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Posts published in “Life in Durham”

Scrap Exchange repurposing Lakewood Shopping Center

When the Scrap Exchange moved into Durham’s Lakewood Shopping Center in 2014, the mall had fallen far from its days in the 1960s as a hotspot for shopping, swimming and skating. Buildings were empty and in disrepair. 

The nonprofit — which promotes reuse by selling items and materials that might otherwise end up in a landfill — made its new home in an abandoned movie theater. It has spent six years working to bring life back to the area. 

Now, Ann Woodward, a longtime Scrap Exchange employee, has an even more ambitious vision: a project called the Reuse Arts District (RAD), which she is spearheading on her own.

Led by Woodward and established as a separate nonprofit by the Scrap Exchange, RAD will be a community hub with eight reuse arts programs, nonprofits and shops, affordable housing units, community gardens, a sculpture park, a basketball court, a skateboard park and a playground. 

The nonprofit has raised tens of millions of dollars for the project, which is progressing but not moving as quickly as Scrap Exchange originally envisioned.

When completed, RAD is expected to create 25 full-time jobs with benefits. The organization has partnered with nine local agencies, some of which manage employment re-entry programs for veterans, formerly incarcerated people and seniors. The hope is for many employees to live in the affordable housing units that will eventually be built on the property.

“Creating a space where everyone can live, work, play, shop, recreate, be comfortable going outside—that’s what we’re working towards,” Woodward said.  

Since its founding in 1991, the Scrap Exchange has hosted countless community meet-up programs, school field trips and workshops about how to reuse materials for both art and everyday purposes. 

The Scrap Exchange says it saves 167 tons of the 11 million tons of waste generated in North Carolina from going to landfills each year. By adding the eight new reuse arts programs—a music production studio, a Recycle-A-Bicycle shop, an architectural salvage spot to resell construction waste—the organization expects that number to grow significantly.

RAD will reuse the buildings in the shopping center rather tearing down and rebuilding new. The organization has faced some criticism from residents who claim the project will gentrify the area. Woodward disagrees. 

“If you move into an abandoned location, you are revitalizing, you are not kicking anybody out,” she said. “I look at the high-rise retail things that are going up all over Durham — like, that’s gentrification.” 

A community garden at the Scrap Exchange location. Photo by Corey Pilson

Woodward added that the model for development is designed “to help stabilize communities” through neighborhood integration, job creation and quality affordable housing for people in Durham who are making less $12.28 an hour, the city’s living wage, including those who work for the Scrap Exchange and its neighbors. 

But the project is slow-moving. The first phase of the plan was to lease 105,000 square feet of the mall to tenants who fit the family-friendly vision of the space by 2017.

The expected completion date, however, was pushed back to the end of 2020 because of the time it’s taken to find the right tenants.

RAD has secured leases for all but two of its biggest properties and plans to finalize those this year. Woodward said she rejected multiple applicants, like tobacco or gambling shops, in favor of waiting for more community-focused tenants like El Futuro, a mental health facility for Latino families, a craft store, a food pantry, a music hall and a thrift store. 

“I feel like we have a really good mix of social services and some for-profit businesses as well [that are] related to the arts,” Woodward said. 

The second phase is fundraising and planning for the housing and commercial development on the property. Though the RAD has had a community garden since 2015, other community amenities are lacking.

According to Woodward, RAD still needs to look for a majority of their project partners before plans are more concrete. 

The Scrap Exchange got a $2.5 million loan from the North Carolina Community Development Initiative Capital, which funds community development, and is conducting a feasibility study for the project until 2021 to see how much more funding is necessary. The project also has a $1 million loan from Duke University and $6.2 million in loans from nonprofit lender Self Help Ventures Fund. 

The organization wants to ultimately raise $100 million to establish the National Center for Creative Reuse, which would function as a national hub for mentorship on how other cities can form reuse economies.

RAD has full support from the city council and mayor, which agreed to give $660,000 for affordable housing. The organization has 10 years to use the grant. The plan is to build a minimum of 33 affordable housing units, but the space allows for a total of 170 units. 

“I think it could be transformative for that neighborhood,” said Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. 

He added that nobody on the city council had any objections to the funding proposal. “It was very enthusiastically received.”

