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Posts published by “Maddie Wray”

Problem-solving, ‘Starship Archie’ and making all families count: longtime court clerk bids adieu

In the 20 years since Archie Smith III took over as Durham County Clerk of the Superior Court, he has seen much change. The Durham metro area population skyrocketed by around 129,000. Three different mayors have sat on city council. High-rise apartments have overtaken the Brightleaf and Warehouse districts. The court system even migrated down the block to a new building.

“Durham, the town that you see, is not the town that I grew up in,” Smith said. He added: “Every evolution of Durham is exciting to me.” 

Except that the newest evolution of Durham’s court system does not include him.

In May of 2022, Smith lost re-election to newcomer Aminah Thompson, and in December, he will return to civilian life. Change has finally caught up with the man who was the center of the courts for twenty years. And he says he is okay with that.

“Time flies,” he said quietly. Later he added,“Shake your fist at the storm, and you’re gonna get wet!”

Smith, a Durham native and NCCU School of Law graduate, described the clerk’s office as “the hub of the court system.” Smith rattled off all the different duties taken on by him and his staff of 72; in addition to keeping records for courthouse proceedings (which the internet appears to think is the clerk’s only job), the role includes judging probate, appointing guardians for minors, overseeing incompetency cases, and settling general disputes. Phew.

Smith, whose chatty, jovial presence puts strangers at ease, thrives under the pressure. He describes his job as a professional problem solver—when a case comes across his desk, it leaves resolved. “Probably one of the best things about being the clerk,” Smith said, “is that I’m challenged every day.”

Durham County District Attorney Satana DeBerry emphasized Smith’s dedication to conquering daunting tasks. The two collaborated on the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program, a reform effort that expunges records that prevent Durham residents from regaining their drivers’ licenses. Together they worked to waive older traffic for over 35,000 Durham residents and 1,200 petitions for expungement.

“That required tremendous lift from the clerk, and he certainly could’ve said no to that,” DeBerry said of Smith. “But he was enthusiastic about being involved in making that happen.”

Smith’s legacy does not stop there. LGBTQ+ groups have long endorsed him due to his support for the development of landmark second parent adoption procedures in Durham starting around 2004. This historic process allowed same-sex couples to have both parents recognized on birth certificates and other legal documents before same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015.

Smith had the choice to turn away documents requesting a second name, but he fought for them, said attorney Cheri Patrick. It was not a popular choice, but “he did it because he believes that all families are important,” she said. “That all families count.”  

Smith has brought all types of families together across Durham County, and created one right in the courthouse, too. “It’s not your usual workplace atmosphere,” he said. “We’re conscious of that.”

The office is shockingly close-knit for its size. Smith points to photos of hundreds of his employees over the years, recounting fond memories, such as when employee Pam Apple bought his granddaughter her first Easter basket.

Smith encourages all of his clerks and assistants to bring their children into the office if necessary (for instance, if childcare falls through or there is a teacher workday), and as he says, they all become aunts and uncles for the day. “The Starship Archie,” as Smith has nicknamed his office, is stocked with chocolates and toys for the children to play with, as his granddaughters, now 16 and 10, once did.

Smith’s granddaughters were well-known faces around the office when they were children. As he showed me around the courtroom, Smith picked up the gavel sound block riddled with dents and scratches.

“I have never used one of these in court in 20 years,” he laughed. “My eldest granddaughter, she would put on my old robe, and she would sit in this chair with myself and a couple of lawyers, and she would hold court and bang on this.”

In just under six months, Smith will leave the bench when Thompson steps into the role. Thompson, the first African-American clerk elected in Durham history, is a fresh face on the scene. Smith had not seen an opponent for the county clerk position since 2002, but Thompson barreled into office with 65% of the vote in May. 

Her agenda of reform and modernization won the endorsement of the People’s Alliance, a key political organization that had long supported Smith. To Smith, this shift of support was a major reason for his loss. “It was simply politics,” Smith said, throwing up his hands.

DeBerry, despite being fond of Smith, says Thompson may be the better choice to bring Durham’s courts into the future as North Carolina moves towards E-Courts (court records kept in the cloud rather than in physical copies) and becomes more technologically sophisticated. 

“I think that it just takes a different mindset,” said DeBerry. “I don’t know that [Smith] would have led the charge.”

