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O’Neal to face Caballero in general election

Story by Rebecca Schneid and Olivia Olsher; Photos by Josie Vonk

City Council Member Javiera Caballero and former judge Elaine O’Neal coasted to an easy victory in Tuesday’s mayoral primary in Durham. The two candidates will compete in the Nov. 2 general election to replace two-term mayor Steve Schewel, who chose not to run again.

With all 56 precincts reporting, O’Neal had 68% to 25% for Caballero.

In the two contested races for City Council seats, the incumbents finished strong. Incumbent DeDreana Freeman had a commanding lead over Marion Johnson in Ward I and Mark-Anthony Middleton surged well ahead of fellow pastor Sylvester Williams in Ward II. But rather than bask in his victory, Middleton said it was important to focus on the critical issue of gun violence. 

“Not a lot of victory laps will be had tonight,” said Middleton. “Children tonight will be jumping into bathtubs because of gun violence. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The top two candidates in each race advance to the general election.

With only two candidates for Ward III, where current City Council member Pierce Freelon is stepping down, A.J. Williams and Leonardo Williams automatically progress to the general election.

City Council election results with all 56 precincts reporting – State Board of Elections

(See official election results here.)

There were more voting booths than voters at the precinct at St. Stephens Episcopal Church. Photo by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

Both mayoral candidates spent their day doing last-minute chatting with voters outside polling spots across the city. Caballero sat out front of the St. Stephens Episcopal Church in a foldable lawn chair, next to some signs, catching voters on their way into the polling site. She let them know she was a candidate on the ballot, and asked them to vote for her as they entered.

O’Neal stopped by Morehead Elementary School, where she was surrounded by her close friends and supporters wearing campaign garb, all cheering “Vote for O’Neal” at people who passed by. 

“It takes people, the people who came out of their houses and took a leap for me, and for that I am ever so grateful, and you just cannot take that for granted,” O’Neal said. “Next steps: to rest up and get back out there tomorrow.”

In photo at top, Elaine O’Neal did some last-minute campaigning on Election Day. Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

Meet the seven candidates running for Durham mayor, including Bree Davis, Daryl Quick, and Jahnmaud Lane

By Julianna Rennie and Jake Sheridan

There’s one week left for Durham voters to cast their ballots before the primary election on Oct. 5. The outcome will determine the two finalists in each of the four City Council races. 

There are seven candidates vying for the mayor’s seat. Durham’s current mayor, Steve Schewel, is not seeking reelection. 

The 9th Street Journal recently profiled some of the candidates. Check out our stories on City Council member Javiera Caballero, former judge Elaine O’Neal, housing advocate Charlitta Burruss, and youth minister Rebecca Harvard Barnes

Here’s what you need to know about the remaining three candidates: Bree Davis, Daryl Quick and Jahnmaud Lane.

Bree Davis

Born in sunny South Florida, Bree Davis comes from a family of changemakers. Her father worked as a Baptist minister and coordinated outreach for Haitian and Cuban refugees. 

“This is kind of my legacy,” she told the 9th Street Journal.  

After moving to Durham 12 years ago, Davis experienced houselessness, food insecurity, and underemployment. As a single mom and bisexual Black woman, Davis says she knows what it feels like to fall through the cracks.

If elected, Davis promises to make sure that all Durham residents benefit from the city’s recent economic boom. 

“The goal has been achieved, but now we have to pick up the folks that have been left behind,” she said.

Her other policy priorities include affordable housing and community safety. In her INDY Week candidate questionnaire, Davis wrote that she would fully fund the Durham Police Department while exploring alternatives to policing through Durham’s new Community Safety Department. 

Davis currently works as a research coordinator for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She started her own social media consulting company, Social Media Phobia Solutions, in 2011. She’s also a collage artist and filmmaker

Daryl Quick

Daryl Quick is pledging to “make a better Durham by getting back to the basics.”

Throughout the campaign, Quick has talked openly about his experiences growing up in public housing with family members who struggled with drug addiction. 

A native Durhamite, Quick hopes to inspire children experiencing poverty to dream of running for public office.

His platform addresses violent crime, social services, and infrastructure.

Quick promotes his campaign heavily on his Facebook page. In a Sept. 8 post, he wrote, “No more status quo! No more gentrification! No more low wage paying jobs! No more kids can’t play! No more walking past a homeless person downtown!”

Jahnmaud Lane

Jahnmaud Lane isn’t just a rare Durham Republican: He’s a highly followed conservative commentator. 

His Facebook page, “Mind of Jamal,” has over 300,000 followers. The clips regularly stretch over an hour. 

