Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published by “Frances Beroset”

Resurrecting Durham’s nearly-lost African-American cemetery

Growing up, I always believed it was disrespectful to walk across graves. At Geer Cemetery, it’s impossible to avoid. Geer is one of Durham’s oldest African-American cemeteries. About four acres large, the cemetery holds more than 1,500 people, but most of the graves are unmarked—a 1992 canvas counted about 100 graves.

The first burial took place 12 years after the end of the Civil War, in 1876. An 11-year-old child died after falling from a mule or a horse while working on the Geer farm and was buried on the land. His name is lost. In 1877, according to a handwritten county deed, white farmer James B. Geer sold the land to a group of three African-American Durhamites—prior to the formation of Durham County from parts of Wake and Orange counties in 1881—so that it could be used as a cemetery for African-Americans.

The project began in 2004. Jessica Eustice, an adult basic education adjunct instructor at Piedmont Community College and Durham Tech, born and raised in Durham, chose the house she lives in now partially because its proximity to Geer Cemetery reminded her of another abandoned cemetery near where she grew up in western Durham.

When there would be a storm blowing up in the afternoon in the summer, and the ozone is all in the air, and it’s just this moment of wind and anticipation, I would stand by the screen door and look down toward the cemetery and feel like the wind was blowing the spirits up out of it,” Eustice said. “And I always wondered about that. Maybe I was influenced by Casper the Friendly Ghost or something!”

The Friends of Geer project, website and Facebook group began as a project for course Eustice took at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies in 2003. When Eustice and her husband first moved into the neighborhood, the cemetery, which is off Colonial Street in Duke Park, was nearly impassable.

“Back in those days there was all this wisteria all over the place and poison ivy,” she said. “I mean, it was just like a jungle. It was really a jungle in there.”

The names in the cemetery are those of Durham’s oldest and most prominent families: Mangums and Markhams and the Geers, all three of which can also be found in Durham’s Maplewood Cemetery. One of the most well-known burials at Geer is Edian D. Markham, who founded St. Joseph’s AME Church in Durham and organized Durham’s Hayti district.

Through the cemetery there’s a pine needle path where the poison oak and English ivy have been mostly cut back. It’s covered, partly, in grainy yellow Chapel Hill gravel—part of an Eagle Scout’s project last year, Eustice said. He also added two small benches along the path.

A toppled gravestone at Geer Cemetery (Frances Beroset

“So now it’s almost a park,” she said. “Not quite, but it could be one day. Like a memorial park where people could go and sit and get some fresh air and visit with the ancestors.”

Today, certain sections of the cemetery are still inaccessible if you aren’t willing to risk poison ivy and oak, but progress has been made. New solid marble markers label the three different parts of the cemetery. Piles of tree branches sit waiting to be collected. Someone has left real flowers on an overturned grave. Most of the gravestones, if they have any epitaph at all, read “at rest.” One reads “Just sleeping.” Massive oak and maple trees shade almost all the graves in Geer Cemetery.

A stark contrast is just a few minutes to the west, the sunny, 120-acre Maplewood Cemetery.  Most graves here are carefully marked with a massive headstone and footstone, some with towering obelisks and elaborate mausoleums, including those of the Duke family and the Mangums. Peppered intentionally with Cypress and magnolia trees, the paths are paved. All of the grass is freshly mown. An ostentatious memorial to Julian Carr and his family greets visitors. The City of Durham established Maplewood cemetery in 1872, only four years before the founding of Geer Cemetery, and most of the graves in the historic section of Maplewood date to around the same time.

On the day that I visit Maplewood, city of Durham workers are cutting down damaged trees and hauling them away. The city only operates two cemeteries: Maplewood and Beechwood. Beechwood is a historically African-American cemetery where many prominent city residents are interred, including the founder of North Carolina Central University, James Shephard. Beechwood opened to replace Geer Cemetery in 1924, though the last burial at Geer occurred in 1944. Some graves were moved from Geer to Beechwood at that time. As of now, nobody owns Geer, but Eustice thinks the city should take responsibility.

I know the city is relatively uninterested in their cemeteries,” Eustice said. “But yeah, I think the state law specifies that if a cemetery is abandoned, the city in which it’s abandoned should take it over. The cemetery is full of sunken graves, and of course, people walking in there could fall in the grave and be injured. There is nobody that’s gonna be responsible for that, so the city should be, they should do something either to prevent that from happening or to take responsibility if it does.”

The city is empowered to take responsibility for abandoned cemeteries by N.C. General Statute 160A-344, but the law doesn’t say that it must—only that it may assume control of a cemetery “the trustees or owners named in the deed or deeds for the property have died, or are unknown.” The Durham Cemeteries Management department did not respond to requests for comment.

