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Posts published in “Life in Durham”

Death of birds blamed on bird feeders and salmonellosis

Bird-watchers in North Carolina have gotten alarmed in the last few weeks as dead or dying birds began appearing in their backyards. 

Biologists and people in the birdseed business say the deaths are not unusual, but that people are just more aware of them because of an increase in backyard bird feeders. They say homeowners can take a few simple steps to reduce the spread of the disease that has been killing the birds – and now has begun to sicken people. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that 19 people in eight states had become ill with salmonella linked to songbirds. Eight have been hospitalized. No people have been sickened in North Carolina, but bird lovers have been urged to be cautious. 

This kind of outbreak happens from time to time. 

“Well first, let me tell you that salmonellosis is a common disease,” said Jeanne Mauney, the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Durham. “This is not a sudden outbreak. It’s not a COVID event. This is normal Pine Siskin disease.”

Falyn Owens, a wildlife biologist from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, says the salmonellosis that infects birds is commonly known as salmonella and “it’s the reason why we always clean chicken before we cook it and eat it.” 

Salmonellosis is passed by Pine Siskins, small songbirds. CDC photo

Salmonella is a common pathogen passed between Pine Siskins, a small songbird that migrates to the South from Canada every three to four years. This year, North Carolina has seen an influx in these kinds of finches because Canada did not have a sufficient amount of seed to feed their flocks, causing what Mauney calls “an irruptive year.”

Owens suspects at least some of the increase of seeing dead or dying birds is due to people buying bird feeders during quarantine. People were searching for new ways to entertain themselves and are now concerned when they see sick, fluffy birds in their yards. 

This also means that new bird feeder owners are unaware of the risks that run when interacting with wild animals, including the risk of pathogen transmission from bird to human.

One of the first steps to preventing the increase of dying birds is taking bird feeders down, although that can be an unpopular move within the bird-watching community. Feeders act as the perfect origin for a large outbreak. 

“It’s basically a feeding trough where multiple animals are eating off of, back to back,” said Owens, “You can imagine if you had a whole cafeteria worth of people without washing it in between, there’s a risk of contamination.”

Pine Siskins are also social birds. They travel in big flocks to bird feeders where there are more opportunities to spread pathogens to each other. 

After the initial break from bird feeders, Wild Birds Unlimited suggests more frequent cleaning with a bleach solution (1 part bleach, 9 parts water). While cleaning, it is necessary that people are extremely careful. Do not touch the feeders with your bare hands, and rinse your hands vigorously after cleaning. Transmission occurs when people touch their mouth after contact with the disease, whether directly with a bird, the seed, or a feeder. 

Mauney said to clean feeders often. “While normally we tell you to clean it monthly, we are saying to do it weekly.” 

Another option: plants instead of bird feeders. 

Native plants like black-eyed susans and purple coneflowers can be found at most nurseries and are a natural food source for songbirds. While the upfront cost is greater than purchasing a bird feeder, native plants require less upkeep and there are no subsequent purchases of bird seed to continue attracting birds. These plants allow for bird-watchers to continue observing from their homes, but limit the spread of salmonellosis.

“I think the best, most ecological decision,” Owens said, “is to switch away from bird feeders at all and move to a more natural way of attracting birds into your yard to watch them and to enjoy them and give them food and shelter is by providing food to them through native plants.”

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.

Roller skating experiences a pandemic revival

On May 26, 2020, working mom Cara August laced up a pair of roller skates for the first time in over 30 years. She swung open her front door and shakily skated out into her suburban Durham neighborhood, too excited to wait for her protective knee and elbow pads to be delivered. She was finally taking some time for herself.

“It made me feel empowered to make some sort of choice — to do something fun that was still safe and didn’t put anybody else in jeopardy,” said August, who works a day job in communications.

August joined legions of roller skating enthusiasts across the country who, over the past year, have strapped on a set of wheels and taken to the streets — whether in a city park or in a cul de sac. 

Cara August and her daughters gear up for a roller skating adventure. Photo courtesy of Cara August

The pandemic hobby has soared in popularity. Instagram and TikTok gained a whole new set of influencers: roller skaters taking over the internet, even appearing in Vogue magazine

In Durham, the activity became a way for locals to get outside and move during quarantine. That’s visible during a quick drive past open spaces downtown like vacant parking lots or Durham Central Park, where skaters freestyle moves across the pavement.

“We’ve seen a big increase in outdoor activity, and roller skating is part of that,” said Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR) Assistant Director Thomas Dawson. 

With piqued interest among Durhamites, Dawson says DPR hopes to launch roller skating classes in 2021 or 2022.   

In November 2020, DPR announced its plan to buy Wheels Fun Park, a historic Durham roller rink. The city aims to revamp the venue into a community and aquatics center in the next few years, and Dawson expects the roller rink won’t be going anywhere. 

“Most likely there will be a strong voice for preserving the roller skate rink,” he said. 

While he doesn’t want to make any promises until hearing directly from Durham’s community, he noted that “the purchase of this historic site has brought a lot of groups out of the woodwork who love the Wheels roller facility.” 

Eddie Watson, founder of the Raleigh-Durham Skaters Association, is excited to see this Durham staple stick around. Watson, who has skated for 30 years, is thrilled that roller skating is “in the spotlight,” mentioning how he has seen the sport pop up on Good Morning America, in Usher videos and all over social media. 

Eddie Watson (middle) and friends after a night of roller skating with the Raleigh-Durham Skaters Association. Photo courtesy of Eddie Watson.

Popular again

Increased visibility like this has caused a surge in demand for skates, especially during the pandemic. By May 16, 2020, U.S. Google searches for “roller skates” reached an all-time high. 

“I ordered Moxi Skates and it took six months to get them because roller skating blew up so much,” August said. 

Global brands like Moxi and Impala claim three-to six-month wait times, frustrating customers who are waiting for their wheels to arrive. The Wall Street Journal reported that manufacturing parts from China and Taiwan have taken twice as long to be delivered. The popularity resulted in supply-chain issues, which were exacerbated by coronavirus restrictions, including limited production from U.S. manufacturing facilities

Roller skating dates back to the Victorian era when touch between young men and women was strictly forbidden. Socially approved skating permitted young couples to visit one another without the taboo of physical contact. Ironically, such social distancing is useful today.

In the 1900s, skating in the U.S. became integral to the civil rights movement. Some of the first protests against racial discrimination were skate-ins, where African-American skaters protested the segregation of roller rinks. As highlighted in the 2020 Emmy Award-nominated documentary “United Skates”, roller skating established “families” in Black communities, even after desegregation. 

Still, roller rinks continued racial discrimination by terming Black skating events  “adult nights” or soul nights. By redefining these nights to celebrate Black culture, regional and personal skating styles emerged. From Detroit’s “Open-House” Slide to Bill Butler’s “Jammin’”style skating developed in tandem with new waves of electronic dance music

Fun for the whole family

Gearing up to teach new and experienced skaters of all ages, Watson emphasized the physical and mental health benefits of skating. 

“Physically, it helps your lung capacity,” he said. “[Mentally,] a skate rink for three or four hours maybe takes you away from any issues—especially with good music and good people.”

Both The American Health Association and the President’s Council for Physical Fitness confirm Watson’s words. Roller skating causes 50% less stress on joints than running, is five times less dangerous than biking, and provides a “complete aerobic workout.” It’s also a great way to get children moving.

On top of the physical and mental benefits, roller skating is a sport for all ages. 

“I’ve seen six, seven-year-olds catch on real good,” said Watson, “and up to 80 and 90-year-olds still skating — whether it be just a regular shuffle skate type of thing or dance skate.” 

After seeing their mom’s newfound love for skating, August’s daughters, ages three and seven, asked for skates of their own. By moving carpets, clearing furniture and opening doors in her house, August created a small roller rink where she could teach her two daughters to skate on the hardwood floors.

Parents have been particularly affected by the pandemic as they balance work, children and self-care. “We’re all stressed and scared,” August said, noting that it’s been hard to find time for herself. 

According to recent PEW Research Center results, working moms are 11% more likely than working dads to say balancing life and work responsibilities became more difficult during the pandemic. With working women spending 50% more time on child care than their husbands, a new study by A Great Place to Work and the Maven Clinic says women are 28% more likely than their husbands to become burnt-out. 