In his videos, the adamant Trump supporter pours over a range of far-right topics. He recently criticized coronavirus vaccines and workers’ unions, decried calls for national political unity, and urged his followers to “break out the Old Dixie” because “this union stuff aint working.” Lane often speaks in front of a Confederate flag. 

He streams videos on YouTube, too, but the apparently associated “MindofJamal” Twitter account has been suspended. 

Lane did not reply to a call requesting an interview. He described himself as a former “no-good, piece-of-trash drug dealer” in an interview with The News & Observer

The article noted that he was charged in 2001 with a misdemeanor for resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. Two years later, he spent over a year in a state corrections facility for assaulting and seriously injuring another person, the article added. 

In the News & Observer piece, Lane also acknowledged that he attended the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, though he said he didn’t enter the Capitol building. 

On Lane’s campaign website, his platform focuses on addressing a rise in violent crime. He would like to pay police officers more. His other policy ideas include building more affordable housing and more intensely inspecting public housing facilities for tenant damage.

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For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: Bree Davis is one of seven candidates running to be Durham’s next mayor. Photo provided by Bree Davis.

Burruss banks on ‘boots on the ground’ experience in her mayoral campaign

As mayoral candidate Charlitta Burruss showed us around her neighborhood, Edgemont Elms, she stopped at the road in front of her house and pointed to the ground where bullet shells had strewn the street the night before. 

“I picked up 15 shells from this parking lot,” said Burruss, shaking her head. 

Having served on the resident councils of several Durham Housing Authority communities – she previously lived in Calvert Place – Burruss is familiar with the gun violence and affordable housing crises facing the city. 

Through her campaign, Burruss hopes to encourage others from low-income neighborhoods to run for political office. She said people like her, who have relationships with residents of Durham’s often-overlooked communities, have an important perspective to share. 

“We don’t consider people who are actually boots on the ground, that are actually in the community and making a big impact,” Burruss told the 9th Street Journal. 

In June this year, after hearing gunfire every night from her home in Edgemont Elms, Burruss organized a community barbecue, inviting district police and local families to spend time together and build relationships. In addition to her resident council responsibilities, Burruss is a member of the Residential Advisory Board of DHA and chairperson for the Consumer Family Advisory Committee of Durham.

In 2018, she received a Neighborhood Spotlight Award for her community outreach effort in Durham, which included organizing food and toy donations and community events. 

This campaign marks Burruss’s fourth attempt at running for political office in North Carolina. She was a candidate for mayor of Monroe in 2007; town council in Marshville in 2011; and city council in Durham in 2019, receiving 1,258 votes. 

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1959, Burruss comes from a family of preachers. After working many different jobs to support her son, Burruss decided to pursue higher education in her late 40’s, receiving an associate’s degree in Human Services from South Piedmont Community College in 2004 and a Bachelor of Sciences in social work from Gardner-Webb University in 2006. 

Though she has never held a political office, Burruss is an experienced community leader; she said her roots in the community give her an advantage over other candidates. For example, Burruss has become frustrated by what sees as broken communication channels between DHA residents and local government officials. In her experience, the local government makes a dangerous presumption that all DHA residents have access to  computers and internet required to find information about affordable housing and employment opportunities.

“Durham officials don’t realize not everybody can afford internet access, and older people are not using computers,” said Burruss. 

Alternative methods of communication, such as electronic billboards and posters containing updates from the local government, could be a better way to reach those without internet access, she said. 

Patching the communication gaps between low-income residents and the Durham mayor’s office, Burruss said, is a vital prerequisite to addressing the issues she is most passionate about — crime, affordable housing, and employment. 

Addressing crime and poverty would be Burruss’s main priority as mayor. She believes investment in education and parental support in communities with high crime rates can help break this cycle. 

Burruss does not support defunding the police in Durham. Rather, she believes police officers should be retrained to better communicate with residents and those with mental health conditions. She also supports paying police officers more so they don’t leave to find work in counties offering higher salaries.

She says her experience as a liaison between local residents, police, and the Housing Authority positions her well to improve city relations as mayor. If elected, Burruss plans to spend time in Durham, speaking to people “on the ground” to inform her policy decisions. 

“If I were in the mayor’s chair, you’d be able to put your hands on me,” said Burruss. 

At the top: Mayoral candidate Charlitta Burruss serves on the resident council for her neighborhood, Edgemont Elms. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.

Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero envisions a Durham for all

Until a few months ago, Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero had no plans to run for mayor. She was in the middle of serving her four-year term on the council when Mayor Steve Schewel unexpectedly announced he would not be running for reelection. After years of public service, Caballero decided to take her leadership to the next level.  