Eustice has ceded some of the reins of Friends of Geer to Debra Taylor Gonzalez-Garcia, who has taken steps to contact descendants of the people buried at Geer Cemetery, repairing some fallen headstones, and showing people how to clean the headstones so they aren’t damaged.

“She’s really getting things going, and the relatives are responding in really positive ways. So I think there’s a lot more energy around the whole preservation project of Friends of Geer than there ever has been before,” Eustice said.

Though Eustice isn’t Christian, she said the historical value of the cemetery and its spiritual significance to others, is what motivated her work on Geer Cemetery over the last 15 years.

Southern history has a lot of influence on my life and my thinking, and so just the fact that the cemetery was all but abandoned, is really a very big contrast between Geer [and Maplewood],” Eustice said. “It was such a concrete representation of the erasure of African-Americans in American history. And so my whole interest in it is it’s a concrete way of teaching American history.”

Photo at top by Frances Beroset.

The enigma of Union Member House, Durham’s hottest new club

If you’re a yuppie, or soon-to-be yuppie, on Facebook in Durham, it’s hard to escape the somewhat mysterious advertisements for something called Union Member House.

If you google “union member house durham nc,” the first result is a get-offline.com blog post titled “Is Union Member House the Coolest New Hangout Spot in Durham?” The interior design of the club depicted in the advertisements seems designed for Instagram: a green vintage sports car, a shelf of coffee-table books. A pink fluorescent cursive sign mounted on a wall of green plants reads “Come as strangers, Leave as friends.”

And that’s the idea. Actually, the idea is for Union, as founder Sonny Caberwal calls it, to be a “third place,” which isn’t home or work. In practical terms, Union Member House isn’t that enigmatic. It’s a social club: pay $250 a year as an entry fee, and you gain access to the club. During the day, it’s like a coffee shop. At night, it’s dinner or a bar. It host events for networking. When I interviewed Caberwal recently, people were having a book club at a table nearby, discussing Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.”

Caberwal has always connected people. As an undergraduate at Duke, and as a Sikh from Asheboro, he says he disliked going to parties with only white people or only black people. He took it upon himself to “throw parties where different people would come together.”

Caberwal says Union is the 10th startup he’s been a part of, and the fourth he’s led. Most recently, Caberwal founded a company called Bond, which would mimic a handwritten note for $3.50. All you had to do was type the message and your recipient’s address into the site and enter your credit card information.

“Being nice to your customers isn’t just the nice or right thing to do,” he told a Entrepreneur.com. “It’s also good for business.” The site closed last month.

Caberwal, who graduated from Duke in 2001, says that his newest effort came about because in the modern age, most people are “poorly networked,” and because of that, social clubs are more important.

“A library can be a social club, a church can have a social club aspect to it, fitness groups,” Caberwal said. But whereas the hallmark of traditional social clubs, Caberwal is aiming for something different. “We live in a world where we try to be more equal-access as a society, and yet social clubs continue to have an exclusionary tone to them. The Wing is for women. WeWork is for entrepreneurs, Soho House is for… creatives. Country clubs are for, you know, people who like golf and tennis and live in a certain area.”

Union Member House certainly doesn’t look like how I imagine a country club—there’s a lot of concrete and exposed brick, for one. Artistically mismatched leather and velvet furniture form little seating areas throughout. And it’s actually in a basement, so every few minutes, the light from the windows gets blocked as a truck rolls past on Roxboro Street outside. Still, when I tried to describe Union Member House to my mother, she replied, “That’s a country club for yuppies who live in a city.” I put that to Caberwal, but he says Union Member House is different. Comparing the club to Crossfit, he says Union Member House is not for everyone—but it is for anyone who wants it.

“If you apply to Union, you will get in,” Caberwal said.

To claims of exclusionism—after all, $250 isn’t cheap—Caberwal says he’s working on ways to make it more accessible, but also that Union is already more accessible than it seems.

“We’re certainly more accessible than the YMCA. We’re more accessible than your parking pass. We’re more accessible than buying Starbucks every day,” he said. “So at the price point that we’re offering, $20 a month, and staffing people—there is a huge financial undertaking to build an institution that’s just dedicated to connecting people, without any financial incentive for us, and I don’t ever want there to be incentive to the connections that we provide people.”

Nonetheless, Union Member House has already been a target for criticism, first for a photography exhibit it initially called “Do It Like Durham,” also the slogan coined by activists who toppled the Confederate statue—the club later posted an apology note on Facebook explaining that the person who titled the exhibit wasn’t aware of its connection an existing movement—but also for the name of the club itself. The average Union Member House member is almost certainly not a union member.

