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Do the rot thing: Inside Durham’s push for composting

Residents of the city of Durham recently received a survey about a sexy topic: food waste and composting.

Composting can sometimes seem like the province of hippies and/or actual farmers, but Durham’s current strategic plan calls for the city to evaluate ways to increase residential composting. The compost survey, which will be open to residents until the end of May, is the first step in that process. Muriel Williman, the senior assistant manager with the City’s Solid Waste Management Department, is leading that effort.

We want to take the temperature of our city—compost humor—to see what type of services would really work. Would people be willing to pay for it? Can we do a subscription-based program? And so on,” Williman said. “The pilot will be designed, hopefully, to construct a program that is accessible and that works.”

Looking through my own kitchen trash can, to the distress of my roommates, revealed that food waste makes up about a fifth of our apartment’s trash: eggshells, fruit peels, asparagus stems, avocado skins and pits, piles of coffee grounds, and a decaying bunch of aspirational cilantro could all be sent to a composting facility instead.

For Durham, that’s a pretty typical breakdown of household waste. A 2015 city “Waste Characterization Study” found that around 30 percent of Durham residential trash sent to landfills is “food and soiled paper,” both of which could be composted instead. If food waste were its own country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the U.S., according to the United Nations. Most food waste in the U.S. occurs at the consumer level, rather than during food harvest, processing, or even sales.

Durham waste management’s goal is to reduce the weight of city garbage by 10 percent within three years. After reducing the amount of trash we produce in the first place, compost and recycling are the two most obvious options.

The city government isn’t alone. A growing number of local people are already composting, either in their backyard or using a service. CompostNow, a Raleigh-based community composting company, serves more than 2,600 Triangle residents, up from 639 members in 2017, according to Kat Nigro, who is the company’s head of marketing and engagement. (She previously worked at Tilthy Rich, a bicycle-focused composter that CompostNow bought in 2018.)

I think composting is stepping out from the shadows of something your grandfather did or something crazy hippies do, and now it’s kind of stepping into mainstream culture. I think it’s having its moment right now,” Nigro said. “Our members are really vocal about the value of composting and they are not afraid to share it with their neighbors or their school, or get their office on board, and it’s been really amazing to see.”

CompostNow has diverted a little more than 4,000 tons of Triangle trash from landfills since 2011, but according to WRAL, Durham County produced 285,477 tons of waste in 2015, with a population of 297,219 people. In other words, we each produced approximately ten times our own weight in trash. But of course, not everyone produces the same amount of trash.

The people who are contributing to climate change the most are the more privileged affluent communities, but unfortunately the people who are going to feel the effects of climate change first are going to be the lower-income communities. So that discrepancy is obviously on my mind,” Nigro said. “Some people look at us and say, ‘You guys charge for the service?’ and we say, yes, we have to charge for the service because of where we’re at with waste management right now. it’s still cheaper to throw away things, that’s the bottom line.”

CompostNow costs around $29 per month for weekly pickup. But in Durham, trash pickup is paid for by taxes and has no additional fee, though residents can pay $7.50 a month for weekly yard-waste pickup. It’s those customers who would most likely be targeted by the pilot program, Williman said. Of the 20,000 current subscribers, about 10 percent might have the opportunity to also add their food waste as as a test of potential curbside compost collection.

Williman hopes to design a program which is not only functional but accessible to all residents. The composting survey is offered in English and Spanish to help reach different communities in the city.

“We want to make sure this program is accessible to people that come from different demographics—maybe English is not their first language, maybe they’ve never composted before, maybe they’re in a lower economic bracket than someone with a college education who has property and has been composting forever,” Williman said.

Durham has more eco-friendly options for residents than just about anywhere else in the state, and Mayor Steve Schewel’s campaign website even included an entire page about his position and priorities on waste management, which includes the improbable sentence, “Steve believes we can find opportunities in trash.” According to Matt Kopac, chair of the Durham City-County Environmental Affairs Board, Schewel as a city councilman spearheaded the 2015 waste characterization study, which was the first time the city had real data on the breakdown of waste in the community.

I would definitely describe Durham as a sustainability-focused city. In addition to being a city that advocates for environmental justice, there is palpable action around issues concerning social and racial equity and inclusive growth,” Dr. Cristian Roberto Valle Kinloch, a member of the Durham City-County Environmental Affairs Board, wrote in an email.