“It created an opportunity and an open seat that I felt compelled to at least try for,” Caballero said of Schewel’s retirement. She’s motivated to continue the mission she began on the City Council to make Durham more inclusive, accessible, and sustainable. The city is on the cusp of unprecedented progress, she believes, and there’s important work to be done.

Durham’s most pressing challenge is still COVID-19, Caballero said. She and her fellow council members are working hard to vaccinate Durhamites and distribute resources to every neighborhood. 

Beyond the pandemic, Durham faces a web of interlocking issues that Caballero is determined to face head-on, from gun violence to affordable housing to the need for green infrastructure. 

Caballero moved from Chicago to Durham in 2010 with her husband and children. The city has transformed since then, but some of the biggest changes are still to come, including the implementation of a $95 million dollar affordable housing bond and the development of a new community safety department that offers alternatives to policing. 

Caballero worked on both these initiatives as a city council member and is determined to see them through. “It’s so important that the things we’ve passed actually get implemented effectively,” she said. “I want to ensure that the work I have helped to start continues at the kind of expansive level I know it can.”

Caballero’s vision for Durham revolves around community engagement and collaboration. Both are necessary to confront challenges like public safety and affordable housing access, she said. If elected mayor, she promises to prioritize transparency and communication.

“Our systems are designed to be opaque, but we can be intentional about including folks,” Caballero said. “Democracy doesn’t work if people don’t participate.”

Caballero’s ability to connect with all pockets of the Durham community is one of her greatest strengths, said Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, who serves on the City Council with Caballero and has endorsed her in the mayoral race. “Javiera is able to reach out into communities that have been underserved and unheard in government for a long time,” Johnson said. “She really cares about everyone who lives here.”

Javiera Caballero became the Durham City Council’s first Latina member when she was appointed to fill a vacancy in Jan. 2018. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.

Caballero, whose family moved from Chile to the United States when she was young, would be the first Latina mayor ever elected in North Carolina. That representation is important, especially in Durham, where Latinos make up nearly 14% of the population. On the City Council, Caballero has advocated for improved language access programs and legal aid for immigrants. 

Schewel, who endorsed Caballero for mayor last month, praised her deep knowledge of Durham and its people. “There’s no doubt at all that Javiera is deeply rooted in our community and knows the community inside and out,” he said. “She wants to make the city we love a city for all, and I think she knows exactly how to do that.”

Caballero has also been endorsed by the People’s Alliance, an influential Durham political action committee. Caballero is “policy centric and detail oriented,” the endorsement reads. Community organization Durham for All and the Durham Association of Educators have both endorsed Caballero as well. 

Both Schewel and Johnson describe Caballero as extremely hardworking and productive. She wants to get things done for Durham, they said, and that will remain true whether she’s elected mayor or not. 

If Caballero doesn’t win, she’ll continue to serve her current term on the City Council, which ends in 2023. She’s deeply invested in continuing the work she’s started, she said, and refuses to slow down. 

“Regardless of the outcome, there’s a lot to do,” Caballero said. “In either seat, I will keep on doing the work.”

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For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At the top: Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero poses in her campaign t-shirt. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk. 

How to vote and important dates for the mayoral and city council elections

The Bull City will elect a new mayor and three City Council members this fall. 

The primary election is Oct. 5. After that, the top two vote-getters in each race will face off in the general election on Nov. 2. Here are the other dates and details you’ll need to know to vote. 

How to vote in-person 

Early voting will take place at five locations from Sept. 16 to Oct. 2. At the early voting sites, you can register and vote on the same day. Derek Bowens, Durham County’s director of elections, strongly encourages people to use early voting to avoid long lines on Election Day. 

On Oct. 5 and Nov. 2, the polls will be open from 6:30 am to 7:30 pm. Find your polling place here.

You can also register to vote online or access a voter registration form by visiting the Durham County Board of Elections website. The deadlines to register are Sept. 10 for the primary and Oct. 8 for the general election. 

How to vote by mail

If you are already registered to vote in Durham, you can request an absentee ballot online, by mail, or in person. Any registered Durham voter can request an absentee ballot, and no special reason is necessary.

You must request a ballot by Sept. 28 at 5 p.m. to vote absentee in the primary. Absentee voting for the primary begins Sept. 5, and you must submit your ballot by 5 p.m. on Oct. 5.

The deadline to request an absentee ballot for the general election is 5 p.m. on Oct. 26. You can submit that ballot starting Oct. 3 and until 5 p.m. on Nov. 2.

For both the primary and general elections, absentee ballots received after 5 p.m. on Election Day will only be counted if they are postmarked on or before Election Day and received by mail no later than 5 p.m. on the Friday after the election.  

You’ll need two witnesses or one notary to fill out your ballot. Absentee ballots can be returned in-person at the Durham County Board of Elections office or at any early voting site. 