“I think names should represent what you do, and I think that there are a lot of meanings of union, but the goal of Union is to bring people together,” Caberwal explained. “We’re doing it in college towns, and I thought it was like student unions, but really it’s about bringing people together. That’s our No. 1 goal.”

A storytelling event at Union Member House (Photo courtesy of Union Member House)

But why union members? Surely to most people the combination of the two words signifies members of a labor union.

“It is a challenge, it’s a challenge that people are like, hey it’s a worker’s union. My last company was called Bond, and bond means lots of things to lots of people. A bond is literally a financial instrument; it can also mean a relationship,” Caberwal said. “Union can be a labor union, it can also be a marital union, you know? For many people, and calling it Union Member House is particularly challenging, and probably not the best long-term name, right? Because like, a union member, that’s like even more loaded. It’s not intentional. My goal is to make it inexpensive, my goal is not to make it free. The reason I don’t make it free is because people don’t put effort into free. You have to put effort into making community.”

Part of the reason Union Member House came about, Caberwal says in the interview and in a letter posted on its site and Facebook, is because last year he experienced some unexpected health complications—a growth in his lymph nodes—and began to “re-evaluate.” Caberwal canceled a move to New York, enrolled his two children back in school at Durham Academy and asked his wife, who he says is “really cool,” if they could stay in Durham and he could try to do Union Member House full time for a year. The building previously housed the Durham Masonic Lodge, and later the Durham Health Department, but has been empty since 1992. According to the UMH website, a second location is planned to open in Austin, Texas, in 2019, and a third in Madison, Wisc., in 2020.

“I feel less risk around what will happen if we do this, than like, what will happen if I don’t try? I just want to try,” Caberwal said. “And if it doesn’t work out, I take that as a sign too.”

Caberwal, who describes himself as a “fairly scrappy entrepreneur,” views his role as setting things up for other people to succeed. He doesn’t see the club as his life’s work, and suggested that he plans to eventually hand it over to new management.

“Union is not my thing,” Caberwal said. “I don’t view it that way. My role as a founder and a leader is to empower and support talented people. So if you were to ask, ‘what are the things that keep you up at night?’ It would be people. People are the asset and the focus. And my job is to find and support great people. So I don’t think of this as ‘my task.’ I have a dream and a goal.”

Union Member House employed eight people in late November of last year, according to the tour guide when I toured at that time, around when they opened. Caberwal says he can’t disclose how many people are employed there now, but he says there are four people whose full-time job is to facilitate connections between people.

Of course, facilitating connections between people is Union Member House’s whole mission. It’s neither a standard coworking space nor a country club, but it functions as both—a place for people willing to pay for access to an attractive space where you can never be totally sure whether you’re at work or not. Caberwal isn’t really concerned about people who take issue with the name or concept. He’s selling connections, and he’s confident that there are buyers.

Photo at top courtesy of Union Member House.

Cocoa Cinnamon and the art of the coffee shop

During a recent visit to Cocoa Cinnamon’s Geer Street cafe for my customary rose petal-garnished latte, a woman came in, got in line, and after a moment, whispered to me, “What is this?” I told her it was a coffee shop, and she nodded, ordered a pastry, and left.

It’s not clear what she was expecting when she walked in, but I can understand the confusion. Even Cocoa Cinnamon’s owners approach their shops more as art projects than just another place to get coffee.

“We are artists,” Areli Barrera de Grodski told me recently at a table at the Lakewood location. “Leon was an installation artist before this, and a lot of his artist friends were like, ‘Why did you stop making art?’ And he’s like, ‘I haven’t.’ This is an installation, and this is very much all of our energy and our selves are being poured into these shops. Roasting coffee is an art in itself.”

Barrera de Grodski looks the part of an artist: she wears a pink biker jacket over a black shirt, statement earrings, a bunch of rings and a button with a little drawing of a hand giving a middle finger on it. If you drink coffee in Durham, you’ll likely recognize Barrera de Grodski from a visit to Cocoa Cinnamon, one of the city’s most recognizable and ubiquitous local coffee businesses. She and her husband, Leon Barrera de Grodski, co-own the business, which has grown to three coffee shops and a roastery, which resides behind glass at Cocoa Cinnamon’s most recent location in the Lakewood neighborhood.

The name, Areli Barrera de Grodski explained, came to her husband in a dream.

I call it the beta waves right before you’re awake and still kind of asleep,” Barrera de Grodski said, laughing a little. “I also call it the god mind—it’s where all the creative juices come and it’s just like you’re not even in your own body, everything’s just flowing. ‘Cocoa Cinnamon’ came to him in that state.”