Pilar Timpane and her toddler after gliding through an afternoon at Durham Central Park. Photo courtesy of Pilar Timpane.

Pilar Timpane, a filmmaker and mother of two, describes it as two choices at odds with each other.

“You end up feeling like you should either be doing something for your kids or doing something for your work,” she said.

Wanting to find a hobby that she could easily learn while spending time alone, Timpane took up roller skating after feeling empowered by women she saw skating on Instagram. She quickly fell in love with the pair of skates she was gifted for Christmas.

“I think of roller skating as a good time; it’s just joyful,” she said.

Reminiscing on their preteen skating days, both Timpane and August quickly caught back on. They especially love skating because it can be a solo adventure or a family affair. 

“We’re a family on wheels,” Timpane said, noting how she roller skates while her husband bikes, her three-year-old daughter scooters and her one-year-old naps in her stroller. When Timpane skates alone, she revels in the little moments to enjoy the physical activity. 

Similarly, August’s family is her “little skate crew.” But August also makes time for herself. Putting on her headset and zoning-out, she “grooves,” she says,”skate-dancing” on Durham’s iconic American Tobacco Trail.

The roller skating revival is one silver lining of the pandemic. August sees it as a way to connect with her kids, too.

“Hopefully they’ll remember and look back on it fondly. Like ‘yeah, that year sucked, but at least we learned how to roller skate.’” 

9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at

Top: Before the pandemic, the Raleigh-Durham Skaters Association threw skating parties throughout the state. Photo courtesy of Eddie Watson.

A pandemic year

Mark Cunningham and Bethany Faulkner, working with the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative, wait for people to pick up meals Tuesday. While a Riverside High School senior, Elijah King partnered with businesses to launch the program last spring. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

A year ago today, March 10, Gov. Roy Cooper rolled out North Carolina’s first emergency order addressing the coronavirus pandemic. No one envisioned all that has followed.

In Durham County, at least 210 people have died from COVID-19, with lopsided losses of life among Black residents. Twenty percent of people who have died here were exposed in group settings, including nursing homes and, in one case, the county jail.

Schools shuttered in March, with no teaching offered until summer ended. After months of online classes, only now is the school district preparing to welcome students back in person.

Thousands of people watched jobs, health insurance, savings and social contact evaporate. People deemed essential workers, Latinx and Black residents especially, faced higher exposure risks. Local businesses and annual events we once took for granted went missing.

With so much of value subtracted from this community, Durham residents found ways to build new things we never expected to need.

To mark this difficult anniversary, 9th Street Journal reporters circled back to people we talked with early in the pandemic. We asked about what concerned them then, and how things are looking now.

Elijah King, founder of Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative

At the start: Local partnerships help feed families during pandemic (April 26, 2020)

Elijah King says the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative has distributed nearly 50,000 meals.

Last spring, Riverside High School senior Elijah King partnered with local businesses to create the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative outside Geer Street Garden every weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. They distributed about 200 meals each day. With donations, the initiative was able to pay its volunteers, who had lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“No matter what, we are going to continue paying living wages,” King said then. “That’s what they made before, and that’s what they’re going to be making.” 

Now: Still going strong, the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative has served almost 50,000 meals during the pandemic year. King graduated from high school and is now a political science major at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, but he’s still deeply involved in Durham.

“I had several people cry and tell me their experiences and how much Durham Neighbors has helped them, and how much I’ve impacted their lives personally,” King said after a recent visit. “It was a very impactful experience.”

He continues working with the meals program and co-founded the Durham Youth Climate Justice Initiative, which hosts public conversations with climate experts and advocates for environmental justice. He also works with the N.C. Democratic Party in Raleigh. 

“Food insecurity was a problem before the pandemic, is a problem during the pandemic, and will be a problem way after the pandemic,” King said. “Durham Neighbors isn’t just a way to serve free lunch, it is a way to become advocates, to convey stories, to make sure that the powers that be know that this is an important issue.” 

Kathleen Hobson

Katie Galbraith, Duke Regional Hospital president

At the start: Duke Health shares some details on COVID-19 preparations (March 29, 2020)

Katie Galbraith says Duke Health has learned what community resilience means. Photo courtesy of Duke University

Durham County had seen just over 100 cases of COVID when Duke Regional Hospital President Katie Galbraith shared pandemic response plans with The 9th Street Journal last March. 

“This is something that we have been preparing for and planning for — for this type of event — for years,” she said.

Galbraith said Duke Health stood ready to add 500 beds in case Durham became the next New York. N95 masks couldn’t be found anywhere, so hospital staff had just figured out how to decontaminate masks so they could be reworn, she reported. Galbraith called on locked-down Durhamites to stay home and praised Duke’s new in-house COVID test. 

Now: Even as she prepared for an array of potential doomsdays, Galbraith — like all of us — couldn’t see all that was coming. 

“I just didn’t realize the scope or breadth, or tremendous impact that this pandemic would have” Galbraith recalled. 

Mask shortages continue, so the hospital’s decontamination and reuse efforts do, too, Galbraith said. Quick in-house testing also endures, now alongside a more accessible, widespread local testing network. 

Fortunately, other plans remained only plans.. “We never had to significantly increase the number of beds that we were using,” Galbraith said, crediting COVID-conscious Durhamites and selfless hospital staff. 

“I’ve learned what resilience means,” she said. “I’ve seen so many who have sacrificed so much through the last year, to make sure that we’re taking care of each other and taking care of this community.”

Simultaneously the most rewarding and difficult part of her professional life, leading the hospital’s pandemic response has worn on Galbraith. 

“It is definitely a weight. And I feel it,” she said. Her coworkers inspire her, keep her going, she added. “But it is a lot of responsibility.” 

That responsibility isn’t going anywhere. Even as Galbraith sees joyful faces at vaccination sites and steadily declining numbers, she knows the pandemic is not over. Seven patients remained in critical condition at Duke Regional on Monday.

“We’re still not out of the woods,” Galbraith said.

Jake Sheridan

Eliazar Posada, acting president and CEO of El Centro Hispano

At the start:
COVID hits black, Latinx Durham residents hardest (June 2, 2020)

Eliazar Posada and El Centro Hispano are working to dispel misconceptions about the coronavirus vaccine. Photo courtesy of Posada

Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president of the Latinx community organization El Centro Hispano, told 9th Street in June that the pandemic had worsened financial and health care problems already heavily affecting Durham’s Latinx population.

County data from May revealed that at 14% of Durham’s population, Latinx people faced 34% of its cases, including over 90% of cases associated with outdoor construction sites. El Centro Hispano began distributing money to help cover food, rent, and utilities for over 600 families, said Rocha-Goldberg.

Now:  The $350,000 in direct aid that El Centro Hispano raised from donations has run out, said acting president Eliazar Posada. The organization now partners with local groups to pass out meals each week. 

Ensuring that the Latinx community gets equitable access to vaccinations is a major goal for the organization.

Language is a barrier to finding and getting vaccinations for older and Spanish-speaking residents who are less confident with online appointments and prefer telephoning for help, Posada explained. El Centro Hispano is advocating for bilingual staff on the county’s COVID-19 hotline, he said.

“The ideal situation would be for someone to answer and help immediately,” said Posada. “We know there are limited vaccines, so if I’m waiting for help, they might run out.”

Trust remains a critical issue for residents who are uneasy about disclosing their immigration status. “A lot of our community members still do not trust the government or university health systems,” said Posada. “Centro and other NGOs really stepped in to be an arbiter of trust.”

Centro is running a public information campaign to dispel misconceptions in the Latinx community about vaccine eligibility and requirements. With its three Triangle offices closed, Centro has pivoted to hosting social groups, cooking classes, award ceremonies and house parties — all online. 

“It’s not always about big festivals or dances,” Posada said. “It’s about folks connecting with people and not feeling too alone.”

Charlie Zong

Peter Gilbert, Legal Aid lawyer 

At the start: Coronavirus concerns halt evictions in Durham (March 24, 2020)

A sign posted by Durham County sheriffs deputies before a landlord changes the lock. Photo by Niharika Vattikonda

Last March, a state Supreme Court order halted nonessential court proceedings, freezing eviction proceedings and padlockings of rental properties. 