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The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for profiles on the candidates, campaign coverage, and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

New pavement technology kicks technicians to the curb

The city of Durham used to rely on a simple approach to identify the roads that needed the most repairs: a technician driving around the city looking out the window.

Now the city has a newfangled approach: high-tech data collection vehicles with software that can paint a detailed map of the bumpiest roads.

Officials showed off the new vans at City Hall on Tuesday and said they would lead to better decisions about which roads to repair and resurface. The black and white vans, accented with yellow and red stripes, belong to Roadway Asset Services (RAS), a company hired by the Public Works Department to find problematic roads. 

“The vans have got newer, brighter cameras that are going to give us better vision,” said RAS President Scot Gordon. “It’s more of an automated system. It’s more repeatable, it’s more reliable, and it takes away some of the personal subjectivity.”

For the next four months, the RAS vans will cruise around neighborhoods collecting data and images for an online database. 

The vans might seem odd prowling through residential streets with a submarine-like antenna, cameras mounted on the front and the back, and multiple “CAUTION” decals. But Gordon said people will hardly notice them.

“The vans basically get out every day and they flow with traffic. They’re not stopping traffic. They’re not closing any roads. People aren’t even going to know they’re there,” he said.

The vans are scheduled to cover 40 to 50 miles of roads each day, collecting three types of data. An antenna camera will take a panoramic shot of a street with sidewalks, gutters, and street signs included. The back cameras will point straight down at the pavement and photograph cracking or weathering. The front cameras are the “profilers” that will record the smoothness of the road. 

After all 1,497 lane miles of city roads have undergone a “pavement evaluation,” RAS analysts will look at the data and give each street a condition rating from 0-100. Once city officials have these numbers sometime next spring, the Public Works Department will use them to figure out the most cost-effective approach for maintenance. The project is being financed by the city’s annual pavement budget of $7 million.

Clint Blackburn, who runs the city’s pavement management program, says officials will likely opt for a preservation model that focuses on routine, preventative maintenance for all roads rather than the more expensive “worst first approach” that would fix the most problematic roads, but do little in the way of overall maintenance.

“We want to keep our good roads in good shape and then slowly work on those other problematic roads as we have money,” Blackburn said.

Durham residents say they’re tired of bumpy roads. The annual Durham City and County Resident Survey showed that 45% of Durhamites were dissatisfied with road maintenance. They ranked it in the top three issues that should receive the most attention from city leaders in the coming years.

Blackburn said the city’s goal is always to keep residents happy, but they might not see results right away.

“In the long term, we get a lot of great results and that’s going to protect us from wear over time, but at first, it’s kind of a shock to residents because it’s hard to see the change immediately.”

The city tries to educate Durhamites about this work through neighborhood meetings, but COVID-19 has made that difficult in the past year. According to Blackburn, hardly anyone attends the virtual meetings.

“Sometimes we get zero people. It’s hard to get the message out,” he said. 

The city last assessed the roads in 2018 when the Public Works Department hired a contractor with similar data collection vehicles to RAS. (The results of that study can be found online in an interactive map in which roads are colored according to their condition rating. The average rating was 69 and slightly more than 25% of streets are highlighted orange, symbolizing poor condition.)

This year’s analysis should get even more accurate figures because of its use of AI algorithms rather than human analysts, officials said. They are part of a pilot program that will assign condition ratings automatically. Before, analysts had to consult a 98 page manual to identify and mark problems in the roads, now all they have to do is press a button. 

Photo above: Durham has contracted with Roadway Asset Services to use its high-tech vans to assess city streets. The vans are equipped with cameras on the front, back and on an antenna. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal

Schewel won’t seek reelection as mayor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story will be updated.

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

Discord persists about and within Durham County’s leadership

The current and past leaders of the Durham County commissioners agree that board members need racial equity training. But getting started has been bumpy.

At a meeting on March 8, County Attorney Lowell Siler recommended The Robert Bobb Group as trainers. But after a tension filled discussion, most commissioners voted to require proposals from two more consultants instead, a move that angered the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and others. 

County Attorney Lowell Siler at the online March 8 commissioners meeting.

Siler was visibly exasperated. “I think you all know that you need something as soon as possible,” he said.

This was just one of a series of disputes involving commissioners, ranking county staff members and two local political actions groups over the past 14 months. Strife may surface again this Tuesday, during a planned virtual town hall event.

 The public got a first glimpse of allegations of racial discord within county leadership in February 2020. That’s when County Manager Wendell Davis, who is Black, wrote a letter to Commissioner Heidi Carter, a white woman, accusing her of “a consistent pattern of disparate behavior towards me and employees of color.” 