The counter at Cocoa Cinnamon Lakewood (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Neither of the Barrera de Grodskis have any business schooling, and Areli’s discussions of the business focus more on aesthetics and experiences. She described the concept behind a series of paintings she plans on adding to the Lakewood location once they have enough to pay a local muralist, a history of coffee from two perspectives: indigenous people and Westerners.

“The name was inspired by the spice trade routes and the history of human migration,” Barrera de Grodski said. “It’s just looking at everything we work with and looking at its origins and its history and the cultures and the people that are involved in all of this. That’s what inspires our menu, and I think the idea of stories and relationships and coffee being this catalyst for conversation is what drives our business.”

Despite scrappy origins as a bicycle-borne coffee cart, the business now employs at least 38 employees—a few new hires are so new they aren’t in the shop’s system yet. And Barrera de Grodski said she wants the shop to start careers for their employees, not just jobs.

The couple’s journey in business began shortly after they were married in 2010, when they began selling chocolates that were made in Barrera de Grodski’s mother’s kitchen in Cherokee, N.C., but inspired by her native Tijuana, Mexico.

That was really fun for me to learn the history of chocolate and find out where it actually came from,” Barrera de Grodski said. “It just really rooted me in my own identity and culture.”

When the couple decided to move to Durham in 2011, they knew they wanted to open a coffee shop, but that they wanted to have a “genuine relationship” with the community around Geer Street before opening. The words “bike coffee” came to Leon Barrera de Grodski in a dream, too. So, with $75 in their bank account and no credit but a drive to succeed, they bought a rickshaw, went to Seven Star Cycles downtown and got help from friends and community members to engineer a bike, christened bikeCOFFEE, that could carry an espresso machine. Their first model didn’t exactly work out.

“The bike is built, and it’s like 400 pounds by itself,” Barrera de Grodski said. “Leon starts riding it around and like, flips it. He was like, ‘There’s no way we’re going to add a 500-pound espresso machine on the back of this.’”

Instead, they settled on serving pour-overs and iced coffee instead of espresso. The Barrera de Grodskis ran bikeCOFFEE for a year, selling outside of Fullsteam Brewery and Motorco just as Durham’s food-truck scene was exploding. They then started a Kickstarter for their first shop. The Kickstarter netted 640 backers, exceeding their goal, and got a city grant. The first location opened in 2013 in a former garage on Geer Street after help from neighbors and a lot of elbow grease.

“I miss that era… it was very bootstrappy, And we’re still bootstrapping it, I’m not going to lie,”  Barrera de Grodski said. “During that time, though, there was a different excitement in Durham. As soon as we opened the Geer Street location downtown, literally a year later all these development things started happening. There was a boom, Durham started getting all this attention and then all of a sudden all these investors are interested in changing up the scene.”

Barrera de Grodski knows that the city changing can also be labeled gentrification. Even in their early days, they tried to make sure they weren’t just catering to the burgeoning hipster-yuppie population.They would do tastings around town, in particular attempting to reach out to the Latino population in honor of Areli Barrera de Grodski’s heritage and the demographics of the neighborhood into which they and their business had moved.

“I tried to do a tasting in Spanish… that didn’t go so well,” she said. “People were just looking at us like, ‘What are you doing?’ The concept of having a tasting… also like, who are you? Even though we lived in the same apartment complex. They saw us, and they always saw us toting shit up and down the stairs, and they were all friendly, but when we invited them to come taste hot chocolate and coffee and tea… maybe like one or two people came.”

Cocoa Cinnamon has struggled with the same tensions, on a bigger scale, as the business grows. The Lakewood location was previously a “quinceañera hotspot,” and the storefronts around Cocoa Cinnamon have turned over rapidly.

“I know that in this neighborhood has changed drastically over the past two years. And I know that opening up a coffee shop is like the first sign of gentrification,” Barrera de Grodski said. “We’re aware of our role in that, and it’s really important to us to create as much of a positive impact as possible in the neighborhoods that we’re moving into, trying to undo that negative impact.”

Areli Barrera de Grodski poses with 4th Dimension’s coffee roaster, which she calls her “baby.” (Photo by Katie Nelson)

With that in mind, Barrera de Grodski hired mostly Lakewood residents to work at the location, including some staff who speak mostly Spanish. The business pays a living wage, $13.35 an hour. The shop also accepts requests for donations of gift cards or drinks to support Durham non-profit work, which they distribute by committee once a month.

Meanwhile, the business continues to grow. The couple’s newest project is 4th Dimension Coffee, which supplies the cafes and others nationwide with roasted coffee beans. The Barrera de Grodskis trade off responsibilities every so often, so Areli is mostly in charge of 4th Dimension, while Leon manages the shops. The name 4th Dimension is confusing, but Barrera de Grodski notes that they chose a different name so people would understand the coffee isn’t cocoa or cinnamon flavored.