“Anyone being evicted during this time is at a great risk, not only to themselves, but as a vector carrying disease,” Legal Aid lawyer Peter Gilbert said then. “The governor is urging us to stay home. It’s impossible to stay home if you don’t have one.”

But as the law kept people in their homes, Gilbert worried Durham would suffer a “tsunami of evictions” once COVID-wrought protections for renters expired. That sinister wave still looms. 

Now: “I’ve been trying to just get through day by day this whole year,” Gilbert said last week. “We’ve had many more people reaching out for our help, especially over the last few months. We’re doing our best to keep up.” 

The lawyer said overlapping state and federal government interventions stopped most evictions from March to July. When those protections expired, however, evictions filled the courts until the Centers for Disease Control imposed its own eviction moratorium, he said. 

Gilbert said the CDC’s order is set to expire at the end of March. Durham’s courts are scheduled to resume hearings for evictions on non-payment in May. 

Even with those protections, some tenants describe being forced out, “The tenants are using words like they’re being harassed, landlords are contacting them every single day, saying ‘Where’s my rent?’ and ‘You have to be out by Friday.’” 

If deadlines aren’t extended, the tsunami will hit when protections end. Gilbert estimated 20,000 of Durham’s 120,000 households will be unable to pay rent and could face eviction. That many people losing housing would reshape the city, he predicts.

“This is going to exacerbate gentrification. This is going to exacerbate the push out of poor, especially African-American families who have been the core of the citizenry of Durham for much of its history,” Gilbert said. 

The city and county plan to make $9 million available for local rental assistance. But Gilbert estimated that Durham needs $40 million to $60 million to avoid a major local housing crisis. 

Jake Sheridan

Jodee Nimerichter, American Dance Festival executive director 

At the start: Coronavirus outbreak cancels American Dance Festival 2020 (March 31, 2020)

In October, dancers performed on lawns and driveways in American Dance Festival’s Creative Healing Parade. Photo by Laura Charles

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Durham’s American Dance Festival canceled its six-week summer program of modern dance performances for the first time since its founding in 1934. 

“It’s hard to swallow, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Jodee Nimerichter, the ADF executive director. As COVID-19 cases increased, the future of ADF was uncertain: Where would funding come from? How would ADF adjust? Could live performances resume in 2021? 

Now: “It’s great to continue to know that, even in the midst of COVID, partnerships and creativity have never stopped,” Nimerichter said, reflecting on the past year. ADF is powering through the pandemic with online educational programs creating platforms for virtual viewing and commissioning local and international artists.   

“Coronavirus has been devastating to the arts because all the major venues have shut down,” Niemerichter said, noting that artists were lacking outlets for their creativity. 

Last October, ADF held the Creative Healing Parade, bringing more than 70 artists together to dance in driveways and on lawns while audiences watched from cars. In January, ADF commissioned “Untold Secrets of the Heart Chamber,” an online collaboration between South African choreographer Gregory Vuyani Maqoma and poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph.

“Even if the audiences are not nearly as wide as I’d want them to be, it’s still important for artists to be creative, and for us to find resources to pay them,” Nimerichter said, thanking supporters for “the amazing generosity that has been displayed this past year.”

There’s more good news: ADF is hoping to resume live performances this year, by pushing the annual festival starting date to September — two months after the festival usually begins. 

“The bottom line is some of these blessings we’ve learned might not ever go away,” Nimerichter said, adding, “We just can’t wait to get back together in person.”

Eleanor Ross

Wendy Jacobs, county commissioners vice chair

At the start: County’s emergency order expands Durham’s stay-at-home policies (March 28, 2020)

County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs
County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs announces expanded emergency measures last spring. Facebook video grab by 9th Street Journal

Wendy Jacobs was at the forefront of drafting orders to protect Durham residents during the rise of the pandemic. Then chair of the Durham County commissioners, she helped launch a city-county face mask mandate and stay-at-home orders for nonessential workers. 

“You really should try not to have social gatherings of any type,” Jacobs said last March. 

Now: “There was no playbook for a pandemic, but I feel very good about the tough decisions that we made,” Jacobs, now the commissioners’ vice chair, said last week.

It is still crucial that Durham residents continue to take precautions such as wearing masks and interact at a distance, she said. Jacobs and other county commissioners are continuing to work on ways to enforce these practices even with several hundred vaccines rolling out each day. 

“These are the keys to preventing the spread of these new variants and getting people back to work, getting everyone back to school, and getting back to a normal functioning society,” she said.

With Durham Public Schools preparing to begin reopening next week, Jacobs said community members need to think about disparities that still need to be addressed. Between the affordable housing crisis and a steep decline in tourism impacting the hospitality industry, much remains to be addressed in the context of COVID-19. 

Clara Love

Kym Register, Pinhook bar owner

At the start: With concert cancellations, Durham venues livestream local artists (March 20, 2020) 

The pandemic was immediately difficult for businesses like Pinhook, a downtown bar that survived on its ability to bring people together to enjoy art. Owner Kym Register had to lay off the entire staff so they could claim unemployment benefits when the pandemic began. Register’s band, Lomlands, lost thousands of dollars because of gig cancellations. 

Like many downtown business, Pinhook was adorned with art that Black artists created last summer during racial justice protests summer after George Floyd was killed in police custody. Photo by Henry Haggart

Now: Register used Patreon to set up monthly subscriptions for patrons. They have been a huge help with making the rent each month, Register said. Since last March, Register has developed  digital Pinhook experiences, from Zoom karaoke to online courses taught by artists. That includes “Drag Makeup 101” and “the intersection of music, mutual aid, and protest movements.” To access the online programming, patrons are required to make donations, as little as one dollar, to Pinhook via Patreon. 

Gov. Cooper eased restrictions on bars on Feb. 24, but Register, who uses the pronoun “they,” decided it was still too soon to reopen. “Waiting just a little longer will be better for everyone,” they said.

Pinhook won’t open until they have figured out all of the logistics around COVID safety, Register said.

For now, Register is closely watching the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a trade association group lobbying the Small Business Administration for relief funding for venue spaces such as Pinhook. Hopefully, grant funding from NIVA by early April, combined with Patreon funds and the $10,000 loan received from the city of Durham last year will enable Pinhook to stay afloat while a reopening plan is cemented.

As for the band Lomlands, it has been a uniquely uninspiring year. Register initially felt guilty for not having a “transformative,” creative experience during lockdown. 

“This time period has been non-motivating,” Register said, adding that we need to “give everyone a break… We are all just trying to survive.”

Olivia Olsher

Daniel Meier, defense attorney

At the start: Jail worker died of COVID-19, but Sheriff’s Office won’t discuss (April 29, 2020)

Daniel Meier says county jail officials have implemented good safety measures. Photo courtesy of Meier

Defense attorney Daniel Meier regularly visited the Durham County Detention Facility last spring to meet with clients. He was worried when the Sheriff’s Office revealed that six jail employees had tested positive for COVID-19, without providing details about whether jail inmates and other employees might have been exposed.

“It’s a huge frustration there is not more transparency,” Meier told The 9th Street Journal then. “I get the reluctance to name specific names, but it is important to know as much as we can.”

Now: The Durham County Detention Facility has improved its precautionary measures in the past year, Meier said. He still enters the jail once a week and he is now pleased with the steps taken there to ensure visitors’ and attorneys’ safety. Detainees who may have been exposed to the virus are isolated, he said.

“They do their best, so that is what has really changed a lot,” Meier said. “They’re trying to keep the disease out of the jail and trying to keep it from spreading.”

Attorneys can now meet with clients over video when inside the facility, reducing exposure risks. “Back in April, we were still having a lot of the inmates sitting next to us, and there wasn’t widespread testing. They fixed basically any risk of exposure,” he said.
Meier enters the Durham County Courthouse more frequently each week. There, deputies question visitors and take their temperatures to try to decrease the spread of infection. It’s not unusual for Meier to be sitting in a courtroom and receive a call that a client will not be allowed into the building, he said. 