On a practical level, Durham already has a state permit to compost yard waste and biosolids—also known as treated sewage—from the waste-water treatment facility. That project has been delayed some due to the unusually rainy winter, Williman said.

“This is a system we want to get right,” Williman said. “Once [the city’s contractors] have that well in hand and it’s operating perfectly as permitted—and that includes reaching temperatures that are necessary to kill pathogens—once they have that straight with the biosolids and the yard waste, they’ll be able to add food waste.”

In addition to fertilizing depleted urban soil, composting can also slow down the rate at which landfills are used up. Durham’s landfill closed in 1998, and the land can never be used for anything else. The city now sends its solid waste to a landfill in Sampson County, east of Fayetteville, where decomposing food produces methane, a greenhouse gas.

CompostNow sends what it collects to the Brooks Compost Facility in Goldston, N.C. (Courtesy Brooks Contractor)

“It’s a waste of a valuable resource, it’s a waste of money,” Kopac said. “So not only are we not harvesting these organic materials to be turned into compost to help enrich our soil, we’re also paying money to ship and throw away this valuable resource, so it’s sort of a double loss. so I think the city’s move toward having more residential composting is important and powerful.”

Even without the city’s composting service in place, residents who are willing to pay extra to lower their carbon footprint have a range of private-sector options. There’s Fillaree, which offers refillable glass and aluminum containers of toiletries and dish soap; GreenToGo, a service which lets Durhamites get reusable to-go boxes at participating restaurants; and Ungraded Produce, a produce delivery service founded by two Duke students that sends subscribers boxes of aesthetically imperfect fruits and vegetables which might have otherwise gone to waste. Advocates view this market as evidence that Durham is primed to compost more.

“I don’t think something like Tilthy Rich could have done as well as it did in any other place at that time,” Nigro said. “Durham was so special, and I just think back to the year 2016. The next year we doubled our membership, and that could have only happened in a place like Durham where a lot of us have that collective mindset of protecting this community and protecting our natural resources.”

Images of Brooks composting facility, the site CompostNow uses, reveals that the operation is basically a dirt lot in Goldston filled with orderly long piles of compost-to-be, which Nigro said are usually eight feet high. The temperature of each pile can reach 160 degrees due to the exertions of worms, mites, fungi, and bacteria, and as a result, the process from trash to humus takes only three months. Backyard composting, Nigro said, can take six to eight months.

The city currently provides a 25-page guide to composting at home, which is helpful because there’s more to composting than just putting all your biodegradable trash into a pile in the yard. Good composting—the kind that produces usable fertilizer and limited amounts of methane gas—requires frequent turning and a relatively consistent balance of different types of waste. It’s easier, and cheaper, to send food scraps, like the rest of our trash, to a landfill. Because of that, Nigro says, CompostNow isn’t worried about the competition from a possible municipal government program.

We do not care how people compost—if it’s in their backyard, using a drop-off service, a municipality service, our service,” Nigro said. “For us it doesn’t matter, we just want people to be composting. Food waste is huge. This is a huge problem to tackle, and there’s enough of it that it’s going to take so many different people, so many different players in this game. So we don’t shy away from that, and we don’t want to discourage the city in any capacity because we believe there’s enough of it to go around.”

(Photo at top by Bailey Garrot)

Celebration and conflict convene at Durham City Council meeting

If you walked into the Durham City Council meeting Monday night the first thing you likely noticed were not the elected officials or 13 members of the New Black Panther Party, it was the little girls.

Ten Girl Scout troops packed themselves into the chambers. Some scouts sat on the floor and others two to a chair to hear March 11 designated the start of Girl Scout Week in Durham.

So it goes at City Council meetings, where topics celebratory and serious rub shoulders, taking observers on a roller coaster of experiences that are inspiring, friendly, somber and, at times, deeply contentious.

In addition to honoring the scouts, Mayor Steve Schewel celebrated recently retired U.S. Circuit Judge Allyson Duncan, Council member Vernetta Alston read a declaration celebrating Women’s History Month, and former Mayor Bell bid farewell to city attorney Patrick Baker.

The tone grew more heated when Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton lamented Duke’s recent refusal to donate a tract of land to the Durham-Orange Light Rail project. It became both somber and angry after Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis presented the city’s 2018 crime report.