“Leon and I just talked about that this morning. We have our deepest conversations right when we wake up,” Barrera de Grodski said. “He had this dream about how to get people to realize that 4th Dimension Coffee is Cocoa Cinnamon. The reason we named our roastery 4th Dimension is because it’s our approach to coffee. It’s inspired by the Dada movement and surrealism, in terms of being able to see something from different perspectives and different points of view, and needing the information of other things to get the whole picture.”

The whole picture of Cocoa Cinnamon, then, is something like one part world history project, one part art project, and a lot of coffee with a rose-petal garnish—optional, but recommended.

Photo at top by Katie Nelson.

Do the rot thing: Inside Durham’s push for composting

Residents of the city of Durham recently received a survey about a sexy topic: food waste and composting.

Composting can sometimes seem like the province of hippies and/or actual farmers, but Durham’s current strategic plan calls for the city to evaluate ways to increase residential composting. The compost survey, which will be open to residents until the end of May, is the first step in that process. Muriel Williman, the senior assistant manager with the City’s Solid Waste Management Department, is leading that effort.

We want to take the temperature of our city—compost humor—to see what type of services would really work. Would people be willing to pay for it? Can we do a subscription-based program? And so on,” Williman said. “The pilot will be designed, hopefully, to construct a program that is accessible and that works.”

Looking through my own kitchen trash can, to the distress of my roommates, revealed that food waste makes up about a fifth of our apartment’s trash: eggshells, fruit peels, asparagus stems, avocado skins and pits, piles of coffee grounds, and a decaying bunch of aspirational cilantro could all be sent to a composting facility instead.

For Durham, that’s a pretty typical breakdown of household waste. A 2015 city “Waste Characterization Study” found that around 30 percent of Durham residential trash sent to landfills is “food and soiled paper,” both of which could be composted instead. If food waste were its own country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the U.S., according to the United Nations. Most food waste in the U.S. occurs at the consumer level, rather than during food harvest, processing, or even sales.

Durham waste management’s goal is to reduce the weight of city garbage by 10 percent within three years. After reducing the amount of trash we produce in the first place, compost and recycling are the two most obvious options.

The city government isn’t alone. A growing number of local people are already composting, either in their backyard or using a service. CompostNow, a Raleigh-based community composting company, serves more than 2,600 Triangle residents, up from 639 members in 2017, according to Kat Nigro, who is the company’s head of marketing and engagement. (She previously worked at Tilthy Rich, a bicycle-focused composter that CompostNow bought in 2018.)

I think composting is stepping out from the shadows of something your grandfather did or something crazy hippies do, and now it’s kind of stepping into mainstream culture. I think it’s having its moment right now,” Nigro said. “Our members are really vocal about the value of composting and they are not afraid to share it with their neighbors or their school, or get their office on board, and it’s been really amazing to see.”

CompostNow has diverted a little more than 4,000 tons of Triangle trash from landfills since 2011, but according to WRAL, Durham County produced 285,477 tons of waste in 2015, with a population of 297,219 people. In other words, we each produced approximately ten times our own weight in trash. But of course, not everyone produces the same amount of trash.

The people who are contributing to climate change the most are the more privileged affluent communities, but unfortunately the people who are going to feel the effects of climate change first are going to be the lower-income communities. So that discrepancy is obviously on my mind,” Nigro said. “Some people look at us and say, ‘You guys charge for the service?’ and we say, yes, we have to charge for the service because of where we’re at with waste management right now. it’s still cheaper to throw away things, that’s the bottom line.”

CompostNow costs around $29 per month for weekly pickup. But in Durham, trash pickup is paid for by taxes and has no additional fee, though residents can pay $7.50 a month for weekly yard-waste pickup. It’s those customers who would most likely be targeted by the pilot program, Williman said. Of the 20,000 current subscribers, about 10 percent might have the opportunity to also add their food waste as as a test of potential curbside compost collection.

Williman hopes to design a program which is not only functional but accessible to all residents. The composting survey is offered in English and Spanish to help reach different communities in the city.

“We want to make sure this program is accessible to people that come from different demographics—maybe English is not their first language, maybe they’ve never composted before, maybe they’re in a lower economic bracket than someone with a college education who has property and has been composting forever,” Williman said.

Durham has more eco-friendly options for residents than just about anywhere else in the state, and Mayor Steve Schewel’s campaign website even included an entire page about his position and priorities on waste management, which includes the improbable sentence, “Steve believes we can find opportunities in trash.” According to Matt Kopac, chair of the Durham City-County Environmental Affairs Board, Schewel as a city councilman spearheaded the 2015 waste characterization study, which was the first time the city had real data on the breakdown of waste in the community.