“I am now concerned that it is due to an inherent bias that you harbor not merely towards me, but people of color in general,” Davis wrote in the letter, which all commissioners received.

After INDY Week published the letter, commissioners hired Duke University law professor James Coleman to investigate. Coleman concluded that “none of the behavior about which Mr. Davis complained was motivated by racial bias on Commissioner Carter’s part.”

But Coleman called out the board for being in a “state of periodic dysfunction” and “a troubling lack of trust and meaningful communications” between the board and the county manager. Coleman recommended that the five-member commissioners find a constructive way to move forward.

Vice-chairwoman Wendy Jacobs at the meeting.

Both former chairwoman Wendy Jacobs and current chair Brenda Howerton have said  commissioners should receive racial equity training. A desire to do so with the School of Government at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill last fall didn’t work out, Jacobs said on March 8.

That night, representatives of the Bobb group presented a training strategy whose first step would be assessing the scale of the problem among commision members, Bobb team member Clara Axam said.

After the presentation, Jacobs said board members weren’t given a chance to craft a needed plan in advance, including the training’s timeline, its scope and what would be made public and kept confidential. On top of that, she said, the Bobb group’s almost $50,000 price tag was “astounding.”

After commissioner Carter made a motion to pursue training after county staff brought two more training proposals to review, only Howerton opposed that plan.

Commissioner Nimasheena Burns, who took her seat in December, said she voted for requiring more proposals to serve due diligence when making spending decisions. She stressed, however, that the county manager is not the only county employee who observes bias. “This is not about one particular employee, there is a sea of employees here who feel abused. That is why we are doing this training,”she  said.

Chairwoman Brenda Howerton at the meeting.

The Durham Committee issued a statement on March 22 saying commissioners should apologize for the “blatant disrespect shown” at the meeting. “The community witnessed first-hand how certain county commissioners treat Black county staff and a Black consultant seeking to provide much needed, individualized services,” the letter read.

Charges of disrespect are inaccurate, Jacobs, Carter and Allam stressed in written statements. Their reluctance to make a hire was rooted in favoring procurement practices that seek bids for sizable contracts, each stressed.

The influential People’s Alliance has weighed in on this strife too, but by taking aim at Davis. The left-leaning political action committee on March 8 urged commissioners not to renew Davis’ contract, which expires in June. Davis is too moderate and is paid too much, the group argued.

Commissioner Heidi Carter at the meeting.

Racial Equity Talks has organized a virtual town hall for Tuesday to discuss, among other things, whether Davis is being targeted for alleging that he perceived a white commissioner’s bias.

“Durham, North Carolina, self-professed and outwardly perceived  as one of the most diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities in America, is in a battle for its racial soul,” reads the dramatic description of the 6 pm event.

Leaders of the People’s Alliance initially declined to participate, but have changed their mind, Millicent Rogers, the alliance’s co-president said Wednesday. 

“After more thought, we decided that we had more to say and we are prepared to make those statements during the town hall,” she said.

Rogers, according to a poster promoting the event, is slated to participate in a segment titled: “Black Public Leadership and White Liberalism: The Case for or against Wendell Davis.”

9th Street Journal reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

Community vision gives Belmont Park a makeover

For as long as the residents of Watts-Hillandale can remember, Belmont Park has been neglected. 

“I’ve driven by this park many times, and rarely—if ever—have I seen anyone in here,” said Chris Moyer, a member of the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association

For years, Durham Parks and Recreation didn’t list Belmont Park in its inventory of parks and facilities. James Umbanhowar, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, says it took him two years to realize that the park existed; even when he did, he seldom used it. 

Sometimes Umbanhowar would joke about building a pump track—a series of dirt mounds for bicycles— in Belmont Park. Participatory budgeting made Umbanhowar’s pipe dream a reality. 

Neighbors Guy Meilleur and Chris and Kaia Moyer discuss park plans on April 6, 2021. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Durham adopted participatory budgeting in 2019. The democratic process, where community members submit public proposals and vote on them, helps put the control of public funds into the hands of the people

Tom Dawson, a Durham Parks and Recreation landscape architect, says participatory budgeting is dependent on the needs of Durhamites. 

“Instead of us forming a plan, going to City Council and using our professional overlay, the people come directly to us and come up with an idea of like ‘this is what we’d like to see in our parks.’”

Participatory budgeting at work

According to the city’s participatory budgeting website, community members from all three City Council wards can submit ideas for public arts, recreation, health and wellness and other city services. 

Since its launch, over 14,000 residents and students have participated. Approximately 500 ideas were submitted in its first cycle. In early 2019, Umbanhowar did just that and submitted a proposal to allocate funding for a dirt bike pump track in Belmont Park. Umbanhowar’s proposal was one of 11 chosen by Durham residents. The community voted on how to spend $2.4 million total, or $800,000 per ward.