So what’s next for Smith? He gushed about spending more time with his wife of 24 years and granddaughters, which he has put off over his years as clerk. He also hopes to do more with organizations like the Durham Sports Club and his Masonic lodge, and get started on long-neglected repair projects.

“I’ll clear the decks,” Smith said with a laugh. “I have got a whole laundry list of projects and things I haven’t been able to have the time for.”

As Smith has watched Durham transform, he relies on things he calls “anchors,” little pieces of the city that never seem to change. The Lucky Strike smokestack, the Sower statue on Duke’s East Campus, the historic Durham Athletic Park: “They’re where you get your anchor to the community and to yourself.”

And after two decades as the hub of Durham’s criminal justice system, for many, Smith has become an anchor himself. 

“He is from a different time in Durham, when it was much more of a small town,” DeBerry said. “A guy like him who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, could grow up to go to law school and have a real impact on his community.” 

She added: “Those kinds of guys don’t come along anymore.”

Above: Photo of Archie Smith by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal 

A Durham Moment: ‘Instead of cake, we’re having ice cream.’

The sunset is hazy above the downtown skyline, and the heat still beats down on the asphalt street. The humidity isn’t choking, as it usually is in North Carolina summers, but it is certainly hot enough to warrant a trip out for ice cream with family and friends—especially when it’s free.

It is the summer solstice–June 21st–but more importantly, it is Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream’s annual First Day of Summer Party, awarding a free scoop to those who join their rewards program. The famous ice cream franchise recently opened its first Durham location in the Brightleaf District, and so tonight is its grand opening, too.

At 6:55 p.m.,the line already wraps around the building, and through the parking lot. The store is typically hidden from the street, tucked away behind Goorsha Ethiopian restaurant and around the back of Shooters II nightclub. The only evidence of its presence are the ceiling string lights that decorate its outdoor seating area and the tips of illuminated letters spelling out the store’s name poking up above the buildings. Tonight, however, the shop has drawn a crowd visible from down the block. And it isn’t even open yet.

Children dart about like dragonflies, weaving through the clumps of customers-to-be and making new friends, as children typically do. They ask their parents, who wait lazily in the heat, why the ice cream is taking so long, naïve to the fact that tonight is a special night.

The first 50 customers in line receive placards to commemorate their punctuality and dedication to the noble cause of free ice cream, and standing proudly with number one is Hadja Thiam.

Hadja is a connoisseur of the company’s gourmet ice cream. Hadja, a nurse practitioner at Duke University, was hooked on Jeni’s the instant she tried it. With the closest store all the way in Charlotte, however, she was left with no choice but to order herself pints once (or twice) a month from the company’s website. They would arrive on her doorstep in large orange boxes, surrounded by dry ice like jewels in a treasure chest of gold.

Now, with the opening of the Durham location, Hadja only has to travel a few steps beyond the doorstep. Store employees crowned her with a bright orange trucker hat, emblazoned with white letters reading, “I was first in line at Jeni’s!” And at 7 p.m., when the doors open, Hadja jumps right through, pumping her fists triumphantly. 

As the night goes on, the line only gets longer. The promise of a free single scoop (usually $5.95 a pop) draws ice cream fanatics from all over. Claire is number 6 in line, and she traveled from Carrboro just for the event. Toni, number 12, drove from Cary to visit the location where her son works, and for the chance to try some new flavors. The deal even captured the attention of blue-haired Astrid, number 49, who claims to be loyal to East Durham’s Two Roosters Ice Cream. However, even the most loyal can be turned. 

“The coffee [flavor] is literally out of this world,” raved Astrid about “Coffee with Cream and Sugar.” “Like, I don’t understand how it is so good. It’s not like any other coffee ice cream I’ve ever had.”

Jeni’s was originally founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 2002 by entrepreneur and ice-cream-queen Jeni Britton Bauer. As of 2022, it has expanded to 19 cities, from Durham, to Houston, to Tampa, to Nashville, and so on.

The franchise prides itself on its handmade ice cream with unique flavors. Some fan favorites include Brown Butter Almond Brittle, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, and Sweet Cream Biscuits and Peach Jam. 

The company does have some custard competition in Durham. Places like Two Roosters and the Parlour have local loyalists that could be turned off by the fact that Jeni’s is a chain and a newcomer to Durham. Corporate employee Dan Sierzputowski claims they have had no such trouble, though. “It is a great town,” said Dan, dressed in a green Jeni’s T-shirt and a gleaming smile. “The city has been welcoming to us, customers have been welcoming to us. We could see the town was just exploding.”