Top photo: The Scrap Exchange is building a community hub and affordable housing at the Lakewood Shopping Center. Photo by Corey Pilson

Once a plantation, Stagville helps African Americans find traces of enslaved ancestors

Durham native Wilma Liverpool walked into Stagville State Historic Site on a recent Saturday with a single piece of paper in her hand and many questions. 

The folded paper was a photocopy of the court document that freed her enslaved ancestor, Franky Liverpool, in 1803 after her owner died. The document described her as a woman of “yellow complexion,” meaning that her mother or a grandmother was likely raped by a white man, Wilma Liverpool suspects. 

Clues to many injustices were stored in the document. Franky’s last name floats above her first name, inserted with a caret. “An afterthought,” Liverpool said.

The Liverpool family has celebrated Franky’s birthday every year since they discovered this document a couple of years back. But they still wonder about their other enslaved ancestors. 

Wilma Liverpool holds a copy of a document showing Franky Liverpool was freed from slavery in 1803. Photo by Victoria Eavis

That’s why Liverpool went to Family History Day at what was once a large plantation. There staff and exhibitors shared resources available to African Americans trying to find information about enslaved ancestors, whether they were held in captivity at Stagville or not. 

The vast majority of people enslaved in the United States were prohibited from reading, writing, attending school, legally marrying or owning land or a business. Paper trails for those basic aspects of life now serve as the inroads into personal genealogical research for most Americans.

When African Americans attempt to trace their family tree, many often cannot dig deeper than the late 1860s. It was only after the Civil War ended that the U.S. census started recording African American people as more than just numbers. 

According to the U.S. National Archives, the 1870 census was the first to record African Americans by name and it often serves as the first official record of a surname for former slaves. Their age and place of birth was also recorded in that census.

Before the Civil War, more than 900 enslaved people lived at Stagville, making it one of the largest plantations in North Carolina. The Cameron and Bennehan families owned the 30,000 acres of land. The historic site occupies a small portion of that land. 

Because written records of enslaved people are so scant, sometimes the only trace of those who endured forced labor and captivity over generations are anonymous. That is the case with this fingerprint in a brick preserved in a building at Stagville. Photo by Corey Pilson

Records of enslaved people were just tallies on a census listed under a slave owner’s name at some plantations. But the Camerons kept detailed records of purchases and sales of individuals, records that help their descendants trace their ancestors today.

People attending the family history event learned about Stagville’s records and more. Representatives from UNC Greensboro’s The Digital Library on American Slavery briefed visitors about their newest project, People Not Property: Slave Deeds of North Carolina.

Slave deeds are property deeds that slave owners filed with county courts that contain invaluable information about enslaved people. These individuals may only be recorded by number, but more often they are listed by name and age, which provides crucial information for historians and genealogists.

Jennette Thompson was one of the visitors in search of answers about her family tree at Stagville’s Family Day. Photo by Corey Pilson

The UNC project focuses on compiling and digitizing slave deeds. People Not Property: Slave Deeds of North Carolina is projected to make those records accessible to the public within the next year, said Brian Robinson, a curator at UNC Greensboro. 

Stagville’s table displayed large handwritten family trees of the families who were enslaved at the plantation. The diagrams were drawn into a large booklet that took up most of the table. They were cumbersome to flip through, but guests went at the awkward task with intrigue and determination.  

One visitor was Jennette Thompson. Thompson’s great grandmother, Bertha Meeks, was enslaved at Stagville, she said. She suspected that she may also be related to the Justice family, another family enslaved there, which is why she wanted to look at the site’s records. 

Staff members are moved by the quests. “You see the excitement in their faces,” said Khadija McNair, Stagville’s assistant site manager said about the people who dive into the records. “They’re finding out about who they are as a person.” 

A rendering of the Hart family tree displayed at Stagville. Photo by Victoria Eavis

Not every former plantation site delves deep into the atrocities that happened on their land the way like Stagville does, said site manager Vera Cecelski. Today, a number of former plantations maintain the big white house and willow tree trope, advertising themselves as picturesque locales to host events and weddings. 

“Stagville is a plantation site that’s focused on telling stories about slavery, enslaved people, and  the history of white supremacy in an honest and ethical way,” said Cecelski.

Despite outreach events such as Family History Day, both Cecelski and McNair voiced concern that some Durhamites don’t know that Stagville exists. 

“Right now a real goal for our site is to have a deeper engagement with Durham and to have more people in Durham understand that Stagville is here as a resource to engage with,” Cecelski said. 