After Belmont Park received funding in late 2019, Dawson at DPR contacted Umbanhowar, and they collected neighbors’ opinions on the park’s reconstruction. Umbanhowar’s job was outreach, so he emailed friends and bike listservs, contacted neighbors and spoke to the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association

Dawson was in charge of planning. As a DPR employee, he began designing the park’s pump track and ran ideas by both Umbanhowar and the community.

At least 25 Watts-Hillandale residents showed up at Belmont Park on April 6, 2021 to vote for the new plan. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

In February 2020, DPR had its first public meeting about the proposal in Belmont Park. Over 40 residents showed up and voiced concerns and excitement while DPR staff grilled hot dogs and kids drew designs on the asphalt with chalk.

“I think the beauty of [participatory budgeting] is we have residents who really care about improving their community, and just to know that there was a lot of energy and support for this project [Belmont Park],” said Andrew Holland, Durham’s participatory budget manager.  

“I think the park’s always been underutilized, but I didn’t really advocate for a change until it came up on the ballot,” said Carrie Blattel, a resident of Watts-Hillandale, who voted for the pump track. 

Holland emphasized Durham’s efforts to meet people “where they’re at”—whether that be online, knocking on doors or even handing out flyers at barbershops

A vision realized

On April 6, 2021, DPR held its final public and in-person meeting at Belmont Park. The park’s contractor had been chosen, and the pump track’s designs were finalized. This meeting was the last stop before the construction team began moving dirt for the pump track, adding plants and building a new fence. 

“I’m impressed with how many people in the community turned out,” said Sean Wojdula, a member of Belmont Park’s construction team, about the gathering of more than 40 people

Durhamites from the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood voted on a play structure to complement the pump track. Some voted in person; others online. The options for the play structure were a dragon, salamander or snake. 

Kids voted, too.

“I’ll tell adults, ‘I’m interested in what you have to say, but I’m more interested in what the kids have to say,’” said Dawson.

Leon and Vincent, ages eight and five, were excited to vote and be able to bike in a park so close to home. After seeing the different options for a play structure, they both voted for the dragon, though they also pitched wrapping a snake around the dragon instead.

By the end of the summer, Dawson and Umbanhowar hope the park will be finished.

A mockup shows plans for Belmont Park’s makeover at the corner of Albany and Sovereign Streets. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

“[We] want residents to see projects being developed in their communities,” Durham’s participatory budget manager Holland said, adding that he hopes the community will continue to work in tandem with county staff. 

Mountain bike rider and Watts-Hillandale local Steve Mazzarelli agrees with Holland, and says participatory budgeting “gives the neighborhood more of a voice into how their tax money is used.” 

Durham is currently in its second round of participatory budgeting. This time, $1 million in funding will be delegated to COVID-19 restoration efforts. 

“It’s exciting. I wish they were breaking ground tomorrow and cranking this puppy out,” said Moyer from the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association.

While Belmont Park’s makeover isn’t finished yet, Durham’s first round of participatory budgeting in the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood proved a success.

9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at eleanor.ross@duke.edu

9th Street Journal photographer Sho Hatakeyama contributed to this report.

Top: Vincent (left) and Leon Koch (right) inspect the park plan layouts in Belmont Park. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

I watched all 162 crashes at the Can Opener. Here’s what I saw.

The stoplight is red and the “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” sign flashes urgently as a semi-truck waits at the intersection. The driver has a moment to consider turning before impact with the railroad bridge above Gregson Street. Instead they keep going and approach the bridge at a crawl, hesitate, then charge on. Wrong move. 

The crash on Nov. 13, 2020, was just one of more than 160 recorded in this very spot, the scars etched onto the bridge’s protective beam. The beam is the real foe, unmoving and unforgiving. Its scratches are an inventory of human error, of man versus metal (man losing). 

The bridge at the Norfolk Southern–Gregson Street Underpass is known to the world as the Can Opener for the merciless way the beam peels the tops off of unsuspecting trucks. To watch it (160+ times!) is like seeing a giant hand pull the tab on a can of sardines and seeing the metal curve to unveil the prize within.

Since 2008, the Can Opener has developed a cult following well beyond Durham. The website 11foot8.com and its YouTube channel, operated by Jurgen Henn, an IT Manager for the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, have shared videos of the crashes from cameras Henn set up at his office in nearby Brightleaf Square, and, later, in a shop kitty-corner to the bridge. 

Henn, who has worked in Brightleaf Square since 2002, got the idea to start recording the videos after a couple of years of hearing trucks smashing into the beam. His YouTube channel had a slow start but now has 164,000 followers. A typical video will get more than 1 million views. 

