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Posts published by “Nicole Kagan”

Schewel won’t seek reelection as mayor

Mayor Steve Schewel announced Thursday that he will not seek a third term.

Saying that he had “struggled mightily with this decision,” he told a news conference that he is ready to focus on family and some new priorities.

“I’ve been in local elected office for 14 of the last 17 years. Frankly that’s enough. . . I’m ready for something new. I’m only 70 years old so I’ve got a lot of future ahead of me.”

He said Durham is in good hands with the new city manager, Wanda Page, and he wants to leave the job to someone else so he can focus on a new granddaughter on the way. “I want to be there to help her parents and to be with her fully and completely and I’m very excited about that.”

He said he’s also “looking forward to having dinner with my wife every night.”

Schewel was first elected mayor in 2017 and won reelection in 2019. He had previously served six years on the City Council. In his campaigns for mayor, he has promised to focus on affordable housing, livable wages, equitable transit systems, police reform and LGBTQ rights.

He is probably best known for leading the city and county’s aggressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Durham became the first municipality in North Carolina to adopt a stay-at-home order and mask mandate. 

Schewel is the founder of Indy Week and has taught in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

He said he’s loved his time as mayor. “I’ve been very very lucky in my life. I’ve been able to do a lot of things that I’ve enjoyed, and nothing that I’ve enjoyed as much as this.”

Schewel was asked if he had any advice for his successor. He said, “Durham is a rough and tumble political town, and you’ve really got to be able to roll with it.”

This story will be updated.

Photo at top: Steve Schewel announces he won’t seek reelection in front of City Hall. Photo by Nicole Kagan | The 9th Street Journal

That purple haze from a few streetlights? Just bad bulbs

When some streetlights around North Carolina began mysteriously turning purple this month, residents turned to Reddit for answers. They wondered whether the colored lights were a tribute to Prince, a nod to women’s history month, or the sign of an alien invasion. 

As it turned out, the purple tint was nothing more than some bad light bulbs. 

The streetlights, which are maintained by the power company Duke Energy, changed color due to a manufacturing error with the LED bulbs. It caused their white coating to fade with time, revealing a base purple color underneath.  

Other utilities across the nation using the same stock of lights are experiencing similar issues,” said Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks. “We are working with the vendor to better understand the issue, and they are taking steps to ensure it does not happen again.

Consider yourself lucky if you’ve seen one. Of more than 360,000 LED streetlights in the Carolinas maintained by Duke Energy, only 1.4% of them contain faulty bulbs. 

Still, residents are noticing.

When Shawn Rocco, a multimedia producer at Duke Health, found a cluster of the purple lights near Sherwood Githens Middle School, his first thought was that purple may have been one of the school’s colors.

Rocco was inspired to document the lights in a video set to Jimmy Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”. It wasn’t until he posted the video on Reddit and users commented that he came to understand the real reason behind the mysterious tint. It wasn’t what he expected.

“I’m not an electrical engineer … but I would think they would have tested these before they shipped them,” he said.

According to Duke Energy, the defect is limited to one batch of lights that was manufactured in 2018. The bulbs are only now proving to be defective as the white laminate begins to wear off.

Though Rocco speculated that some drivers could be distracted by the purple hue, Duke Energy maintains that with the lights still working, there is no safety concern. Regardless, field crews aim to replace all of the defective bulbs. The problem is, the company doesn’t necessarily know the location of each affected streetlight.

We’re working to replace them as soon as we identify their location. So we do appreciate the public reporting these lights when they see them, even as we are looking for them ourselves,” Brooks said.

Residents can inform Duke Energy of the purple haze – or any defective streetlight – by filling out an online streetlight repair report or by calling the customer service center at 1-800-777-9898.

Some may be hesitant to take action.

Several Redditors seem to prefer the purple hue. As one poetically put it: “the color … blends in better with the hues of the night sky.”

Photo above: The streetlight on Broad Street near West Knox Street has turned purple. Duke Energy says a small percentage of streetlights have bad bulbs that make them take on the purple haze. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal.

How the Blue Corn Cafe survived the year of COVID-19

At the Blue Corn Cafe, co-owner Danielle Martini-Rios keeps a close eye on her servers’ hands. When she trains them, her directions are clear:

“Don’t touch your hair. Don’t touch your eyes. Don’t touch your mouth.” 

In the age of COVID-19, these things matter. From the location of her servers’ hands to the menu, the pandemic has forced Martini-Rios to make adjustments to keep her restaurant afloat, her employees safe and her customers happy. 

“I’m working harder today than I have since I’ve opened this restaurant,” she said. “This has never happened to any business before in my lifetime.”

“I’m working harder today than I have since I’ve opened this restaurant,” says co-owner Danielle Martini-Rios. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

Martini-Rios and her husband Antonio Rios opened the restaurant on 9th Street in 1997. He is the head chef. They run the business together. Their goal is to provide customers with authentic Latin-American food like slow-roasted pork barbacoa or the house favorite, the Blue Corn quesadilla. 

Everything changed a year ago. As the coronavirus began to spread, Gov. Roy Cooper prohibited indoor dining and Durham shut down. Rios was caught off guard. She had to rethink the way she’d run her restaurant. 