Nonetheless, the open house was a bustling day. 

“Tell ‘em freedom is on the rise!,” Wilma Liverpool exclaimed as she left. “Look out!”

At top: Stagville State Historic Site displayed a ledger that logged precious information about people once enslaved there. One entry reads: Aggy, daughter of Daniel and Molly, born August 1781. Photo by Corey Pilson


In downtown Durham, overflow crowd greets Bernie Sanders

A thin, black folding wall cut U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Durham rally in half.

On one side was the Durham Convention Center’s main ballroom, filled wall to wall — and to capacity — with ardent supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate front-runner. On the other: a smaller, darker overflow room for latecomers to the Valentine’s Day rally.

Fresh off winning the New Hampshire primary, Sanders spent part of the week campaigning around North Carolina, a key Super Tuesday state. A reported 3,100 people showed up in Durham. 

Fifteen minutes before it started, Greg West hovered near the barrier. “I’m waiting for my wife, we got separated,” said West, who showed up to the event two hours early.

But no one, besides the brave few slipping past security, was getting in. It looked like his wife would have to miss this one.

“Nobody else can come into this ballroom at the time,” announced the assistant fire marshal, who said the temporary wall held back some 300 people — a diverse, young crowd united in their desire to make it into the main hall and their frustration with the capacity limit. 

As West explained why he planned to vote for Sanders — a track record of consistency, a strong vision of change — his phone screen lit up and a poppy, marimba-snare ringtone started playing. His wife was calling. She had made it back to the main room, where dozens of cameras were trained on a wide stage set for Sanders. He went to join her. 

Dozens of others ended up in the overflow room, where audio of the speeches played over loudspeakers. By 11:30 a.m., local progressive politicians like Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, Durham County Commissioner candidate Nida Allam and State Senate candidate Pierce Freelon, warmed up the mic. Each echoed Sanders’s calls for radical change and reminding people to support down ballot candidates. The packed crowd in the main ballroom hung to their words, tossing up “Bernie” signs, clapping on queue and quieting down to listen. 

Those scattered in the overflow room chatted among themselves, biding time as they waited to hear Sanders’s voice. For a few minutes, former Ohio state senator and Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner stopped by the small corner stage with locally beloved “Bull Durham” star Susan Sarandon, briefly firing up the crowd by telling them they had the power to change America.  

Sanders visits the overflow room at his Durham rally. 9th Street Journal photo by Jake Sheridan

Diana Lynn, a self-identified member of the “Yang Gang” — fans of technology entrepreneur and former candidate Andrew Yang — said she was looking for “a new ship to jump on” after he recently dropped out of the race. Lynn hadn’t been able to arrive on time because of work, she said, and wore her green Harris Teeter uniform shirt inside out. Still, she was happy to have a chance to hear Sanders. 

“People want a revolution,” Lynn said. “They’re beyond fed up. That’s how we got Trump.”

Fernando Bretos, who said he will vote for Sanders, also ended up in the overflow room after coming from work. 

“It’s kind of nice that there is an overflow room, but of course I want to be in there with them,” said Bretos, a marine biologist concerned about climate change. “I kind of regret not going with Bernie the first time. I’m just going with passion and ingenuity. He speaks to me.”

Then, Sanders really did speak to Bretos. To shock and excitement, the Democratic hopeful surprised supporters and took the overflow room stage. 

“The good news is we have a standing room crowd over there,” Sanders said, pointing to the wall separating them from the ballroom. “The bad news is you could not get in.”

He touted his victory in New Hampshire and promised wins to come. He listed a string of policies to cheers and the names of enemies — “the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, the whole damn one percent” — to boo’s. He summarized his platform into “two basic things”: beating Donald Trump, and transforming the government and economy “so it represents all of us.” 

After six minutes, Sanders left to go give a longer version of his stump speech to the main room. Most of the overflow crowd left, too. 

On the way out, Lynn said she appreciated Sanders’s appearance, but was still undecided between him and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

As he headed back to work, Bretos said Sanders’s quick stop gave him goosebumps. 

“It felt like a community. Like I’m not alone,” Bretos said. “Since I’ve gone to Bernie world, a lot of friends and Democrats have kind of been jabbing me, questioning me, so it’s nice to feel like I’m part of a community, to feel like I belong.” 