As darkness falls, the air cools, but the party is still heating up. For three hours, the line snakes around the patio to the back of the parking lot. By 8:30 p.m., about 150 people crowd the block. The limited outdoor seating, an amalgamation of abstract-style benches and quaint wooden tables, forces some customers to enjoy their ice cream standing or in the popped trunks of their cars. 

Dogs pant out the nighttime heat in the parking lot, some being lucky enough to get their own whipped white desserts to devour. High school girls gossip in between licks of Lavender, old friends catch up over a cone of Chocolate Sheet Cake, parents take a break with Brambleberry Crisp while their toddlers gorge themselves on Gooey Butter Cake. The night is still young.

Standing at the corner of the patio are Matt and Kara. She sports a pink Jeni’s shirt and has been buying pints of the stuff at Whole Foods for years, ordering online when she can’t get to a store. Matt, Kara’s fiance, noticed this passion and took it to the next level for his partner. When he asked Kara to marry him, he brought Jeni’s along.

The lovebirds ate cups of the sweet dessert after Kara said yes, and even took their engagement photos outside the original Jeni’s in Ohio. The two are finally tying the knot this weekend at a North Carolina beach, but they plan on pushing the boundaries a bit to honor their love (of ice cream).

“Instead of cake,” Kara said,  “we’re having ice cream.”

Above (from Top): Crowds await a free scoop; Hadja Thiam is first in line; and Matt and Kara united over ice cream. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal 

As the city eyes expansion, county residents push back

Sherron Road. Doc Nichols Road. Baptist Road. Olive Branch Road. These roads run through  southeast Durham, connecting small townships and farms, overhung by pine branches. Quaint brick homes and churches sit nestled in the forest, near elementary schools and fresh produce stands. But along the shoulders of the roads, orange zoning notices dot the tall grass like a new species of flower, and landscapes fade from green forest to orangey-red dirt, topped with rolling hills of mulched trees. Bulldozers graze in the fields, and pink flags mark the sites where construction blasts will next rattle the backyard wind chimes. 

Unfortunately for the folks who prefer the quiet life, it looks like rural Durham is next up to be devoured by urban sprawl– but not if the new group Preserve Rural Durham can help it.

On Thursday, June 9, city-county planning department staff members Scott Whiteman and Alexander Cahill met with Preserve Rural Durham and other rural residents at Oak Grove Ruritan Club to discuss Durham’s new Comprehensive Plan draft and hear concerns from attendees on the plan’s 227 objectives.

The comprehensive plan guides what can be built where in Durham, and most importantly to a Preserve Rural Durham, determines the city’s Urban Growth Area boundary. A new plan is long overdue, as the most recent iteration was written in 2005, 17 years ago. In a place as rapidly growing as Durham, 17 years is a long time.

The last comprehensive plan recommended expansive development into rural areas to help ease the housing crisis. The new document includes many of the same goals. However, Preserve Rural Durham has a different vision.

The nonprofit, founded by retired science teacher Pam Andrews in February, is dedicated to protecting rural areas of Durham that are threatened by the region’s rapid development, particularly southeastern Durham County. The June 9 meeting is part of a series of meetings Durham planning staff are holding to discuss the comprehensive plan with rural residents and others.  

On Thursday, attendees trickled into the wood-paneled meeting room at the Ruritan Club, many clad in green and tan t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Preserve Rural Durham.” Before the meeting, the core team, made up of Andrews, her husband, and other volunteers ranging from young farmers to retired scientists, invited attendees to sign up for the group’s weekly e-mail listerv and to pick up the bright green and yellow yard signs  protesting development. (“John Deere-colored, so you can see them driving by!” said Andrews.) 

Whiteman began the meeting by sharing a statistic. The planning commission predicts the county’s population will increase by 130,000 by 2050, he said. That expected growth is fueling the need for rapid expansion, and southeastern rural Durham has been designated as the best place for this growth, he said. 

“You can’t stop population growth,” Whiteman said after the meeting. “There’s no practical way to do that.”