“I knew I had to get back out,” said Martini-Rios, a lively woman who wears her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. “So, how do I make the biggest impact on my community? How can I still bring income in? And how can I try and keep some people employed.”

Almost immediately, Martini-Rios furloughed a majority of her kitchen staff, encouraging them to file for unemployment benefits rather than rely on the restaurant’s suddenly unpredictable takeout revenue.

She often had to improvise. When takeout orders started picking up, her sons pitched in. Her 15-year-old worked the line in the kitchen, and her 20-year-old began working up front waiting tables. Blue Corn also prepared meals to be delivered to workers at Durham hospitals and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, courtesy of the city as well as corporate sponsors and the restaurant itself. 

“We’ve all just taken on different roles,” she said.

The challenging times have meant the cafe had to scale back its ambitious efforts to be a green business. Martini-Rios said they have stopped composting, rethought menu offerings and reverted to plasticware instead of plant-based utensils.

“It’s not a great decision,” she said. “It breaks my heart to hand somebody a plastic straw, but I have to make tough decisions.”

When the state allowed indoor dining to resume June 1, she reopened with new safety measures. She put hand sanitizer bottles throughout the dining room, eucalyptus soap in the bathrooms, and scented candles on the counters to make people feel safe and welcome. Salt and pepper shakers were removed from tables along with all other condiments, now available upon request, to limit the number of surfaces customers could touch.

“We have to be particular because people are on edge,” she said. “It’s my job to look at the small things that make you feel comfortable.” 

Blue Corn Cafe’s assistant manager, Mikayla Brooks, works to ensure that customers are aware of the restaurant’s sanitary efforts. 

“I tell the servers to make sure people see that their stuff is being sanitized because if they see it, they know that we’re putting in the time,” she said. “And if we’re doing it when they’re here, they’ll know that we’re doing it when they’re not here too.”

Salt and pepper shakers were removed from tables and there’s now plenty of hand sanitizer. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

In previous years, holiday dinners at the Blue Corn Cafe have featured live bands with singers strolling through the restaurant. Now, the music is recorded and comes from the overhead speaker system.

Martini-Rios, who just turned 46, was born in Florida and grew up in between Italy and New Jersey with a family that loved playing soccer and cooking together. As she talks about her childhood, her eyes light up behind her glasses. 

“We’re Italian people,” she said. “Everything we do is based on what we’re eating.”

Martini-Rios went to the University of New Hampshire with pre-med plans. Shortly after graduating, she moved to North Carolina to join a women’s soccer league and started waiting tables at a local restaurant. That’s where she met Antonio, who was the head chef. 

Blue Corn Cafe co-owner and head chef Antonio Rios. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

As her passion for the kitchen simmered again, her plans for medical school faded, and she realized how much she enjoyed the restaurant business. Her life-long love of cooking and Antonio’s mastery of his native Mexican cuisine made them the perfect pair to open Blue Corn Cafe. They’ve never looked back. 

Still, the year of COVID-19 has interrupted some of her dreams. 

Martini-Rios had begun to save money to buy herself a Porsche. Once the pandemic hit, that was put on hold.

“That Porsche went into holding all of this together. My new Porsche is Blue Corn is still open,” she said.

The demands brought on by the pandemic mean Martini-Rios rarely has free time.

“That doesn’t exist right now. We’re understaffed, overworked, underpaid … underappreciated sometimes, too.”

Martini-Rios feels under-appreciated primarily by Durham officials.  

Though she was awarded a $10,000 grant from the city on July 2, she was unable to use it in the way she had hoped. She wanted to use the money to build a back deck and a seating area along 9th Street, but the permits that she applied for were all denied by the city, leaving Blue Corn Cafe with insufficient COVID-safe outdoor dining options.  

Instead, the money went towards the installation of HEPA air filters throughout the restaurant, personal protection equipment for the Blue Corn Cafe staff members, and to design a new online ordering platform. 

“The money was well-spent,” Martini-Rios said. “But that grant did not keep me open. If (the city) thinks that’s the case they’re sorely mistaken.”

Martini-Rios is grateful for the support of Blue Corn’s customers. As vaccinations increase throughout Durham, she is eager to welcome more of them back into her restaurant.

“When people are inoculated, they can start to get out and help these small businesses get back on their feet. They are going to be such a vital part of our resurrection of this city.”

The Blue Corn Cafe. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

Photo at top: As the coronavirus shutdown disrupted her business, Blue Corn Cafe co-owner Danielle Martini-Rios adapted, trying to keep as many workers employed as she could. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

Durham Bulls Opening Day delayed until May

Durham Bulls fans will have to wait an extra month for Opening Day. 

The team announced Wednesday the 2021 season will be delayed by about four weeks from its original April 6 starting date.

Major League Baseball officials said the delay would improve the safety for everyone involved. It will allow more players to get vaccinated against the coronavirus before the season begins and allow more fans to feel comfortable filling the stands.

In a statement, Mike Birling, the Bulls vice president of baseball operations, broke the news to fans.

“While this isn’t the news we wanted to hear, we are in agreement the health and safety of our fans, players and staff are of utmost importance,” he said. 