At top: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders visits with supporters before his rally in Durham on Feb. 14. 9th Street Journal photo by Jake Sheridan.

One year into NorthStar’s quest to grow spirituality and community with art

All who entered NorthStar Church of the Arts one night last month passed an artist’s rendering of Colin Kaepernick. A halo-like shape circled the activist quarterback’s head; a rope noose hung around his neck. Nearby was a mixed-media image of a crying woman with a slave ship nestled in her hair. 

At the launch of the newest issue of Southern Cultures, a Center for the Study of the American South quarterly, every seat and slab of wall was full. 

The following night the doors opened to the scent of generously buttered popcorn and squeals of small children running at top speed. The room was not pushing capacity, but a bright energy surged for a Dolly Parton birthday party. NorthStar had four hours blocked off for Dolly trivia and a “9 to 5” screening. 

NorthStar Church of the Arts is a venue housed in a Gothic Revival former church near Durham’s Central Park. Phil and Nnenna Freelon, accomplished in architecture and jazz respectively, founded it to be a “sacred space” where arts and the spiritual connect.

Dolly Parton is a saint on a candle displayed during her birthday celebration at NorthStar Church of the Arts. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

“We are trying to bridge the gap between what religion and art does for people. I feel called as an artist to pick up the slack that religion is dropping the ball on,” said Kamara Thomas, a member of NorthStar’s board.

Nearly one year after its official launch, NorthStar is forging its identity. An arts venue to showcase local minority artists first and foremost, it sometimes invites people in to bop to “Jolene.”

“NorthStar is very much a product of Durham. Durham is a creative queer, black, diverse, multicultural, intergenerational, historic city, and NorthStar is also all those things,” said Pierce Freelon, son of the founders and NorthStar’s artistic director. 

Heather Cook, a good friend of Pierce Freelon’s, had attempted to acquire the NorthStar building. But the Freelons got there first not knowing that Cook, active in arts programming for years, had her eye on it. Now she is NorthStar’s executive director. 

In 2019, more than 5,000 people attended 102 NorthStar events, generating $18,000 in ticket sales, according to numbers shared by NorthStar. Dollars are important because a primary goal is to raise money to pay local artists, Cook said. 

The venue’s website poses questions, including, “What if church was a place where artists were praised and poets were prophets?” In step with that, NorthStar hosts poets like Jaki Shelton Green and Dasan Ahanu, as well as organizations such as SpiritHouse, a longtime black-women led cultural group that supports people contending with racism, poverty and more. 

Heather Cook, NorthStar’s executive director, in her office. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

NorthStar also opens its doors to help people in crisis. After the Durham Housing Authority evacuated hundreds of families from unsafe McDougald Terrace last month, NorthStar became a meeting spot for volunteers trying to help displaced public housing residents and a drop-off point for food and clothing donations. 

NorthStar’s vision is guided by Durham icons like civil rights pioneer Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman to become an Episcopalian priest, and  Baba Chuck Davis, the founder of the African American Dance Ensemble. Both pushed the bounds of societal and artistic norms, Pierce Freelon said. 

“NorthStar feels very much at home being outside of the box as a celebration and a manifestation of Durham’s diverse history and future,” said Freelon, a state Senate candidate this year. “We want to uplift different prophets  that may not fit within the construct of the biblical canon,” he said. 

Angela Lee, executive director of the Hayti Heritage Center, praises what’s happening at the corner of North and Geer streets. “Their mission and what it’s doing to help to promote culture in Durham is significant,” said Lee, who runs Durham’s oldest and largest church-turned-hub for black culture. 

In year one, NorthStar had a different celebrant delivering a monthly “Sunday service” in the mornings. This year the black feminist couple Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Sangodare are NorthStar’s celebrants in residence. 

They will lead discussions of work by figures like Murray, who was also a poet, labor organizer, and activist lawyer, and Octavia Butler, the acclaimed science-fiction author. Their next service will be at 11 a.m. on Feb. 16. 

NorthStar announces its mission in many ways, including with posters. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

For all this momentum, NorthStar is still developing. It relies deeply on volunteers since Cook is the only employee  member. In 2020, a major goal is to hire more, Cook said.

Like all houses of worship, NorthStar is a place to confront grief as well as joy. Phil Freelon, known building designs across the United States, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, died in July. After his funeral, the Freelon family held a reception at NorthStar.