First celebration

Girl Scout Troop 04033 Immaculata Catholic School posted this photo on Facebook after city officials honored local scouts on Monday.

“I would like to turn this over to our City Council Girl Scouts,” Schewel said when honoring the gathered Brownie, Junior and Cadette scouts, beckoning Council members Alston, DeDreana Freeman and Jillian Johnson forward.

“You can see in my City Council colleagues what good leadership the Girl Scouts develop. That’s proof right there,” he said.

In keeping with the female empowerment theme, Schewel celebrated Judge Allyson Duncan, a Durham native who recently retired from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Duncan was the first African-American woman to serve on the N.C. Court of Appeals and the first African-American president of the North Carolina Bar Association.

Alston read the Schewel’s declaration marking March as Women’s History Month in Durham, noting that women have had to fight to secure their own rights of suffrage and equal opportunity yet still contributed to business, government, medicine, social justice and more.

Schewel and former Mayor Bill Bell praised Baker, who is leaving Durham to become city attorney of Charlotte. Then Schewel opened the floor to Council members to make public statements.

Then conflict

Middleton jumped in to criticize Duke University’s decision to decline to sign the cooperative agreement with GoTriangle and voluntarily give land to the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project. Middleton suggested eminent domain could be a viable next step to surpass a hurdle that could stop the project.

“I was raised in a community where elders gathered youth at their feet and regaled us with stories of young boys who faced giants, and young girls who went to see kings unannounced. We learned of stories of people, ordinary men and women, who faced down not one wealthy institution, but a nation, an entire legal system, an entire economy that said we were less than,” said Middleton.

He ended his critique of Duke with a joke.

“So I apologize if I have not shown the appropriate amount of deference or fear and trembling in the face of a wealthy institution. I get it from my mama,” he said.

The most tense stretches came after Davis gave presented the 2018 “crime and police measures report”.

Davis reported a decrease in violent and property crime by 13 and 6 percent respectively. Robberies, aggravated assault, burglaries and larcenies all decreased. She also noted efforts by the department to decrease domestic violence such as Safe Spaces in which businesses identify themselves as places offering refuge.

Miguel Stayton, uncle of slain North Carolina Central University student DeAndre Ballard, took aim at Davis and her department for not sharing information regarding his nephew’s death after a security guard shot him in a parking lot of the apartment building where he lived.

Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis presented the city’s 2018 crime report Monday. (Photo by Pierre Stephan Barbee-Saunders)

Davis said she has been in contact with Ballard’s mother, as department policy dictates. She cannot share information in an investigation unless the primary family contact of the deceased explicitly permits or requests is, she stressed.

“Those individuals are not here tonight. Those individuals do not want to be here tonight. We have been in constant contact with them,” Davis continued, “We trust that individuals that are related are provided the information that the father or mother wants them to know.”

Resident Victoria Peterson, dressed in red head to toe, criticized Davis’ report saying it did not adequately break down where reductions in crime have occurred.

“Crime is still running rampant in the Black community and we have all these African-Americans sitting on the City Council and one Hispanic,” said Peterson, saying the city must increase patrols in her area near Alston and Ridgeway avenues and add 20 additional officers.

Emom Akbar took the podium with 11 members of the New Black Panther Party behind him. He encouraged peace and respect between community members and the police department, which he accused of neglecting Black residents.

Expect these conversations to continue. City Council grapples with the complexity that is the Bull City at 7 pm on the first and third Mondays of each month.

(Photo at top by Pierre Stephan Barbee-Saunders)

Balancing facts and feelings in the discussion of Confederate monuments

Deondra Rose, assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, is accustomed to letting facts drive the discussion of policy. But as a member of the Durham City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments, she realized that feelings were important, too.

During a Sanford lunch event to discuss the committee on Friday, Rose praised the group’s emphasis on opens discussions and the diverse backgrounds of people involved. There were two types of meetings: official ones with guest speakers and wide-open discussions.

The official meetings included speakers with expertise on aspects of Confederate monuments. Many were academics whose research focused on the Confederacy, monuments and the legacy of the Civil War.  

Deondra Rose

Rose felt the small group discussions were especially helpful. The committee asked participants to answer three questions about the values the government should highlight, the people who should be publicly celebrated and the recommendations participants had for the committee.