I would definitely describe Durham as a sustainability-focused city. In addition to being a city that advocates for environmental justice, there is palpable action around issues concerning social and racial equity and inclusive growth,” Dr. Cristian Roberto Valle Kinloch, a member of the Durham City-County Environmental Affairs Board, wrote in an email.

On a practical level, Durham already has a state permit to compost yard waste and biosolids—also known as treated sewage—from the waste-water treatment facility. That project has been delayed some due to the unusually rainy winter, Williman said.

“This is a system we want to get right,” Williman said. “Once [the city’s contractors] have that well in hand and it’s operating perfectly as permitted—and that includes reaching temperatures that are necessary to kill pathogens—once they have that straight with the biosolids and the yard waste, they’ll be able to add food waste.”

In addition to fertilizing depleted urban soil, composting can also slow down the rate at which landfills are used up. Durham’s landfill closed in 1998, and the land can never be used for anything else. The city now sends its solid waste to a landfill in Sampson County, east of Fayetteville, where decomposing food produces methane, a greenhouse gas.

CompostNow sends what it collects to the Brooks Compost Facility in Goldston, N.C. (Courtesy Brooks Contractor)

“It’s a waste of a valuable resource, it’s a waste of money,” Kopac said. “So not only are we not harvesting these organic materials to be turned into compost to help enrich our soil, we’re also paying money to ship and throw away this valuable resource, so it’s sort of a double loss. so I think the city’s move toward having more residential composting is important and powerful.”

Even without the city’s composting service in place, residents who are willing to pay extra to lower their carbon footprint have a range of private-sector options. There’s Fillaree, which offers refillable glass and aluminum containers of toiletries and dish soap; GreenToGo, a service which lets Durhamites get reusable to-go boxes at participating restaurants; and Ungraded Produce, a produce delivery service founded by two Duke students that sends subscribers boxes of aesthetically imperfect fruits and vegetables which might have otherwise gone to waste. Advocates view this market as evidence that Durham is primed to compost more.

“I don’t think something like Tilthy Rich could have done as well as it did in any other place at that time,” Nigro said. “Durham was so special, and I just think back to the year 2016. The next year we doubled our membership, and that could have only happened in a place like Durham where a lot of us have that collective mindset of protecting this community and protecting our natural resources.”

Images of Brooks composting facility, the site CompostNow uses, reveals that the operation is basically a dirt lot in Goldston filled with orderly long piles of compost-to-be, which Nigro said are usually eight feet high. The temperature of each pile can reach 160 degrees due to the exertions of worms, mites, fungi, and bacteria, and as a result, the process from trash to humus takes only three months. Backyard composting, Nigro said, can take six to eight months.

The city currently provides a 25-page guide to composting at home, which is helpful because there’s more to composting than just putting all your biodegradable trash into a pile in the yard. Good composting—the kind that produces usable fertilizer and limited amounts of methane gas—requires frequent turning and a relatively consistent balance of different types of waste. It’s easier, and cheaper, to send food scraps, like the rest of our trash, to a landfill. Because of that, Nigro says, CompostNow isn’t worried about the competition from a possible municipal government program.

We do not care how people compost—if it’s in their backyard, using a drop-off service, a municipality service, our service,” Nigro said. “For us it doesn’t matter, we just want people to be composting. Food waste is huge. This is a huge problem to tackle, and there’s enough of it that it’s going to take so many different people, so many different players in this game. So we don’t shy away from that, and we don’t want to discourage the city in any capacity because we believe there’s enough of it to go around.”

(Photo at top by Bailey Garrot)

‘This Is a Target-Rich Environment’: Inside the Rhine Research Center’s Parapsychology Probes

Five minutes from Duke Hospital, in a quiet office park that also houses the offices of U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a real-estate agent, a financial coach, and a dentist, the Rhine Research Center is open for its eighth decade of business.

At first glance, the space could pass for the home of any other association—cookie-cutter office chairs, fluorescent lights, and shelves of old volumes collecting dust. It’s the details that suggest something different. A bust of J.B. Rhine, the center’s long-deceased founder, glowers at visitors across from a kitschy glass goblet full of bent spoons, and every now and then the phone rings, with someone calling to report a paranormal experience.

John Kruth stands in the “receiver’s room” at the Rhine Research Center. This is where research subjects attempt to perceive observations made by people in another room, a process that is being revised. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

John Kruth, the executive director, sits at a table with his laptop and cell phone. Wearing glasses, a goatee, two silver rings and a turquoise collared shirt, Kruth doesn’t look like a stereotypical scientist. HIs phone’s ringtone is a Star Trek sound effect. He refers to the movie “Ghost” a lot, usually in a derisive way. Kruth has spent the past ten years researching in a field most people believe to be pseudoscience. The Rhine Research Center investigates parapsychology: extrasensory perception, psychokinesis, precognition, hypnosis, and energy healing, among other phenomena. He feels like he’s found his calling, and his work at the Rhine is only getting started.