After Freelon’s death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), his family made clear he had hoped others would  help his family support NorthStar.

Instead of sending flowers in sympathy, his family asked mourners to donate regularly to NorthStar “so that the same creative and spiritual energies that nurtured him throughout his life, may positively impact others, especially in his adopted home of Durham.”

At top: Charly Palmer’s mixed media piece “400 Years” was among the art displayed for last month’s launch of the latest issue of the journal Southern Cultures. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

Correction: This story was corrected to state that Heather Cook is NorthStar Church’s of the Arts only employee.





Tragic meets festive: Memorial to hundreds lost to gun violence joins Durham holiday parade

Sidney Brodie holds his iPhone to his mouth. “What is 103 times 8 minus 1?,” he asks.

“823,” Siri answers. 

Brodie and helpers have sewn 823 cloth squares onto his Durham Homicide and Victims of Violent Death Memorial Quilt. Each name, written in puffy paint, belongs to a person killed in Durham since 1994.

The Durham native and artist keeps track of the location of each name in a digital catalog. When asked for a number, he multiplies quilt columns by rows, subtracting any empty spots. 

“What is six times eight minus three?” he asks. “45,” the phone replies. 

Brodie pauses for a moment, sighs and locks his phone. So far this year he added 45 new names to the quilt. 

On Saturday Brodie’s quilt will appear at an unlikely place: the Durham Holiday Parade

Sidney Brodie with his quilt in his Durham studio. Photo by Cameron Beach

It was not his plan to join a festive event celebrating civic groups, marching bands and Santa Claus. 

But Brenda Young, whose son Edward was shot in 2017, asked for this. And Brodie could not say no.  

“It’s strictly about the families with me here for the parade,” he said. “I know this quilt means a lot to them.” 

Edward’s full name, Edward Young III, is painted onto a green square. His mother knows exactly where to look for it. 

Young said she was inspired to include the quilt at the polular event to remind families harmed by gun violence that others remember their loved ones. 

“My son is on the quilt. And it’s Christmas time. And I know everybody is in their feelings. I just wanted to give back to the community for the ones that lost their family to gun violence,” she said. 

Displaying the quilt publicly is recent for Brodie. His stitching began as a personal project after Shaquana Atwater, a toddler, was shot in 1994. Brodie learned she was struck in crossfire while playing outside her home while he was employed as a 911 operator in Durham.

For each victim, he adds a square to the eclectic colorful display, now more than 60 feet long. The quilt’s mix of colors and fabrics is intentionally random.

“I feel like each square is as unique and imperfect and as we are as people,” Brodie said during an interview in his small Durham studio. 

With simple details, Brodie tells a powerful narrative. Black buttons are visible on some squares. Each one marks the name of a child younger than 12. Included is 9-year-old Z’yon Person who was killed in August while riding in a car with his family. 

In one row, two black and white squares are nearly identical. They are a tribute to 10-month-old Ruia Reams and her mother Zhytila Wilkins who were killed in their home in January. “Baby” and “Mama” are painted alongside their names. 

“Quilts are tangible and functionally a quilt is a comforter. It’s doing that. It’s bringing comfort to these families,” Brodie said. 

Brodie removes the quilt’s black border to add more squares or to link it to other memorials when he brings it to vigils outside Durham. Photo by Cameron Beach

In a year when lethal gun violence is increasing in Durham, Young invited other family members of people named on the quilt to help carry it Saturday. She recruited members of the Southern High School football team, emerging anti-violence activists in town, too.

Edward Young played in the marching band at Southern High School, so when she asked them to help at the parade, it was a way to honor Edward’s legacy, she said. 

Young has been busy collecting donations and saving parts of her paycheck to purchase holiday-themed gloves, scarves and hats for the helpers.   

Bringing the quilt to a parade is a first, but Brodie’s designed it to tell multiple stories. White squares with black and white checkered ribbon, for instance, represent names listed out of chronological sequence. Brodie cut shirt cuffs and sewed buttoned pieces on top of the squares.

“The dates that I missed these people are all various dates throughout the years. They were at times in my life when I was going through personal things,” he said. “I chose cuffs to symbolize that these people slipped through my hands.” 

Brodie first displayed his quilt in 2017, after Kamari Munerlyn, age 7, was shot and killed on a drive home from a swimming pool. A vigil was held days later on the side of the road a police officer had tried to revive the child with CPR. 