Dryden Quigley

Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, family medicine doctor

At the start: Battling barriers to protect Latinx residents from COVID-19 (July 29, 2020)

When doctors Viviana Martinez-Bianchi and Gabriela Maradiaga Panayotti started Latin-19, a coalition of medical professionals addressing the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on the Latinx community, in March 2020, a dozen people were on the team. They had lots of issues to address.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, almost none of the public health messaging was in Spanish. The general guidance about social distancing wasn’t always on-target for Latinx households that included large, multi-generational families.

“Togetherness is usually a big part of the resilience of the community,” Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, a Duke family medicine doctor and adviser to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said in July. “And in this case, it has actually acted against them. Because the virus loves that kind of environment.” 

A patient held an umbrella for Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi while she administered a coronavirus test in July. Martinez-Bianchi co-founded Latin-19 to respond to a high rate of COVID-19 among Durham’s Latinx residents. Photo by Henry Haggart

Now: The Latin-19 coalition has grown to over 600 members. The group has initiated efforts throughout North Carolina to bring adequate COVID-19 healthcare and information to Latinx communities. 

Factors such as fears over data security, immigration status repercussions, lack of Spanish and culturally appropriate messaging, as well as unfairly located testing sites continue to prevent Latinx people from accessing COVID-19 resources, said Martinez-Bianchi. However, she is hopeful that information campaigns via social media, Latinx radio stations, faith leaders and news media allies are encouraging Latinx people to seek out the vaccine. 

According to data made public by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, five in 100 Hispanic people in North Carolina have received their first doses, while more than 17 in 100 non-Hispanic people have received theirs. Latin-19 is closing the gap one step at a time. 

Since the vaccine became available in North Carolina in December, Latin-19 has focused on building trust in the vaccine and overcoming access barriers by hosting vaccine drives in trusted community centres, such as the Latino Community Credit Union. Latin-19 has vaccinated over 1200 Latinx people through partnerships with North Carolina organizations, health departments and faith leaders, said Martinez-Bianchi. 

“Lots of good things have happened since the article,” said Martinez-Bianchi, referring to the 9th Street Journal’s coverage of Latin-19 in July last year

For Latin-19, the work won’t stop when the pandemic is over. 

“Our goal,” Martinez-Bianchi said, “ is to continue to work and create a Latinx center for excellence in Latinx health.”  

Olivia Olsher

Steve Schewel, Durham mayor 

At the start: COVID-19 Q&A: Mayor asks residents to keep distance but help each other (March 20, 2020)

Mayor Schewel while creating a video messages to Durham residents about the need to stay home to stay safe from the new coronavirus. Photo from the City of Durham

One year ago, Mayor Steve Schewel was tasked with bringing the city of Durham together in a time of turmoil. Already reeling from a cyberattack on local government computers, Schewel worked overtime to collaborate with other leaders to address the pandemic’s impact on homeless people, parents and children whose schools were closed, and essential workers who needed childcare. He implored residents to adopt social distancing, wear masks, and hold each other accountable for slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

“We have got to act now, before we look back and regret that we didn’t act soon enough and find out that this virus has ravaged our community. The earlier we act, the more power we have to stop the spread of the virus,” Schewel said.

Now: Schewel grieves for more than 200 lives lost in Durham from COVID-19 over the past year, and he is conscious that “there’s a lot of suffering.” 

“There are businesses that are not going to come back, and people have lost their jobs. It’s going to take a long time to really get the recovery that we need, and we have to really remain supportive of all of our folks who were in those situations,” he said.

Schewel said he is impressed by Durham residents’ ability to care for one another, and by the “remarkable” way that the city’s residents have organized to feed thousands of school children, fight for eviction moratoriums, and provide students with online learning and internet access. 

“We had the first mask mandate placed, two months before the state mandated it – that saved a lot of lives.”

Now, he wants residents to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, if the city can just continue to work hard on equitable vaccine distribution. 

“Our ability to crush this virus is almost within our grasp,” Schewel said. “Vaccines are coming fast and furious now, and we need to make sure that everyone, when their time comes, gets the vaccine. And we need to make sure that our marginalized and vulnerable communities have the vaccines available to them.”

Rebecca Schneid

Martha Hoelzer, freelance photographer and instructor 

At the start: Virtual arts and exercise classes offer innovation and community (April 9, 2020)

Martha Hoelzer taught photography classes on Zoom. Photo by Randy Young

Martha Hoelzer, who runs A Breath of Fresh Air Photography, quickly adapted to self-isolation. She began offering photography lessons over Zoom and sought to “reframe the current situation of whatever we’re having to face”—training her students’ composition and perspective skills to combat the monotony of pandemic restrictions.  

Now: The past twelve months pushed Hoelzer to enact her plans—to work on projects that had been brewing in the back of her mind. Hoelzer has spent the last few months developing new workshops and planning the release of her art show.

“If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would not have reached out to see if kids wanted to do photography last year.” she said. 

On New Year’s Day, she began a 30-day mindfulness workshop on Facebook. Hoelzer promoted introspection, self-care, and the accessibility of photography by focusing on a different creative element each day.

While unforeseen triumphs like Hoelzer’s workshops sprouted from COVID, her art also took a hit. 

Hoelzer’s exhibition on traumatic brain injury was supposed to happen last March. “The images literally got hung, and then COVID basically shut down everything that weekend.” 

But twelve months later, Hoelzer’s photography collages will be released to the public. Whether virtual or in small, socially distanced groups — the details are still being worked out — Hoezler is excited to safely present her award-winning art show. 

Eleanor Ross

John Moore, yoga teacher 

At the start: The board: cancellations, uncertainty, and hope on a bulletin board on 9th Street (March 22, 2020)

A poster promoting Tibetan Lama Geshe Denma remained posted on the exterior of a Ninth Street building after the pandemic cancelled live events in Durham. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone

Last March John Moore broke the unhappy news to Tibetan Lama Geshe Denma that his weekend visit to Durham was canceled. The lama was stopping by to host classes on the practices of Tibetan Yogas of Body and Mind, sponsored by Moore — a Durham-based yoga practitioner and teacher. Moore held a clement outlook amidst stormy times.

“Although I was certainly disappointed that the workshop had to be canceled,” Moore said then, “it also provides an opportunity to practice contentment and to gracefully accept whatever life offers.” 

Now: As the year passed, Moore clung to that graceful acceptance. Four seasons of loss have brought him “a deeper level of understanding of suffering,” he said. Now he knows, like he could have never known before, “everyone has pain.”

He describes the year as one of “profound change,” Moore lost three loved ones — two died of COVID, and another of pancreatic cancer. As yoga practices halted, Moore hesitated to move classes online, feeling it was an inauthentic translation of his teaching. He moved out of his home, sold his studio, and stopped teaching yoga after 33 years.

Moore’s conscious recognition of life’s inevitable pain has reinforced his goals to help others through these struggles with a continued encouragement of acceptance. 

He has used this understanding to navigate and embrace his year of significant changes. The yogi has a new grandson, Asa and has moved into a new home in Henderson, 40 miles north of Durham. He has started a garden that he hopes will help feed hungry people in his new community. 

He has started with figs and blackberries and will soon add vegetables. “I strive to empower individuals, through yoga or through food,” Moore says, “to nourish them.” 

Carmela Guaglianone

Despite isolation, yoga keeps people in community

The sky was pitch black, but Hannah Slocum was on the move. Rolling out her purple yoga mat and cueing a new playlist, she turned on her Zoom camera and led a yoga class to the rising sun. 

Slocum’s 6:30 a.m. virtual class via Yoga off East drew six online participants. Even her mother tuned in from Massachusetts. It felt like much of the world was still asleep as the sky turned from pink to blue. But Slocum, bright and attentive, slowly guided her students through each movement. Her instructions: “do whatever feels good in your body this morning.” 

With over 36 million people practicing yoga regularly in the United States, the mental health benefits of yoga are proven. According to Yoga Alliance, 86% of people in the U.S. who practice yoga said it reduced their stress; 67% says it makes them feel better emotionally.  

The global pandemic has exacerbated mental health struggles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, by June 2020, 40% of adults in the U.S. struggled with mental health or substance abuse.

Yoga Off East instructor Cat Rudolph breathes through an outdoor yoga session last Friday at Oval Park. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

“The world expects us to function as is, and just keep going as is,” said Stephany Mejia, a Triangle-based therapist and registered yoga instructor. “But the reality is that our functioning has been limited—[especially] living through a pandemic.”