“The best part of this process was to sit around these tables and hear citizens grapple with these questions,” said Rose, a political scientist who recently published the book “Citizens By Degree: Higher Education Policy and the Changing Gender Dynamics of American Citizenship.”

At the meetings, Rose found her academic approach, which focuses on facts over feelings, was not the best way to approach delicate and emotion-filled topics.

“One of the things I got into trouble within this process is that I tend to approach things with facts. I am not someone who typically deals well with emotions,” she said, adding that “I realized that this is more personal to people and it is hitting them in a place of emotion. I had to really learn to step back and learn how to be quiet.”

She quickly learned that people felt like statues were viewed very deeply by people, often because they honored ancestors who fought and died in the Civil War.

“This isn’t just Confederate Statues to people. ‘This is my great-great-great grandfather’ and so by saying this statue represents X, Y and Z people take that to mean you’re saying my great-great-great grandfather represented X, Y and Z,” said Rose.

She applauded the diversity of the committee, from academics to lawyers to a Confederate reenactor.

“It was a really diverse group in terms of age, in terms of gender, in terms of race and ethnicity, in terms of where we lived in Durham County and how long we’ve lived here,” said Rose.

Rose noted that the committee became fiercely protective of each other through the process. They defended each other even when they had vastly different opinions.

This became particularly important when County Commissioners Vice Chair James Hill criticized the committee’s recommendation to move the statue base with additions to honor the enslaved, union soldiers and women and children to one of two publicly owned cemeteries, one of which is historically black. Hill compared the movement of this new monument to a historically black cemetery to placing an SS statue in a Jewish cemetery.

The co-chairs responded with an op-ed emphasizing that the potential new statue would have additions honoring the enslaved and others and emphasizing the other recommendations the committee had.

Other recommendations include publicly honoring other members of Durham’s history like Pauli Murray, C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, tobacco workers, and more. The committee also recommended including the crumpled statue in an educational display inside the courthouse.

Despite the vast array of opinions, the committee found a shared commitment to recognizing history. It was who and how we remember our past that people disagreed about.

“Across the board, people said they wanted to memorialize history,” Rose said. “There was a shared disagreement with us somehow paving over history or failing to acknowledge even our painful past.”

Durham transportation study using location data mined from devices in purses, pockets and cars

On a mission to improve transportation downtown, Durham officials are experimenting with an emerging method to trace where and how people move.

They are buying location data harvested from smartphones and navigation devices.

Many owners of those devices are likely unaware that their movements create such data or that it is collected and sold to help a city eager to unclog its downtown.

In November 2018 the city announced Move Durham, a study to analyze today’s transportation downtown, forecast future needs and suggest how to keep people moving with vehicles, public transit, bikes and on foot.

Move Durham, funded with $400,000 in multiple grants, is contracting with StreetLight Data of California to buy data originating with GPS systems and potentially hundreds of smartphone apps, including weather, dating and exercise software.

Move Durham is evaluating ways to encourage transportation beyond cars and trucks, including cycling. (Photos by Katie Nelson)

StreetLight Data offers cities a quick way to monitor movement. The California company buys location data originating from smartphone apps and in-car navigation devices to track travel patterns, giving cities and developers the opportunity to see up-to-date, highly specific travel information.

As of July 2018, Streetlight Data reported that it collects and processes location records from more than 65 million adults in the U.S. and Canada. It can show where people start and end trips and how fast they moved — a good indication of whether they walked, biked or drove.

That’s especially useful in a city that is rapidly changing, said Ellen Beckmann, a Durham senior transportation planner who leads the Move Durham project. Durham adds 11 new residents every day, main roads get jammed downtown, accidents are more common and residents are complaining.

“Having information like this that’s quicker and more up-to-date is very useful,” Beckmann said.

A Duke privacy expert expressed some concern about the data collection process used by the location-data industry.

Apps and GPS systems don’t make it obvious that they both collect and sell the location data they capture, said Jolynn Dellinger, a senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School who specializes in data privacy issues.

Most users “don’t know how much a phone can collect on them,” she said. And there are currently no laws governing what private companies like StreetLight can do with the location data after they purchase it, Dellinger added.