Brodie stitched a yellow square with the boy’s name in blue and green onto the quilt during the vigil, while Munerlyn’s mother, father and grandmother watched. He got through it by wearing sunglasses on to hide his sorrow, he said.  

Young intends to lead the quilt procession Saturday, with Edward feeling nearby. As always, she’ll wear a heart-shaped necklace carrying Edward’s name inside.

“I’m ready. I’m so ready. This is something on my heart and that I want to,” she said. 

After the parade, Brodie will wrap his quilt in shrink wrap and take it back to his studio. These days he brings the quilt to vigils against gun violence elsewhere in North Carolina and out of state. 

Back in Durham, he is always prepared, regrettably, to add more names.

At top: Some of the more than 800 names on the Durham Homicide and Victims of Violent Death Memorial Quilt. Photo by Cameron Beach

Rebecca Newton to depart from a stronger Carolina Theatre

As Rebecca Newton prepares to end her short tenure leading the Carolina Theatre of Durham, she is satisfied with what she accomplished for the downtown landmark.

“I had three objectives when I joined. Lift the profile, raise a substantial amount of money and get more of the community involved,” Newton said.

The theater’s board of trustees announced last month that Newton will retire as president and CEO of the nonprofit that runs the theater in June 2020. In her two plus years in the position, she led the theater through one of its most successful periods in the 93 years since its conception, according to a board of trustees statement. 

“I’m not the right person to take it to the next level,” Newton said of her departure in an interview at her office. The theater needs a long term person, someone who can be out on stage giving every curtain speech. But at this stage of her career, she is not that person, she explained. 

Ellen Reckhow, a member of the board of trustees at CTD as well as a Durham County Commissioner for over 30 years, is adamant that there is no animosity between Newton and the theater’s trustees. The theater has had a substantial amount of administrative turnover in the last decade and would benefit from stability with a president and CEO who can stay put the position for “at least five years,” Reckhow said. 

Rebecca Newton is well known among many in Durham due to her long local music career. A talented instrumentalist and singer, she led the popular band Rebecca & the Hi-Tones for 30 years, all while maintaining a tech career in online safety. Newton released her first solo album Blue Shirt this summer. 

Carolina Theatre saw consistent and significant growth in many dimensions of programming under her leadership. Newton helped increase the number of children who visit the downtown landmark for student programming from 10,000 kids a year to 15,000. The theater also landed the two largest development grants in history totaling $188,000. Overall attendance also increased.

The theater has not always been the thriving venue it is today. Towards the end of 2015, it stared bankruptcy in the face due to a $1.7 million dollar deficit in part because of poor accounting practices. The theater eventually reached an out of court settlement with an accounting firm, according to a 2017 Durham Herald Sun report

Rebecca Newton explaining an exhibit on segregation that existed until the early 1960s at the Carolina Theatre of Durham. Photo by Victoria Eavis

Newton said she takes pride in her ability to “pull the trigger” on decisions that are necessary for the community. For instance, when Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina was left in ruins by a recent hurricane, CTD put on a benefit concert Music Folk for Ocracoke on October 14th. “It doesn’t matter if we don’t make the money sometimes. It was the right thing to do,” she said. 

Newton’s focus on the community is tied to the fact that she is a Durham native. That, she said, was a huge factor in her success at CTD. Before almost every performer, Newton gives a short curtain speech. “I go out on that stage and people say, ‘Hey, there’s someone I know.’ It’s someone from your larger family taking care of something you love,” she said.

In a WUNC-FM interview earlier this year, Newton spoke about familial difficulties during her childhood. As CEO, she took the initiative to host a free viewing of the movie Resilience and a follow up forum all in order to create an accessible space to learn about adverse childhood experiences. 

Reckhow said that Newton’s legacy will be defined by this increased versatility of the theater’s offerings. Newton turned CTD into a space not only to be entertained, but to learn about new subjects,” Reckhow said. 

Carolina Theatre, a cultural hub long before the downtown Durham’s recent renaissance, has undergone a series of renovations over the years. One project built a wall around the third balcony, making it hard to imagine there were ever seats at that level. That was where people of color were forced to sit before the theater was desegregated in the early 1960s. 