To understand the Can Opener, I watched every video. As I sat in cafes around Durham, I watched hours of scrapes, smashes and crashes, catalogued the human error, the reliability of steel, and the fragility of sheet metal and fiberglass. I laughed and gasped and winced. People stared. 

This is what I learned, spiced with some quotes from police reports that give you a flavor of the action.

VEHICLE 1 WAS IN THE RIGHT LANE OF TRAFFIC TRAVELING SOUTH ON GREGSON ST WHEN IT COLLIDED WITH THE OVERHEAD BRIDGE GUARD JUST SOUTH OF W PEABODY ST

Drivers cause the crashes, but in the videos, you don’t see the people very much. They exist in the periphery: innocent bystanders shielding themselves from debris or drivers who jump out of the trucks and throw their hats in frustration. The trucks become animated and the people are minimized to supporting characters. 

From what I could tell watching all the videos as well as reading accident reports and news coverage, very few injuries have been reported, and no one has died in the crashes. The majority of the harm seems to be to the drivers’ pride.

While each crash is its own special snowflake, I identified three main types of encounters: the Curious Cat, the Bullet, and the Barbershop Shave. 

The Curious Cat takes a hesitant approach; like a troublemaking feline, the driver suspects something is amiss but can’t stop themselves from exploring. Their foot barely touching the gas, they ease toward the bridge. (Perhaps they believe if they are quiet enough, the Can Opener won’t notice the oversize trailer!) Then they hear the unmistakable bang and metallic scrape from above as the beam peels away their roof. Because they’ve gone slowly, some are able to shift into reverse and delicately extract themselves; others need to be rescued. 

The Bullet is the most exciting of the Can Opener crashes. The driver approaches with velocity, seemingly unaware of the trap that lies ahead. The impact causes a whiplash, like a dog jerked back by their leash—the cabs sometimes lifted into the air by the impact of the beam. The top layer of aluminum is sometimes guillotined to varying degrees, usually triggering Newton’s first law (objects in motion stay in motion), ensnared where it is crumpled by the equal and opposite force of the wrinkled metal.

And then there is the Barbershop Shave. These trucks almost clear the height requirement, and usually make it most of the way through without much damage—but they leave with a kiss from the bridge. Debris rains down like rice at a wedding, marking union. 

DRIVER 1 SAID THAT HIS TRUCK IS MEASURED AT 12’4”; SIGNAGE FOR THE OVERPASS INDICATED THE CLEARANCE IS 12’4” 

The North Carolina Department of Transportation has futilely tried to stop the crashes over the years. When I spoke with them, they made it clear that there’s only so much they can do, as the bridge is technically the property of the North Carolina Railroad Company. 

“You know from our standpoint, we’ve done everything we can do to help the situation,” said Marty Homan, a spokesman at the NCDOT. 

In 2013, new signs indicating the height of the bridge were installed, in addition to a static overhead caution “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” black and yellow sign, to make the clearance warnings more visible. Two hours later, there was a crash. 

In 2016, traffic lights were added to the overhead warning that forces drivers to stop, stare at the now height-activated electronic “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” sign, and ponder their options before they crash into the beam. That day, the camera recorded some successes from the new setup. Two months later, an Excel Moving and Storage truck crashed into the beam. 

Jurgen Henn, whose videos have made the Can Opener famous. The bridge was raised to 12-feet-4, but his website is still known as 11foot8.com. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone – The 9th Street Journal

In 2019, the North Carolina Railroad Company threw the NCDOT a bone—it raised the overpass 8 inches to 12-foot-4-inches. The project was not to prevent damage to trucks, but to level the tracks above. Crews lifted the bridge on hydraulic jacks, re-graded the tracks, and placed shims on the old foundation to add height. They also took the opportunity to spruce up the paint job. 

And to accent the bridge’s fresh, unjaded, bright yellow protective beam (installed to replace the one tormented by years of violence) the NCDOT positioned new height warning signs. Still, the bridge is more than a foot below standard overpass height. 

“You know, there are multiple signs, there are literally flashing lights that tell you, you’re about to strike the bridge. We can’t really do anything about it,” says Homan, “Because again … it’s not our bridge.”

Three weeks after the 2019 renovation, an Idealease box truck hit the beam and lost a piece of its roof. 

DRIVER 1 STATED HE WAS NEW TO THE AREA, WAS DISTRACTED BY THE GPS/NAVIGATION UNIT, DID NOT SEE EITHER OF THE OVER HEIGHT SIGNS OF THE ROAD, DID NOT SEE THE LED AND FLASHING SIGN HE WAS OVER HEIGHT, AND CRASHED INTO THE IRON RAIL PROTECTING ACTUAL RAILROAD BRIDGE

Drivers on Gregson heading toward the underpass are inundated by warnings of their impending doom, but some still crash into the bridge. 