Kruth has had an interest in parapsychology since his childhood growing up in Pittsburgh, but says conversations with skeptics inspired him to wonder how to communicate about parapsychology with people who don’t know anything about it. That’s when he realized he needed a science degree, and earned an M.S. in research psychology.

“I actually grew up in a family and a community where it was very well accepted, these types of activities. I was practicing hypnosis and meditation from the time I was a very, very small child, and did visualization techniques, had different people in my family who were healers and doing energy healing, so it was not uncommon for me,” Kruth says. “But when I tried to talk to other people about it, they thought I was nuts!”

Kruth moved to Durham from Philadelphia in the 1980s because the Rhine was located here, but it took him years to first walk through the door. Kruth has now been at the Rhine for 10 years and executive director for seven, and he says he’s doing what he’s wanted to do his whole life: researching parapsychology and communicating the findings to as many interested people as possible.

The Rhine Center is still one of the leading parapsychology laboratories in the country. It’s also one of the few left. But there was a time when the laboratory was cutting-edge science and one of Duke University’s claims to international fame. Parapsychology arose from late-19th century English research into communication with the dead and apparitions. In 1930, Duke became the first American university to grant parapsychology a foothold, largely under the leadership of William McDougall. A British eugenicist and well-known social psychologist, McDougall became head of Duke’s psychology department in 1927 and brought with him to Durham two telepathy and clairvoyance researchers, though they were botanists by training: Joseph Banks Rhine (who Kruth calls “J.B.” in conversation) and his wife, Louisa E. Rhine.

In 1933, Duke awarded the first American doctorate in parapsychology. The student, John F. Thomas, later published the thesis as a book called “An Evaluative Study of Mental Content of Certain Trance Phenomena.” For his thesis, Thomas tested different psychic mediums, primarily a woman named Gladys, to see how accurately they could transmit messages from his own wife, who died nine years before he received his doctorate. Thomas’s research found an overall success rate of 92 percent.

Two years later, with the support of University President William Few, McDougall created the country’s first parapsychology lab, appointing Rhine, “mop-haired ex-Marine sergeant,” as director. The lab quickly captured a great deal of media attention, with The Chronicle reporting in 1937 that “nearly every important journal in England and France during the past year has given accounts to the researches in extra-sensory perception carried on by Dr. J.B. Rhine.”

After McDougall’s death in his home on East Campus in 1938, Rhine dreamed of cleaving the lab from the psychology department, where his colleagues found him to be overly self-promotional. In 1947, the Rhine Lab split from the department but continued on campus with support from the Duke statistics department, which generally found his analysis to be sound. In 1962, Rhine established the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man in a big building a stone’s throw from campus. Though he retired from Duke in 1965, he continued working until 1976, searching for a suitable successor. Rhine died in 1980. His last words to his wife Louisa were reportedly, “The work must go on.”

The work goes on. Sometimes, there are experiments in the labs upstairs. At other times, the center hosts educational events, plus two monthly meetings: the psychic experiences group and the dream studies group. This month, its very Web. 2.0 site advertises two events, one called “Are you an Empath in a World of Chaos?” and the other “Healing through Qigong – Creating Balance.” Four days a week, the book collection, one of the largest parapsychology libraries in the country, is open to all. There’s a small section on aliens, a lot on ESP, plus a complete set of the Journal of Parapsychology, a peer-reviewed journal published in Durham since 1937. On the website, 15 donors have donated $1,040.00 toward a $5,000 fundraising goal to “keep the library current.” (Dr. Sally Rhine Feather, J.B. and Louisa’s daughter, celebrated her 89th birthday in January and is executive director emerita of the center.)

The Rhine Research Center Past collects past issues of the Journal of Parapsychology, which it publishes. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Along with Rhine’s bust, the library is decorated with old technology like Zener cards and the goblet of bent spoons. The cards, which you might remember from the opening scene of “Ghostbusters,” were developed by Karl E. Zener, a Duke professor, for use in ESP experiments. The spoons are leftovers from the Center’s “PSI games,” which Kruth describes as a more entertaining throwback event when compared with the rest of the Center’s business. Kruth says about a third of the participants in PSI games are able to usual visualization techniques to find the strength to bend the spoons. Some people bend so many that they leave them behind at the Center.