Before she departs, Newton hopes to replace this yellow wall with glass, so people will have a window into the theater’s racialized past. There is already an exhibit on the segregation of the theater on the mezzanine level, but this would be more of an experiential display that forces patrons to confront exactly how people of color were once marginalized within the walls of the theater. 

Upon retiring from CTD, Newton hopes to keep bringing the local community together. Lighting up, Newton describes work with a partner to create “a sort of Durham City Limits that promotes local curated musicians… the ones who are on the cusp of going big time.”

Always the organizer, Newton has already rented performance space at the Carolina Theatre of Durham for some of these artists.

At top: Rebecca Newton inside the Carolina Theatre of Durham. Photo by Victoria Eavis

Despite local critics, experts love how Durham water tastes

By Cameron Oglesby
and Kathleen Hobson

Ask random people to compare tap water from Durham and Chapel Hill and expect results as clear as mud.

9th Street Journal reporters learned that last week after setting up a blind taste test outside the Durham Co-op Market. 

Tony Krawzzyk said Chapel Hill tap water tasted like something you never want to eat: plastic. His companion, Heather Izzo, found Durham water to be metallic.

The North Carolina American Water Works Association and Water Environment Association does not agree. At its annual conference this month, judges there deemed tap water from the city of Durham more delicious than 10 other competing water systems — including Chapel Hill’s drinking water provider

Why is Durham water, a top winner in 2018 too, tasty? Vicki Westbrook, assistant director for the Durham Water Management Department, credits the source. Durham draws water from Lake Michie and Little River Reservoir, “high quality” human-made lakes in northern Durham County. 

“We’re very lucky,” Westbrook said. “The areas around them are relatively undeveloped and they’re the headwaters so they don’t get as much runoff compared to downstream reservoirs like Falls Lake,” she said. 

The overall quality and taste of the water in these reservoirs varies from year to year, a fact that may explain Durham’s 12-year drought winning the best-tasting title between 2006 and 2018, she said. 

The actual treatment process at Durham’s Daniel M. Williams and Brown Treatment Centers is “fairly consistent” with other public water system techniques, Westbrook said. “We may add some things here or there like other cities, but generally, the process is the same.”

The fact the water department used chemicals to suppress algal growth in the lakes for the past two springs may have helped. “There are a large variety of algae that will grow in lakes, generally because the water is not moving as it would in a river or stream. Algae in the blue-green algae family tend to create taste and odor issues,” she said.

Heidi Kippenhan said she likes tap water from Chapel Hill and Durham. Photo by Kathleen Hobson

Durham’s water supply is not free of any trace contaminants. Westbrook said the city is working to maintain quality water in part by protecting its sources. “We’ve been trying to preserve the water quality by purchasing the surrounding buffer areas around the lakes,” she said.

The North Carolina American Water Works Association water-tasting competition isn’t scientific, but it’s surprisingly systematic. “The folks who have been managing this contest have a very specific ritual they go through,” Westbrook said. 

During the weekend conference, all tap water submissions must be turned in by 5 pm on Sundays. Samples are refrigerated at a consistent temperature until Tuesday when the water is tasted after reaching room temperature. 

The water is served in cups no bigger than Robitussin cups, said Westbrook, and judges use a swirl and swish technique familiar to wine tasters. Judges eat little crackers between each sample to cleanse their palates.

Some of the judges have tasted water for this competition, which Chapel Hill water’s provider has won in the past, for over 25 years.

Outside the co-op, things were looser. Anyone willing was invited to stop by a dark brown card table, take sips poured from identical blue jugs and join a makeshift case study.

Allison Sokol and Chase Johnson, two Duke University public policy graduate students, preferred a Durham sample — marked A— to water from Chapel Hill — marked B. Sokol displayed how fine-tuned some people’s water palates are today.

“Sample A is better. It tastes more like spring water to me. And Sample B tastes more like tap; like filtered. Sample B tastes more stale to me,” Sokol said. 

Johnson agreed, Sample B is “kind of heavy” whereas Sample A is “a little lighter,” she said. 

But after an hour of canvassing, the final results were four votes for Durham, four for Chapel Hill, suggesting the two might not be that far apart.

As she left Joe Van Gogh across the street from the co-op, Heidi Kippenhan had only nice things to say about Durham water, despite preferring what Chapel Hill serves up. “I drink water straight from the tap all the time and I have no complaints,” she said.