How can that be?

The problem is not unique to the Can Opener. Traffic sign experts and traffic engineers from across the globe are baffled and intrigued by this question of road sign efficacy. 

“Criteria for the Design and Evaluation of Traffic Sign Symbols,” a 1988 study published by Robert Dewar, explores various aspects about why signs work and don’t work. Dewar’s careful analysis found “understandability” and “conspicuity” to be the most valuable aspects of effective signaling. The report leaves a reader thinking that a combo like, “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN,” surrounded by flashing lights, and accented with clearly noted height requirements, might persuade drivers not to crash into a railroad bridge. But apparently not.

Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman writes that the signs aren’t flawed, we just have too many of them. Monderman believes that drivers have become numb to the forests of signs on  many roads. They just tune them out.

For clarity, look no farther than “Driver’s Cognitive Workload and Driving Performance under Traffic Sign Information Exposure in Complex Environments: A Case Study of the Highways in China” (a paper whose title seems to be a “cognitive workload” itself).  It, too, makes the point that drivers are overloaded with stimuli and can’t process all the signs they see.

Indeed, I noticed that many of the Can Opener’s victims are Penske or other rental trucks. That suggests the drivers might be unfamiliar with their trucks, unaware of their clearance and don’t realize they need to  be on the lookout for overheight signs. 

Henn, resident 11’8” (now +8”) expert, has some different ideas. 

“I think people are just distracted. They don’t expect it, sneaks up on them a little bit,” he said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “And the location is a little tricky because it’s a two lane, one-way road between two relatively tall buildings. So the approach is really narrow.” 

On top of that, drivers are often speeding on this road. The speed limit is 25 mph; an impact at that speed would not cause Bullet level damage. 

“If you haven’t been paying attention to the signs, you won’t catch the bridge, and by that time you’re on it,” he said. 

VEHICLE #1 COLLIDED WITH A LOW BRIDGE PROTECTION PILLAR, DAMAGING THE TOP OF THE BOX TRUCK. THE PILLAR PROTECTS THE RAILROAD BRIDGE THAT CROSSES OVER N GREGSON ST.

To watch over 160 of these collision videos is to understand the modern limits of onomatopoeia. Somewhere around video 30, “shhhhhhrhastpt,” “craaasttshp,” and “sRTkkkst” all start to tire of their intrigue. 

Watching them is to realize, too, how few verbs there really are to describe the length, magnitude, and velocity of a large truck unknowingly stopped by a steel beam. “Collide”, used often in the police reports of the incidents, seems to forget that the tops of these trucks are flayed effortlessly. “Smash” ignores the delicate niche of the truck’s cab gliding under the bridge, only to be harangued back by the bar’s unsympathetic disposition. “Hit” is useless. I looked up synonyms for “decapitate.” 

I tried to be precise in my descriptions but found the terms of local trucking were a bit baffling. In the case of the box truck, stout or extended, the structure tends to be made up of dry freight aluminum sheeting within a heavy duty metal frame or Fiberglass Reinforced Plywood, according to a US Truck Body brochure. Both styles are adorned with an aluminum “Zephyr” front nose and corner castings. This seems to be the piece that sustains the Can Opener’s initial blow. 

But the beam is not discriminating in its victims, and box varieties are not the only overpass underpassers with battlescars to show. Many campers will find themselves sweating in the summer months, as their RV’s AC units get plucked off by the beam. One trailer carrying a stable’s worth of hay lost two bales from the top of the pile to the team, and trailers alike often find themselves stacked too high for the bridge’s liking. 

The worst crashes look horrible. The top is guillotined with a swift but abrasive punch. In some cases, the roofing is rolled off with precision, like those fancy ice cream places that take a scoop and turn it into a tube. Depending, then, on the extent of the damage to the top, the sides begin to give. If the beam intersects at the right angle, the sides sometimes mangle from the get-go, and the whole truck box suffers a rupture. 

Every now and then, a driver is able to escape. When November’s 18-wheeler victim moved forward after its sneak approach, its cab bounced under the beam with a snap and pop. Thinking quickly, the driver dropped the air suspension and backed out to avoid further damage. After careful extraction, his box attachment escaped unscathed. 

The Can Opener was left hungry. 

THE VEHICLE WAS RETRIEVED BY ONE OF ITS COMPANIES REPRESENTATIVES AND CONTINUED IN MOTION. 

Photo montage at top: Six of the 162 videos we watched from 11foot8.com. Copyright Jürgen Henn – 11foot8.com