Through her practice as a therapist and social worker, Mejia encourages her clients to practice yoga to help them live in a moment outside of their heads, adding that “yoga isn’t about debating the thoughts. It’s about being with the body.” 

Durham’s yoga community has adapted with socially distanced alternatives to meet people where they are—at home. Most studios hold weekly sessions online.

“Yoga is an invitation to set aside judgment and inner criticism,” said Kathryn Smith, owner of Yoga off East. “It’s an invitation to meet yourself where you are without trying to fix anything.”

Aside from Slocum’s online class, Yoga Off East also holds outdoor, socially distanced classes at Oval Park.

“The whole point of a studio is to meet people where they are,” Smith said. “If people aren’t ready to practice [in-person] in the studio, we’ll meet you at home.”

Yoga Off East offers small, socially distanced yoga classes on tennis courts at Oval Park. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

With the pandemic’s restrictions, some independent yoga instructors created entirely new virtual studios. Shakira Bethea, an independent yoga teacher and massage therapist in Durham, began an online studio focused on community building and healing. 

Partnering with Sahaja Space, a yoga studio in Durham’s Lakewood neighborhood, Bethea begins each morning at 7:30 a.m. by either teaching or joining in Collective Care, a daily yoga class she began to combat stress and “bring people to their center” during the 2020 presidential election. It continued blossoming long afterward into a community of up to 15 individuals. They begin each day with active yoga poses and meditation exercises.

Bethea explained that creating a “small, virtual space” offers a collective way to alleviate extra anxieties brought on by the pandemic and current affairs. It’s a space where, Bethea said, someone can help people “take on all the fear and worry” they harbor internally and “share it so you don’t have to walk with it by yourself.”

Bethea also offers a sliding scale payment system, with monthly prices as low as five dollars.

“Once we can take care of ourselves, we can have more care and more love for the people around us,” Bethea said. 

According to Harvard Medical School, stressful situations trigger the “fight or flight response,” leaving people stuck in a trauma-based response system. 

“If we don’t regulate our nervous system, some of the consequences are chronic health conditions,” said Mejia, the therapist. 

This can include persistent anxiety and other related symptoms that have increased for many people in 2020. Mejia explained that when we are anxious, depressed, or worried, our bodies respond by increasing production of cortisol, the stress hormone. “[That] can result in a constant state of ‘I can’t calm down,’” she said.

Rudolph’s students cool down at the end of their yoga session. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

According to a study published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, yoga reduces cortisol levels, which can decrease stress and bring relief in depression.

But achieving those benefits requires patience, a challenge Smith at Yoga Off East quickly realized the first time she practiced yoga 21 years ago. 

“I didn’t like it at all,” she said. “I remember constantly looking at my watch. I was used to having a pretty full schedule and to step outside of that and be quiet and still—I found [that] extremely difficult.”

But after a few months, Smith began to experience yoga’s positive mental health impacts. She encourages newcomers to give it a try and to let go of perfectionism, explaining that yoga includes different positions for all bodies that can shift from practice to practice.

For example, one can choose to relax and refocus in a recovery position like downward dog, and later activate the muscles in a more active revolved chair pose. Smith said that with any position or yoga session, “you can add, subtract, make it yours.” 

As the sun rose through Slocum’s yoga session last week, she asked the class: “how can you, yourself, best show up to meet these times, to meet these circumstances?” 

For local yogis, the practice is as much about self-care as it is about collective support and healing. Bethea recalled how her yoga community supported her when she couldn’t make it to class during her parents’ bout with COVID-19. They sent her homemade food and care packages and lit candles during a guided meditation while her family healed.

“There’s so much isolation right now,” Bethea said. “[Yoga helps you] remember you’re a human here having this experience.” 

For Smith, that’s the beauty of any collective yoga practice—online or offline. 

“Two people can show up at a class having different needs and walk back into the world together,” she said. 

9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at

At top: Yoga students strike the same poses outdoors that they would make in a studio during an outdoor class. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

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

Best of 2020: Storytelling

In addition to covering news, 9th Street Journal reporters delivered memorable tales in 2020.

They discovered and developed these pieces while reporting on the pandemic, a dramatic campaign season and always interesting Durham.

In our final Best of 2020 feature, here’s some of our finest storytelling this year:

Flyers as relics

After coronavirus risks cancelled gatherings we still miss in Durham, flyers promoting live events lingered outside a closed shop on Ninth Street. Curious about what organizers and performers did instead, Carmela Guaglianone tracked some down.

Mascot mutual aid

The Durham Bulls were benched this summer, but not mascot Wool E. Bull. Daniela Schneider gave us a glimpse of how busy the local favorite was, from helping get food to needy families to spreading safety advice to people stuck indoors.

McDonald’s forced goodbye

Few have done more good in Durham than TROSA founder Kevin McDonald. The addiction treatment center he founded has offered thousands a shot at recovery. But health issues forced him to let go, Chris Kuo explained.

Sustaining Mass

Unable to worship inside, the Duke Catholic Center relocated services to a parking garage. Everything about Mass was changed and exactly the same, Dryden Quigley and Henry Haggart found.

Protecting the polls

What got the Durham County elections director out the door by 5 am this pandemic? Booming drums, violin swells and electric guitar helped Derek Bowens get moving to keep voting accessible to all, Rebecca Torrence discovered.

Curbside everything

When forced to quarantine after possible coronavirus exposures, Durham residents could still cast ballots this fall. Michaela Towfighi successfully voted curbside, with help from an affidavit and a helper named Kate.

An error’s toll

Residents knew for months that Durham police mistakenly pointed guns at young playmates at an apartment complex. Body camera footage released this fall brought home the terror the boys and their parents endured that day, Charlie Zong and Cameron Oglesby found.

A chosen home

Duke University students come and go, with just a few tagging Durham their new hometown. Ninth Street, and the creative people it attracts, won Rose Wong’s heart.

More than a hashtag

Who is Durham defense lawyer and Twitter sensation T. Greg Toucette? A rascal, a reformer, a crusader for justice and — sometimes — a pain, Chris Kuo shared.

At top: A Polaroid view of a stretch Ninth Street by Rose Wong

Church plants seeds to ease hunger, promote spiritual growth

At 3:17 a.m. the Rev. Ben Johnston-Krase jumped out of bed, scrambled for his iPad and started Googling — somebody must have thought of this idea before him.

He scoured the web, searching for a reason to go back to sleep and forget about it. Nothing came up. 

Twenty minutes and $80 later, the domain name was purchased.  Johnston-Krase put away his iPad and went back to bed.

The next morning Johnston-Krase called his friend, the Rev. Allen Brimer, and told him everything.

“Well, that’s it then,” Brimer recalled saying. “We’re gonna have to get this right.”

That was 2014. Soon Johnston-Krase and Brimer found themselves sitting in front of the Presbyterian Church USA evaluation team in Atlanta, Georgia, asking to create a new farming-focused congregation. To their surprise, they were given a green light. 

“Part of me wanted them to tell me no, no, no, don’t be a church planter. But that’s not what happened,” said Brimer. 

The men created Farm Church, whose mission is to gather a Christian-centered community around food cultivation. Its special focus is food insecurity in Durham.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, a Trinity Ave Presbyterian Church Youth group helped weed a garden that Farm Church members tend. Photo by Allen Brimer


The idea for Farm Church came to Johnston-Krase in a dream. In it, he was taking a call to a church. When he got out of his car, there was no building, only people worshipping on a small plot of farmland. That’s when he woke up and frantically searched the internet.

Connecting to faith through cultivation was a concept that had been ruminating in both his and Brimer’s minds for some time.

Brimer caught the gardening bug in 1995, after stumbling upon an organic garden on a ranch where he was working as a camp counselor in New Mexico.

Growing food “woke up some ancient dragon in me that had been dormant,” he explained.

Brimer quit the counselor job and worked full-time in the garden that summer. The following summers he travelled to Arizona, Indiana and New Mexico to work on farms and learn as much as he could about growing food. 

“I just started farming, farming, farming,” he said. 

After acquiring the blessing of the Presbyterian Church, Johnston-Krase, Brimer, and their friend the Rev. Brandon Wert started a nationwide search for the perfect home for Farm Church. 