Residents, however, voiced concerns about the proposed expansion, noting the city’s failure to follow its previous comprehensive plan. While that plan called for  “low-density residential development” with two-four units per acre in rural areas, the city instead approved complexes of townhomes with 8-12 homes per acre, speakers said. Higher-density housing is necessary to create affordable housing and to remedy Durham’s current housing crisis, said Whiteman and Cahill. Residents, though, see it as a threat to the natural beauty and quiet space they value. 

Attendees said more high-density housing will increase traffic, and they questioned whether southeast Durham has the necessary infrastructure to support more development. Resident Antonio Jones complained that as congestion increases in Oak Grove and neighboring townships, getting to basic necessities like grocery stores and schools has become an ordeal.

“We all know, getting to the Food Lion is a mission at this point,” said Jones. 

Residents also said area emergency services, such as fire stations and emergency medical services, are already insufficient. Whiteman and Cahill replied that future development would not begin until funding is set aside to provide more emergency services. 

Some residents also seemed concerned about more than losing their quiet lives to rapid development. Preserve Rural Durham’s mission includes bringing awareness to the environmental impacts of rapid development on surrounding areas, such as Falls Lake. The group has compiled evidence of environmental degradation caused by development, such as what Andrews calls “tomato soup.”

Tomato soup in this context is no delicious lunch to be paired with a grilled cheese—it is red, muddy runoff from construction sites. Often chock full of nitrates and phosphates from bulldozed farmland, the mud flows into Falls Lake and neighboring creeks and provides nutrients for toxic algae to grow and pollute the lake, Andrews said.

The new draft plan includes promises of environmental protection. Yet the city’s previous plan also pledged to protect watersheds and other environments, said former scientist Tom Freeman. Degradation of floodplains and water sources still occurs, he said.“Go out there and look at the land, folks,” he said. “I hope you see a disconnect.”

One theme dominated many residents’ comments: representation.

The planning department that is drafting the comprehensive plan serves the city and the county jointly, with county commissioners and city council both given say in matters of zoning and development. However, when land falls within Durham city limits, city council has the final say. 

Through “voluntary annexation,” developers can opt to be incorporated into the city limits in order to use city resources like water and sewage. Once a piece of property has been accepted into the city, the city council—not the county commissioners— has the authority to approve or deny zoning. Rural residents, including many  Preserve Rural Durham members, live outside the city limits and so don’t vote for city council. So once a property is annexed into the city, rural residents lose the power to choose who has the final say over development bordering their property. 

“We can’t vote for the people who are making the decisions,” an exasperated Andrews said at the meeting, echoing comments by several other speakers. 

Cahill and Whiteman acknowledged residents’ frustration, recommending that they use a feedback survey about the plan. Meanwhile, another meeting is scheduled for June 21 at the Bahama Ruritan Club, and on June 23, four more tracts of county land are set to be voted on for annexation. Residents can also offer feedback by attending a virtual session on June 28. 

Preserve Rural Durham will continue to show up.

“That’s how things go down in Durham,” said Jones. “Go down there and raise hell.” 

Editor’s note: More information about the comprehensive plan is available here. Survey responses about the plan will be accepted through June 30.

Above: Bulldozers clear land for a new housing development near the Oak Grove township in Durham County; Pam Andrews leads the new group Preserve Rural Durham. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal 

Festival celebrates Black culture, draws hundreds

The day was hot, sunny and humid, but that didn’t stop hundreds of people from attending the 52nd Bimbé Cultural Arts Festival in Durham last Saturday, May 21. The event, held at Rock Quarry Park this year, celebrates the art, history and culture of Africa and African-Americans. Vendors sold paintings and jewelry, among other wares. Children painted their faces. And there was lots of music and dancing. Here’s what the day was like, rendered in photos:

Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal (wearing sunglasses) joins festival organizers, community elders, and members of the African American Dance Ensemble cut a ribbon to mark the reopening of Rock Quarry Park and the launch of the festival.

 

In the festival’s arts and crafts tent, children string beaded necklaces (after getting their faces painted, of course).
Balloons in red, green and yellow (the colors of Pan-Africanism) line the walkway leading to the park’s entrance.
Takenya Feaster and her son Zayah Feaster enjoy a mainstage performance. Here, in response to the performers, they shout, “Peace, love and respect — for everybody!”
Festival goers could choose from an array of clothing vendors, including African Beauty, Jewelry and Artifacts, owned by Dan and Betha Orange.

PHOTOS TAKEN BY MADDIE WRAY, THE 9TH STREET JOURNAL