Alta Planning and Design — a transportation firm that specializes in streamlining city travel— favored hiring StreetLight Data. After winning a public contract to collect and analyze data for the city, Alta staff realized that using traditional traffic counters would take too long and was inefficient, according to Jennifer Baldwin, a senior planning associate with Alta.

For $30,000, the city will have access to StreetLight’s services for six months. During this time, the city will have access to data from almost seven years ago and as recent as weeks ago, Baldwin said.

While those working on the project initially were concerned about privacy issues with such data, Baldwin said she was reassured that individuals’ privacy would be secured by StreetLight’s data protection policies. To safeguard personal information, StreetLight Data purchases anonymized records, which replaces names with random strings of digits.

StreetLight Data buys location data from companies that obtain it from owners of smartphone apps and other sources that can capture where their users move throughout their days.

On StreetLight Data’s website, the company does note that it can associate a “likely home location” to a device, even linking “income distribution” and other demographic factors to a person’s phone.

That said, data provided to Durham will not include a view of individual homes, said Kaleb Osagie, a StreetLight sales representative. If a user wants to see data from a zone with only one house, “the platform will let you know that this project is too specific,” Osagie said.

StreetLight buys location data from separate companies, Cuebiq and INRIX. Cuebiq purchases location data from smartphone apps, and INRIX gets that same information from GPS devices like Google Maps or Garmin, according to StreetLight Data’s website.

Durham needs a transportation study due to recent growth downtown, says Move Durham’s website. That includes more than $1.2 billion of investment since 2000.

That resulting building boom has made parking tougher and more expensive, which may make  park-and-ride lots and bus transit service potentially more attractive. At the same time, central Durham residents are asking for more walking routes, room for bicycles and less traffic through residential areas.

In Phase 1, Move Durham circulated surveys and staged community meetings to hear what problems people were experiencing as they  move around downtown.

The project has only just begun to use StreetLight data, Baldwin said. The data will become more helpful during Phase 2 of the Move Durham project, where analysts will narrow their focus to problem routes that the public helped identify.

That’s when Durham will get into the “nitty gritty” of the data, she said.

‘Welcome home’ program helps residents returning from prison

Chuck Manning Sr. says the new program provides support at a critical time. Photo by Katie Nelson

On his first day of freedom after a 13-year prison sentence, Reginald Mumford received a care package with a letter from Mayor Steve Schewel and met the peer support specialist who would help him adjust to life in Durham.

People who have been incarcerated are often neglected by policymakers, but Durham wants to send a clear message to people like Mumford: “Welcome home!”

Roughly 700 people return to Durham each year after doing time in a state prison. Often, they arrive without a job or stable housing. And, if they don’t have family in the area, a probation officer may be their only support system.

A year ago, the city directed its Innovation Team with finding a way to increase upward mobility for formerly incarcerated residents.

After spending months conducting interviews and collecting data, the Innovation Team created Welcome Home, a program that serves – and empowers – Durham residents returning from prison. The initiative works closely with the Local Reentry Council, a government program that helps them with job opportunities and other services, and other local organizations that provide assistance.

The program gets participants from three state prisons — Polk, Wake, and Orange — but organizers plan to expand to more and eventually include women’s prisons, too.

“Sometimes you can feel as if the world is against you,” said Chuck Manning Sr., the community outreach coordinator for the Innovation Team. He is one of the architects of the program and its peer support specialist.

Welcome Home helps people at a critical time. The first few weeks after being released can be especially difficult, and that’s when people are particularly at risk of slipping back into crime. When Manning returned home to Durham from prison five years ago, he remembers that there were no opportunities for him.

After applying to dozens of jobs with no success, he used a borrowed smoker and $145 to start his own barbeque catering business called Kwu’s Katering. When he’d run into people who knew him from before he went to prison, he told them that he had decided to change his life – and encouraged them to do the same.

Manning credits his success to two peer support specialists who helped him during this transition.

He’s now playing that role himself. He said he loves the work so much that he’d do it for free if he didn’t have four kids to support. “I look at this just like a case manager, but a case manager who’s actually been there and done that,” Manning said. “A case manager with a heart.”

When Manning met Mumford, the first Welcome Home participant, he explained the peer support program and presented him with a Welcome Home box.

Inside, there’s a week’s worth of food and a month’s worth of toiletries as well as a bus pass, a  $25 gift card to Wal-Mart, a cell phone, and a letter from Mayor Steve Schewel.