The Triple-A Bulls will now start their season about the same time in May as Double-A and Class A teams. While no new date has been announced, team officials said they will provide fans more information when it becomes available.

Durham Bulls hope state officials will allow 2,500 fans on Opening Day

Updated: Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday he was easing the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, which should let the Bulls have 2,500 to 3,000 fans per game. “We are very happy with the governor’s decision,” said Mike Birling, the team’s vice president of baseball operations. “We were currently at just over 700, so to be able to jump to 2,500 – 3,000 will really be beneficial to our business.”

By Nicole Kagan and Claire Kraemer

When the Durham Bulls open their season April 6, team officials hope that the state will allow them to fill their ballpark to 25% of its 10,000-seat capacity. But for now, COVID-19 rules permit just 7%.

In an interview with The 9th Street Journal and in a virtual town hall with fans, team officials said Tuesday they are taking special measures to assure fans’ safety for the Bulls’ first season since minor league baseball was shut down by the pandemic last year. And they hope state rules will soon permit more fans.

Mike Birling, the team’s vice president of baseball operations, said an announcement about greater capacity could come as early as Wednesday.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said earlier this week that the stadium’s capacity would be determined by state guidelines in April, but that, “I think by that time we will be doing a lot better.”

He said he was hopeful that “they’ll be able to open with a decent amount of fans there.”

Chip Allen, the Bulls assistant general manager for sales, said the team has taken many precautions to keep fans safe. The ballpark has also gone cashless and ticket sales are now completely digital. The ticket takers that used to greet fans at the stadium’s entrances will be replaced by free-standing kiosks that allow fans to scan their tickets themselves.

The Bulls will play only five other teams to minimize travel and there will not be any playoffs or an all-star game.

Merchandise and concession stands will still be open for fans looking to buy a baseball cap or a footlong hot dog, but there will be more mobile ordering so fans don’t have to stand in line.

Even with these changes, the Bulls acknowledge that some fans may be uncomfortable returning to a stadium, particularly early in the season. So they’ve offered season ticket holders flexibility, allowing them to bypass the first couple months of the season in exchange for credits later on. 

“Our long-term goal is to have our fans for life,” Allen said. “So we’ve got to do right by them now.”

The team is well-known for entertainment and fan contests on the field between innings. But given that fans are no longer allowed on the field, entertainment will be pre-recorded and fan contests will take place around the concourse. 

Still, with games on the schedule and players on the field, team officials are eager for Bulls fans to return to the stadium.

“We can’t wait to see you guys,” Birling told fans in the town hall. “We can’t wait to get that first pitch.”

Photo above, Bulls mascot Wool E. Bull is ready for the new season (Team photo)

Mandy Cohen Day … without Mandy Cohen

Last Tuesday, Jan. 19, was “Secretary Mandy Cohen Day” in Durham. But Dr. Cohen, the North Carolina secretary of health and human services, didn’t come to Durham, nor could she stand before the City Council as members honored her with a key to the city. 

It marked the first time someone has received a key to the city without actually being in the city. Quite appropriately, Cohen was following her own COVID-19 safety directives to avoid indoor gatherings (the City Council meets by Zoom these days). That directive and many others from the state have surely saved countless lives, which has prompted considerable praise for Cohen’s handling of the pandemic as North Carolina’s top health official.

During the meeting, Mayor Steve Schewel honored Cohen for her “exceptional service to our city and its people.” 

“We are only able to present the key to you virtually tonight,” Schewel said. “We do have a real key to give, but we’re following your COVID-safe instructions.”

Schewel said the key will be kept at City Hall along with the proclamation in “beautiful physical form.”  She’ll receive both once city officials determine it is safe to return to City Hall for mundane duties such as mailing packages.

After the meeting, Schewel said he was sorry she could not attend. “I would love to have shaken her hand. I would love for her to have actually heard a crowd of people rising and applauding.”

Cohen, who took part in the meeting while sitting with her family by the stone fireplace of their Raleigh home, said she felt both lucky and saddened to have received the honor without leaving her front door. 

“It’s amazing to be in your own home and still be connected to everyone,” she said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “But, we miss being in person, as everyone does. There’s an intangible aspect there … we try to replace it, but it’s never really the same.”

Cohen said she was grateful she could share the moment with her husband and young daughters.

“It’s been a hard year not just on me, but on all of our families, so it was nice to be able to include them in the moment and for them to hear how my work and our team’s work has been impacting the state.” 

Cohen’s key recognizes her response to COVID-19, but she has other public health responsibilities. Since her appointment by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017, Cohen has worked to combat substance abuse, raise mental health awareness and close the health care coverage gap. She has earned Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Leadership in Public Health Practice Award and been named one of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women Leaders in Healthcare.

“She is leading probably the most difficult, complex department that we have in state government,” Cooper said during the meeting. “And I’m grateful for her everyday.”

Cohen said she is eager to visit the city.

“We spend, as a family, a fair amount of time playing in Durham,” she said. “And we look forward to being able to do that again.”

In photo above: The City Council honored Mandy Cohen, lower left, during its Zoom meeting on Jan. 19.