At top: Alison Sokol points to an unmarked jug holding Durham water during an impromptu taste test while her companion, Chase Johnson, makes up his mind.  Photo by Kathleen Hobson

A gallery no more, Pleiades promotes a grassroots Durham arts scene

A familiar sign on the gallery that helped ignite downtown Durham’s arts scene is gone.

What was once Pleiades Gallery is now 5 Points Gallery. This chic space showcases the work of Triangle-based creatives, many of them with long ties to what came before. 

One Pleiades co-founder, Renee Leverty, is not among the list of artist’s names displayed on the gallery’s window. She has stepped away, taking the name Pleiades with her to pursue projects not confined by the four walls on Chapel Hill Street.  

This was not a nasty split. “The division couldn’t have happened any better,” Leverty said. 

Renee Leverty is leading the next chapter of Pleiades Arts. Photo by Anna Carson Dewitt.

In April 2013, Leverty and Kim Wheaton, co-founders of Pleiades Gallery, left the Hillsborough Gallery of Art to open a Durham gallery to try to bring more local art to Durhamites. Pleiades wasted little time setting that mission in motion. In just a few months they opened their first community-focused show, Truth to Power. 

The first Truth to Power coincided with the “Moral Monday” movement — a series of protests against policies advanced by the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly. The juried show featured political art addressing government stances on everything from LGBT+ rights to fracking.

Both the show and the gallery became a staple in the Durham art scene, especially during Third Friday Durham, a monthly event when local arts venue host receptions for visitors.

In 2017, Leverty decided to shift her focus and founded the community-oriented nonprofit, Pleiades Arts. She wanted to uplift the voices of even more diverse artists, she said. 

Fast forward to 2019 and both Truth to Power and Pleiades have evolved beyond their original form. Successive Truth to Power exhibits have focused on singular political themes such as climate change, racial and gender bias, and environmental pollution. The latest show highlighted social justice activism in the Triangle and was the last in the Pleiades Gallery.

The moniker “Pleiades” now labels an active nonprofit. To support its mission, the Durham Arts Council awarded Pleiades Arts $2,200 in cash grants for 2019. Leverty has moved the nonprofit into an office in the arts council building — a gift worth $3,225.60.

“The relationship between Pleiades Arts and 5 Points Gallery is positively mutual,” Leverty said. Jenny Blazing, a member artist at 5 Points Gallery, described the changes with the two entities as an expansion of the arts in Durham.

“We are supportive and energetic around our artists who make statements with their work,” Blazing said. “We’re happy to share in the cultivation of Durham’s burgeoning arts scene.”

5 Points Gallery promotes itself as North Carolina’s “premier” fine arts gallery. Its grand opening exhibition is running alongside a solo exhibit and highlights the creative prowess of 15 Triangle artists. 

The future of the nonprofit, as Leverty explains it, will be more flexible by design. She envisions a “more grassroots, ground-up” group aimed at creating “work in response to what is happening in our community, state, and country.”

Be You, Bloom by Shoshanna Carroll will be featured in Queer Lens: Queer Identity in Arts.

Next week she’ll help install an exhibit called Queer Lens: Queer Identity in Art. In keeping with its new mission, Pleiades is working with the LGBTQ Center of Durham. The show is funded in part by the Durham Arts Council and the North Carolina Annual Arts Fund. The project invited any LGBTQ+ artist in North Carolina to submit artwork regardless of skill level.

The show’s purpose is to “highlight the diverse perspectives, identities, and creations of the LGBTQ+ community, centering the voices of black and brown artists in particular.” Queer Lens will run at The Fruit from Sept. 27 to Sept. 29 before moving to the LGBTQ Center of Durham from Oct. 7 to Oct. 31.

Beyond Queer Lens, the Pleiades Arts Board intends to stage Truth to Power 2020, at a location not yet determined. The nonprofit is always looking to partner with artists, advocates, and activists who want to tell their stories, Leverty said. 

“What we’re interested in is anybody that wants to partner with us to create these art experiences that are accessible and authentic,” she said.

Image at top is Chance Meeting by Michael Tice, one art piece to be featured in Queer Lens: Queer Identity in Arts, which opens Friday at The Fruit in Durham. 

Resurrecting Durham’s nearly-lost African-American cemetery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A toppled gravestone at Geer Cemetery (Frances Beroset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo at top by Frances Beroset.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo at top courtesy of Union Member House.