“Typically it gets soft, and they become very easy to manipulate and bend,” Kruth says. “My first thought is, oh, they’re using their strength. But the first time we did a session here, we had a woman who was walking from station to station, she had an oxygen tank. Every time we got there she would have to sit down—she was very weak, she was an older woman. And when it came time for the spoon bending, she had two bent spoons. And I was like, ‘There’s no way she used her muscles to do this. This woman can’t even stand up for more than 10 minutes at a time.’”

The center has a sense of humor about itself, but Kruth wants people to know that the research itself is serious.

“I always say this is a target-rich environment,” he says, smiling. “There’s a lot of opportunity, there’s a lot of things that could be studied. There aren’t a lot of parapsychologists in the world who are trained in the scientific aspect of it, and who are trained in the language of math and statistics and the scientific method, and who can also understand the phenomena really well.”

Kruth says that the scientific community can be “dogmatically materialist” in its thinking, and that this paradigm is also generally accepted by the public. Because of this, Kruth says, he doesn’t try to win over dyed-in-the-wool skeptics. But many people are eager to share their own psychic experiences when they find out what he does for a living. Others, he admits, can be derisive.

“One of my very good friends who I spend a lot of time with, as soon as she found out I was here, she was like, ‘You don’t believe that crap, do you?’” Kruth remembers. “She was completely on the materialistic side, but she had no scientific background, had no knowledge of any of the studies, no information about anything that was being done.”

Kruth can’t identify when he first developed an interest in parapsychology. It’s always been a part of his life. Growing up, he and his siblings played with a set of Zener cards, pre-Ghostbusters fame. They would warn friends not to read the answers in Trivial Pursuit silently before they guessed, because otherwise, the Kruth siblings would “get the answer from somewhere.”

“We played games a little different from other people did,” Kruth says with a laugh. He also practiced self-hypnosis and visualization as a child. He recalls a trip to a baseball game where, amid the chaos of a van filled with kids, he sat quietly.

“Somebody asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m doing my visualization for the game. I’m visualizing what’s gonna happen,’” Kruth says. “It surprised me that they didn’t understand what I was talking about and that they thought I was weird for doing this. I thought they were weird for not doing it. To me, this was just what you do; it’s how you make your performance better.”

Today, Kruth runs studies in the Rhine’s lab on whether visualization really can improve real-life goal realization. His primary research interest, however, is energy healing, or bioenergy. He compares parapsychology to quantum physics: Both fields step outside the materialist paradigms, and observer effects are part of both. Kruth predicts that ideas in parapsychology will soon permeate quantum physics, and perhaps his research will be a part of that.

Kruth knows how kooky the notion of energy healing can sound. But he says he’s observed healers emitting low levels of ultraviolet light as they work. He links the light emitted by living organisms, called biophotons, to recent findings in physics and biology. Biophotons are a type of bioluminescence—the same biological process that allows fireflies to produce their own light—though biophotons, unlike firefly bioluminescence, are not visible to the human eye.

“We’re using standard physics and equipment to do this. What it seems that we’re detecting is something that could related to the type of energy that people have been describing for so many years,” Kruth says. “When I have chi masters in there, I can see that some of them can carefully control the light emissions in the studies that we’ve done.”

John Kruth walks through the Rhine Research Center towards rooms where the he and others probe the paranormal. Portraits of former researchers and study subjects line the walls. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Kruth wants to bring younger researchers into parapsychology. In addition to their groups and PSI games, the Center hosts two online courses, one on “advanced field investigations,” which Kruth says is not like T.V. ghost-hunting, and one taught by himself on qualitative analysis methods, a type of research method gaining popularity in the social sciences which uses information impossible to quantify, like interviews and observation. Kruth estimates that the Center has taught more than 500 students via online classes, mostly people who “want to know the real evidence” for the existence of paranormal phenomena.

“For so many years that the work has been done in this field, it has been either marginalized or pushed aside, and a lot of it has to do with the publicity that the skeptical movement has gotten recently,” Kruth says. “This is why we’re kind of changing the way people look at it, and letting them know we’re doing serious science here. We have peer-reviewed journals, we have replications that are going on all the time, and we’re trained as scientists. We’re not just sitting in our basement trying to do this; this is a formal research facility.”

When Kruth considers which phenomena he’s observed in his lifetime has been most surprising to him, you can almost forget he’s not just another materialist scientist in an orthodox discipline.

“We design experiments for our lab. We’re very careful about the way we design them. We’re blinded, we try to make sure there’s no way to cheat: we’re very careful and controlled and everything about how we set them up. We’re so careful about it, that we second-guess ourselves over and over again,” Kruth says. “I’ve done everything I could to make it impossible for someone to do this, and it happens anyway? It surprises me every time. This is why I’m doing this work, I guess. It’s phenomenal, the things that I see. It’s amazing that these things actually happen.”