They considered locations from California to New York. Durham, North Carolina, was the dark-horse candidate. None of the pastors knew anyone in the area. That meant they would have to build roots in the community from the ground up.

But when they came to visit, they fell in love. “We came to Durham and it just shined,” said Brimer.

There were also plenty of mouths to feed. Eighteen percent of people living in Durham are food insecure, according to research done by The Southeastern University Consortium for Food Security and Health. That adds up to over 50,000 people.

Moreover, mild winters here allow Farm Church’s congregation to spend lots of the year outside with their hands in the soil. And despite decades of development, the city is still surrounded by lots of open land, which Brimer hoped would make it easier to find space of their own.  

So in August 2015 the men packed up their families and moved to Durham. Phase one was complete. Next they needed congregants. The following months they consumed excessive amounts of caffeine at local cafes like Mad Hatter’s and Beyu Blue and telling people what they were up to. 

“We were constantly just going and meeting people and telling the story over and over and over,” Brimer said.

Each meeting led to three more people who might be interested in their vision, and then three more. One coffee conversation led them to connect with SEEDS, an urban garden and kitchen classroom on Gilbert Street. 

An outdoors communion. Photo courtesy of Farm Church


On May 1, 2016, Farm Church hosted its first service at the SEEDS campus. Brimer offered a scripture passage while more than 60 people stood on the bare earth SEEDS shared with them. Then they got to work.

First on the agenda: Improving soil health. 

 “The first year in that garden, we were literally digging into red clay, like hard, dry red clay. It was awful,” said Anneke Oppewal, a middle school Spanish teacher who was one of Farm Church’s first congregation members.

Five years and several harvests later, the soil is rich and dark brown. And the congregation has grown. Anywhere between 70 to 100 people pass through Farm Church a week.

On Wednesdays, members spend the afternoon working on a tenth-acre plot on Watts Street. Anne Hodges-Copple, an associate bishop of the Episcopal church and a fellow gardening geek, offered them the land, Brimer said. 

With no official building to its name, Farm Church attracts those looking for an unconventional religious community that offers an active worship experience. Something that feels productive and purposeful.

“It has attracted people who are spiritually curious, but institutionally suspicious,” said Mark McIntyre, a member of Farm Church since its founding.

Oppewal said she felt unfulfilled by her previous experiences of “normal” indoor church. 

“It was all too easy to go in, sit down, stand up, leave. I was like, I think church is supposed to be more than this,” she said.

“Farm Church mixes this notion of practicing our faith life with doing something that’s actually physically useful to people as well. It satisfies not just a spiritual need, but a physical one,” said McIntyre.

Few people living in urban centers like Durham get to experience the satisfaction of defending precious crops from crowding weeds or watching shoots burst from seed capsules to stretch toward sunlight. Norman Wirzba, a professor of Christian theology at Duke Divinity School, believes such cultivation experiences take on spiritual meaning. 

“When you look at scriptures, they’re all about God’s love for the land, God’s love for non-human creatures, God’s love for all human beings, and certainly God’s love for bodies,” he said. “That’s why you find Jesus constantly healing bodies, feeding bodies, befriending bodies, reconciling bodies, even exorcising the demons that are disfiguring bodies, because Jesus loves embodiment.”

Brimer, now head pastor, describes the garden as a “smorgasbord of metaphors” for Christian teachings. On Sundays, after Brimer reads and reflects on the scripture passage for the day, he ends with some meditative questions for the group. 

“When is a time that you did the compassionate thing, even though it was the hard thing to do?,” he might ask. Or: “What does justice look like in the midst of a pandemic? What does mercy look like in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement?”

With these questions in mind, Brimer walks members through the SEEDS gardens, pointing out plants with insect damage or encroaching weeds. He teaches skills, like how to harvest greens so they grow back stronger. The group then chooses what to prioritize and gets to work.

After working the land for 45 to 50 minutes, congregants step into an indoor space on the SEEDS campus for a break. They discuss the meditation questions and the scripture passage’s implications for their daily lives. 

“I never thought weeding could be something spiritual,” said Oppewal. “That very much connected with me, the idea of taking things out that are not serving us to make room for things that will; that has been a big metaphor.”

After discussing scripture and Brimer’s questions, it’s time for communion liturgy — minus bread or wine these days due to COVID-19. Service ends after everyone shares joys or concerns from the week and Brimer says a final prayer.

People clean tools and head home.

Bags of greens harvested by Farm Church members. Photo by Allen Brimer


Farm Church members are passionate about food insecurity.

Radishes, lettuce, kale and the other foods that members grow are donated to local food banks, including one run by Iglesia Immanuel Presbyterian congregation, and to Mt. Zion Baptist Church’s food pantry.  During the pandemic, they have helped efforts to feed Durham public school families who depend on free or reduced-price meals.

When bad weather keeps them home, they watch documentaries about food systems and join Zoom talks with others working to try to improve access to healthy food in Durham.

While the injection of fresh produce from Farm Church into Durham food sharing networks is a first step at helping, Brimer wants to go further.

Reducing food insecurity in Durham has been a humbling experience for many. Low-income, marginalized communities experience a higher risk of food insecurity in the U.S. and Durham is no exception.

Part of a predominantly white, middle-class congregation, Farm Church members acknowledge they are disconnected with the people most in need of assistance. 

“Farm Church right now is very much a Band-Aid to very big and real problems that we can’t just address and be done with. We know that food insecurity stems from racism and poverty and health disparities, and these things that we can’t necessarily tackle,” said Oppenwal.

Plans are underway to develop a spot by a bus stop on Holloway Street where people can one day pick their own food while waiting for a ride. Brimer plans to seek out more people working on solutions and offer the church’s help, he said. 

“We want to ask if we can accompany them solving the problem and keep asking: How can I be useful here?,” he said.

9th Street reporter Olivia Olsher can be reached at

At top: A Farm Church fall harvest. Photo by Anneke Opewal

Altered but open: Durham Farmers’ Market still connects vendors and patrons

Nearly every Saturday morning since 2007, Durham Farmers’ Market transformed Durham Central Park.

Usually, vendors rolled into Central Park Pavilion early, 6 or 7 a.m.  From vans, trucks and cars they unloaded tents, tables and stands to display squashes, greens, breads, jewelry and more local fare. By 8 a.m. customers arrived, quickly spawning a crowded mass that mingled, dashed and clumped, like ants navigating their mound. 

That charming, chaotic ritual came to an abrupt end on Saturday, March 21. No vendors, no shoppers until May.

In between, the market had to overcome a turnover in its leadership and hatch a new COVID-style way of doing business.

Despite significant changes, the market remains a place where people connect.

“It just feels really important to be here,” said Izzy Pezzulo, a vendor for Red Trail Grains. “Not only to be making the money that you need to continue farming, but also to just show up for the community and feed people in a way that feels safer to them.”

Durham Farmers’ Market ambassador Anna Beck holds a sign at the entrance of the market this fall. Photo by Henry Haggart


When pandemic-related shutdown orders started in Durham, Susan Sink, market manager at the time, was communicating with Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson about spacing proposals to keep the market open. She explained that every item would be pre-packaged and vendors would be spaced 20 feet apart, she said.

But city officials made the decision early in the pandemic to close all city-owned facilities built for groups or gatherings. Sink was told that the city owns Durham Central Park where the Durham Farmers’ Market takes place and Mayor Steve Schewel had made clear the farmers’ market had to close to protect public health, she said. 

There was no market for the next six weeks. 

“We felt that we needed to make sure that we weren’t drawing this huge crowd until there were safety protocols in place,” Schewel said. 

Signs posted around the market encourage visitors to look but not touch while shopping. Photo by Henry Haggart

To reopen, Sink had weekly phone calls with officials to discuss new regulations. There was a large group call between the Farmers’ Market staff and vendors too. Establishing long term changes in market operations in March was difficult, because no one was sure how long the pandemic would last. 

“I do think the biggest challenge was mindset,” Sink said. “People did not believe how lethal the virus could be. And no one believed the situation would last so long, so they wanted easy stopgaps and not long-term marketing and distribution solutions.”

Jack Pleasant, president of the Farmers’ Market board of directors, went from attending monthly meetings about the market to spending 20 to 30 hours a week trying to get it reopened. 

