area that they invited.”
“Laws are made to protect white people, or to make their lives easier, but it makes our lives hard under the laws of the white man,” said Mason-Evans.
“We’re doing a lot of fighting. It’s not just for affordable housing. We’re fighting for the rights of people to have a place to stay and live comfortable and not feel like they are not included.”
9th Street journalist Cameron Oglesby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At top: A section of East Carver Street where both sides of the road are included in development plans. Photo by Henry Haggart.