“We were dealing with things that were flying every day in different directions,” Pleasant said. 

To add to the complexity, some staff left. Angel Woodrum left her assistant market manager job because she was worried about her safety at work, Pleasant said. Sink stayed on as manager until May and helped with the reopening, but also decided to leave.

Emily-Kate Hannapel, a former assistant market manager who was working as an interior designer, volunteered to manage the market for two months during the search for a new manager.

“It was pretty scary because from one perspective, you’re trying to do everything that you’ve been told to create a safe space and a safe event. But especially in May, there was still so much that we didn’t know about the virus and how it spread,” Hannapel said. 

Despite the uncertainty, Hannapel said she felt the responsibility to try to make sure the Durham Farmers’ Market operated through the pandemic. 

“The whole point of having a really strong local food system is so that it can step up and work in moments of crisis,” she said. “We have all of these farmers who are growing food and we have people who want food and who are nervous about going into grocery stores. It just felt like this moment that our local food system, which is so strong here, really had to step up to meet that demand.”

In July, board members appointed Michelle Greene the new market manager. She had been a loyal customer of the farmers’ market for ten years, but had never worked on the management side. Catherine Rudolph was hired in August to replace Angel Woodrum as assistant market manager.

“I knew the atmosphere, but you think you know how a market works just by going and visiting, but you don’t,” Greene said. “It’s a very different world being a visitor compared to managing.”

A handwashing station stands near the entrance of the market within sight of pandemic shopping rules. Photo by Henry Haggart


Before COVID-19, the market was also open on Wednesdays from April until October. On May 2, only the Saturday market reopened to the public. 

It looks a lot different.

The market is now “one-way,” with one entrance and one exit. Everyone must travel the vendors’ loop in the same direction to avoid getting dangerously close to anyone else.

Customers must remain six feet apart. They are not supposed to touch products, but must wait for a vendor to help. There is a hand-washing station at the front of the market, and volunteers are posted to make sure customers are aware of the rules. 

Vendor stands stand at least 10 feet apart. Because of that, the market can now accommodate up to 40 vendors; in the past it hosted around 60.

Reducing the number of vendors from 40 to 60 happened naturally, because a number of vendors, such as Elodie Farms, chose to conduct their sales through online, contactless pick-up instead of through the farmers’ market, according to Greene. 

“We make a map every week for what the market will look like that weekend so that the customers have a guide for how they can get in and out the fastest, if they do feel that they want to run in and run out,” said Greene.

The faster-paced approach makes the farmers’ market a safer shopping experience, but can also make it more difficult for customers to connect the way they used to.

“I come to the farmers’ market almost every Saturday because it’s my sense of community, it’s a place to touch in with where I live,” customer Meredith Emmett said. “It’s just harder to talk to people and recognize people. I did just see someone I haven’t seen in a long, long time but it doesn’t have the same spirit of connection. It feels more like I’m grocery shopping as opposed to coming to the town square.” 

Red Trail Grains vendor Izzy Pezzulo said she cherishes connections she makes at the market in spite of masks and distancing. Photo by Henry Haggart

Despite the market’s redesign for social distancing, vendors say that it still offers them some much-needed social interaction.

“Despite the circumstances,” the market is “really life giving,” said Pezzulo, the Red Tail Grains vendor

Pezzulo formed a friendship from the market with Ahbi Bügger, who manages the stand for Celebrity Dairy, when they began trading their products with each other.

Bügger had been farming in Peru and Brazil for six months when she noticed other people scrambling to find flights back to the United States. She realized she needed to leave, so she boarded a flight to North Carolina, where her parents live, and moved to Pittsboro, which is home to the Celebrity Dairy Farm.

“When I first started, people would come up, buy the cheese and leave — barely a hello was even said,” Bügger said. “And now, there are some lines and some waiting because people stay a minute.” 

Bügger still prioritizes a safe shopping experience, but has appreciated that her customers are willing to spend some more time when they stop at her stand. 

“The fear is subsiding a little bit, which I think is awesome,” she said. “We need to continue to stay vigilant about safety, but it also makes my heart feel a little warm that people are really committed to supporting us and committed to connecting with the farmers that sell their products and intentionally making connections.”

Jennifer Tolliver, a farmer at Botanist and Barrel who manages their stand on Saturdays, decided that leaving her house for the market was worth the risk because of the mental health benefits. 

“We have medical professionals in the family, and we talked to them about it and everyone seems pretty much on the same page as far as the fact that being outdoors, socially distanced, plus masks — it’s a pretty low risk,” she said. 

The market is expected to remain open through the winter season, still outdoors in Durham Central Park. Current market restrictions will likely remain. 

“I do have a call with the Durham County extension office every few weeks and we go over what’s new. The winter has different things that may come,” Greene said. “We used to think we could predict things and now we don’t.”

9th Street reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at

At top: The pandemic has altered foot traffic and much more at Durham Farmers’ Market. What once was free form is now tightly choreographed. Photo by Henry Haggart 

Ninth Street: A love story

From the moment I wandered onto Ninth Street as a clueless Duke freshman experiencing her first days of August humidity in the Southeast, I never quite looked at the world the same way.

On Ninth Street, I worked my first service industry job where I saw, heard about, and experienced more sexual harassment than I knew existed. I fell in love with a woman and jumped into a whirl of confusion. I formed many thoughts while walking back and forth between White Star Laundromat and Bruegger’s Bagels. I cried. I laughed more. 

About to enter my last semester of college, I now live in Erwin Mill, a Ninth Street apartment building converted from a cotton mill in the 1970s (which I didn’t know until reporting for this story). Driving on Ninth Street a few dozen evenings ago, I was struck by the pink and purple skies gently resting on the street’s low-rise buildings and reflected, once again, on how much I love my home. 

That thought came with a pang of guilt. My understanding of Ninth Street and West Durham was limited to the last four years. To truly love someone is to know someone. It was time to learn more. 

Readers — this is a love story, a farewell letter, and a chronicle of my home and the people who defend it. 

Mill village

For decades, wheat crop covered most of what is now Old West Durham — a neighborhood that stretches north from the Durham Freeway to Englewood Avenue and west from Broad Street to Hillandale Road. Except for Pinhook, according to John Schelp, former president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association and West Durham’s street historian. 

In the early to mid-19th century, Pinhook was a “rough and roaring” settlement whose great appeal was its tavern. After a day’s journey, travelers walking from Hillsborough to Raleigh would end up at Pinhook, which was “100 yards southwest of the southwest corner of Erwin Mill,” Schelp said.

They would kick back in the tavern, socialize with locals — including University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill students who could party at Pinhook away from authority figures — and rest up before continuing their journey the next morning. 

Ninth Street itself was part of farmland owned by the Rigsbee family, whose land now holds Hillsborough Road, Carolina Avenue, 15th Street, and most of Duke West Campus. In 1892, the Duke family bought that land from the Rigsbees to build a cotton mill to diversify their investments in tobacco and expand into other industries, like textile. 

The long red-brick building on Ninth Street was the first of eight Erwin Mills that the Duke family owned in the Southeast. I and many Duke students live in the first. Parizade and Local 22, both restaurants, and the 10-story Erwin Square Tower replaced the fourth, which was larger. 

The development of the mill village, which stretched from Monuts on Ninth Street to the Duke Gardens, left no room for Pinhook’s ruckus, Schelp said. 

If you drank too much, not only did you lose your job, you lost your mill house… all the houses were owned by the mills,” Schelp said. 

Relative to other mill villages in the Southeast in the early 20th century, life wasn’t too bad, Schelp said. Erwin Mill workers and their families had access to a health clinic, library, swimming pool, baseball field and tennis courts.

Unlike some mill villages that had company stores, Erwin Mills allowed private merchants to populate Ninth Street, Schelp said. There was a grocery store, hardware store, post office, and McDonald’s Drugstore, a pharmacy and soda shop for 80 years that served renowned milkshakes until 2003.

The Regulator

In the 1970s, during Erwin Mills’ slow decline, new businesses and ideas began flowing into Ninth Street. In 1974, Duke alumnus David Birkhead founded The Regulator Press, which printed political news for grassroots organizations, in the back of what is now The Regulator bookstore. A couple years later, he gathered friends — including fellow alumni Tom Campbell and Aden Field — and suggested that they rent the streetfront space and sell books, Campbell said. 

Field jumped on the idea; Campbell, who had recently finished his master’s degree in environmental management at Duke and could not yet find a job, agreed to help out for a few months. 

“A few months became 41 years,” Campbell said. 

The Regulator Bookshop opened in 1976. Field moved on after two years and John Valentine, another Dukie, joined Campbell until they both retired almost three years ago. 

The entire friend group — Campbell, Valentine, Birkhead, Field — were politically progressive. “Durham was still largely a conservative town, so we were a little different,” Campbell said. 

Campbell and Valentine invited provocative authors to speak at their store, including feminist novelist Margaret Atwood, Black historian John Hope Franklin, and former Vice President Al Gore during his book tour for Earth in the Balance.

Shortly after the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, when the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party killed four members of the Communist Workers Party, members dropped off copies of their newspaper on a rack at The Regulator where locals could share flyers and free information, Campbell said. 

Flyers soon circulated the neighborhood, stating that there were communists on Ninth Street. “They were referring to us,” Campbell said. 

Some people in Old West Durham were clearly not communists. 

Don Hill’s Lock and Gun (renamed Don Hill’s Lock and Safe in 2007) on Hillsborough Road had a large cannon facing the street out front. For a while after the flyers that falsely claimed Campbell and Valentine were communists spread throughout the neighborhood, that cannon was turned towards Ninth Street, Campbell said. 

“It was a little scary,” Campbell said. “This was just a few months after people who were communists got killed in Greensboro.” 

Progressive shift

By the 1980s, Ninth Street was a hub for progressives and the intellectually curious. Ninth Street Bakery, which opened in 1981 where Dain’s Place and Durham Cycles are currently, was the first bakery in town to offer organic and whole grain options, co-founder Frank Ferrell said. 

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, who helped Campbell and Field organize their bookstore the night before The Regulator’s opening, recalled often meeting other left-leaning thinkers  at the Ninth Street Bakery and bouncing thoughts back and forth for hours. 

While attending graduate school at Duke, Schewel worked for North Carolina Public Interest Research Group, which rented office space above what is now Wavelengths. Vaguely Reminiscent owner Carol Anderson said that “a network of lefty groups” rented offices above the hair salon back then. 

Based on their interests in vintage fashion and basket weaving, Anderson and then-business partner Deb Nickell founded Vaguely Reminiscent in 1982, taking the name from folk singer Charlie King’s 1979 song “Vaguely Reminiscent of the 60s.” 

Baskets and used clothes were not enough to fill a store, they soon realized, so they expanded to crafts and natural-fiber clothing. Today, that’s where you find Kamala Harris prayer candles and magnets that read “Wake Up And Smell The Complete And Utter Bullshit!” (Yes, I bought one.)

A piece of Durham history occurred in Vaguely Reminiscent. In preparation for the first official Durham pride parade in 1986, queer and progressive organizers asked then-Mayor Wib Gulley to make an anti-discrimination proclamation to protect them. Gulley did them one better and created an anti-discrimination week. 

The backlash was immediate. Local religious leaders and conservatives, led by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’ National Congressional Club, organized a recall campaign against Gulley. Activists set up booths around Durham and sought to collect the 14,000 signatures in six weeks they needed to trigger a new mayoral election.

Anderson mobilized volunteers to visit the same places that the recall campaign was collecting signatures to tell community members why they should not sign the petition. They met on the back porch of Vaguely Reminiscent to collect the tables, chairs and informational materials they needed, Anderson said.

The recall campaign did not get enough signatures. 

“There was a lot of political activism and interest in changing our community for the better,” Mayor Schewel said about Ninth Street back then. “The culture we were part of then has shaped what Durham is now.” 

‘Money is pouring’

Like a metronome set at 100 beats per minute, time lords over places and lives, demanding that all keep up. Ninth Street is not exempt.

As national chains move into spaces on the street where local stores once thrived, Ninth Street is becoming increasingly gentrified. Construction workers are turning the parking lot across from Anderson’s store into a Chase bank, the second bank on the street. The lost lot was critical to small businesses on the east side of the street. 

Anderson had planned to sell her business to a longtime employee this year. Not only has the pandemic delayed her retirement, she doesn’t know if anyone will want to take over a small business that’s a vestige of the past, perhaps vaguely reminiscent of the 80s. 

“It doesn’t have the political left vibe that it did,” Anderson said of Ninth Street.  

But that doesn’t mean the community hasn’t taken steps to defend itself. Between 2006 and 2008, Schelp worked with the City Council to create the Ninth Street Plan, which aimed to stave off corporate enterprise and preserve local businesses for as long as possible, he said.

The plan mandated a two-story limit on much of the east side of the street, an even split of three- and four-story buildings on the west side, and banned drive-through windows (The Wells Fargo drive-through was built before the plan.) 

Fast-food chains like MacDonald’s are less likely to move in if they can’t have a drive-through, Schelp said. Knocking down a one-story unit sounds less profitable when you can only replace it with a two-story building. 

Schelp and others from the neighborhood negotiated with other developers on and near Ninth Street, including Harris Teeter, the Berkshire Ninth Street apartments, Station Nine, and Duke Medical Center. They succeeded in influencing the exteriors of some buildings — lots of brick is  visible on upscale apartment buildings. But no units were set aside as affordable housing with less-than market rent, as some desired.

“Money is pouring into Durham,” Schelp said. “You can either complain about the bulldozers when they show up or you can months in advance, sit down at the table, roll up your sleeves and negotiate with the developers to make something that is more acceptable to the community and the builder.” 

A 1987 state law prohibited rent-control on the county or city level. While inclusionary zoning — policy requiring a given share of a new construction to be affordable for residents of moderate- to low-income — is not illegal, it is not explicitly legal either (a 2001 bill to allow mandatory inclusionary zoning died in committee).

Municipalities considering mandating inclusionary zoning worry that the Republican-held General Assembly would not only respond by suing the city, Schelp said, but also ban the affordable-housing strategy altogether.

Accepting development

Change is coming. 

Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero said that the city is currently updating the Durham Comprehensive Plan in ways that will expand affordable housing. In coming years, the city will see a rise in multi-family homes — duplexes, triplexes, quads — to accommodate the influx of people moving to Durham and keep housing prices from skyrocketing, she anticipates. 

The Comprehensive Plan will affect the entire city and supersede the Ninth Street Plan, Caballero said. 

The gentrification plaguing Durham today is the inverse of 20th-century white flight, when white people moved in large numbers out of racially-mixed urban areas for the suburbs, taking wealth and jobs with them.

Affluent whites are now moving to the city, displacing long-time Black residents who cannot compete financially for a number of reasons. For one, mortgage applications for Black residents here are less likely to get approved than  applications for white residents.  

Although Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson could not predict the future of Ninth Street, she said that “all Durham neighborhoods are going to need to densify in the coming years in order to ensure adequate availability of housing, particularly housing that’s affordable to lower-income residents.” 

So Ninth Street will change; the question is for whom? While some see rampant commercial growth (has anyone given Capital One a call?), others envision a compact and financially accessible community for all. 


Since I was born, I moved back and forth between Canada, Hong Kong and Michigan. In each place, I lived with different adults. I’ve been asked countless times — which is home? 

Perhaps my answer will change years from now when I settle down somewhere and start a family. But Durham is the first place that has truly felt like home. 

Ninth Street today is far from the dwindling-mill-village-up-and-coming-lefty-hub where Schewel and Campbell hung out years ago. The steady march of gentrification could bury those roots. 

Still, I find my story aligning and intersecting with the experiences of the mayor and the landmark bookstore founder. This street helped change how I think about politics, race, and gender too. 

I also spent countless hours in The Regulator, particularly when I was desperate to escape the toxic demands of campus life. And if only you could meet all the wonderfully strange people I met here as well.  

Even though I may just be another Duke student cruising through, the impact that Durham has on me and the thousands of students who wander onto Ninth Street for the first time every year far outlasts our time here. 

I have wondered what this street will look like when I return to Durham as an alumna, and whether it will still hold magic like it has for me and so many before me. I don’t know, but I still have a lot of faith in the people who choose to call it home for the long haul.

All photos by 9th Street journalist Rose Wong, who can be reached at