“It’s the small things,” Manning said. “A lot of these guys have done their time, and they’re ready to change their lives. They just need somebody that’s on their side.”

But the most important offering in the Welcome Home program is the peer support specialist, or someone who can be what Manning calls a “standing model of change.”

“Chuck is keeping me on a positive path and I’m not really worried about getting in trouble because I know how to stay out of trouble,” said Mumford. “I can never get back the 13 years that were taken away from me, but I can look forward to a brighter future.”

The 52-year-old is staying with his godmother in Durham and focusing on transitioning back into society.

Manning found out that Mumford didn’t know how to use a smartphone — there were only flip phones when he went to prison in 2006. So, they met at the McDonald’s downtown so that Manning could teach him how to use the device.

Manning also has connected him with a program to help him get back his disability benefits. And they bought a pair of slacks that Mumford can wear to job interviews.

Looking forward, Manning said the Welcome Home initiative needs broad community support not just from the usual suspects — (Nonprofits and churches have strong roots in reentry work in the city.) — but the thriving businesses and wealthy people who also call Durham home.

“Those individuals need to donate, purchase some boxes, help employ some of these guys,” Manning said. “This is a new Durham we’re living in; let’s not forget about the people who aren’t benefiting from it.”

Inside the ambitious plan to bring back the spirit of Durham’s Black Wall Street

At the turn of the 20th century, downtown Durham’s Parrish Street was the hub of Black Wall Street, with NC Mutual Life Insurance Company at the forefront of a thriving black entrepreneurial culture.

At the time, Durham had the highest concentration of black millionaires in the country.

But other than a couple historical markers and a historic forum, Parrish today is just another downtown street, home to businesses like a bike shop with beer bottles on display that sells bikes starting around $300.

Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton wants to bring back the glory days. He’s undertaking an ambitious plan to bring back Black Wall Street’s spirit of entrepreneurship, which was quashed after Highway 147 cut through the historically black Hayti district in the 1960s. This time, he says the initiative won’t be as tethered to real estate.

“We don’t have Parrish Street anymore. It has to be an ecosystem,” Middleton said.

Middleton’s long-term vision includes job training, partnering with businesses to redevelop, and targeted tax incentives and grants to promote black entrepreneurialism.

The rise and fall of Black Wall Street

Right next door to what is now Seven Star Cycles, a bike shop focusing on bike repairs on Parrish Street, lies the former headquarters of the Durham Reformer, a newspaper published by NC Mutual—which became the world’s largest black insurance company.

Its first floor now houses a black-owned dentists shop, and on its upper floor, a graphic design company co-founded by a North Carolina Central University graduate.

NC Mutual was founded in 1898 by John Merrick and Aaron Moore, among others. The company’s goal was to provide life insurance and other services to blacks who couldn’t otherwise get them.

“If you look at most of the black-owned businesses of this time, they’re basically meeting needs that whites have no interest in or for racist reasons wouldn’t support,” said Robert Korstad, a professor in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who has studied the history of Durham.

NC Mutual was a complicated place, Korstad said. On one hand, it created an abundance of jobs, including professional jobs and opportunities for black women, Korstad said.

However, Merrick also made significant profit from developing substandard rental houses for black workers, Korstad said.

Merrick, also a barber and founder of the Durham Textile Mill, was a jack of all trades, like many of those who were at the forefront of development on Parrish.

Moore, the first black medical doctor in Durham, founded Lincoln Hospital in 1901, a hospital where black doctors could treat patients. He also founded Bull City Drug Company in 1908, which was right next door to what is now the dentist and the graphic design company.

With no “centrally located” pharmacy that blacks could use in Durham, Moore had to run a pharmacy out of his garage for blacks until he opened Bull City Drug’s doors, Korstad said.

The Parrish Street businesses showed great promise.

But just a few decades later, it all came crashing down.

In the 1960s, the city decided it needed a highway to drive business to Durham and provide a pathway to the Research Triangle and Raleigh, Korstad said.

The cheapest and easiest place to put what is now Highway 147 was straight through the historically black Hayti neighborhood, Korstad said. The idea was sold as a way to lift the Hayti community out of its “dilapidated” housing by tearing it down and later putting in better housing, Korstad said.

That never happened.

Instead, it was devastating for black businesses.

“I’m not sure they initially intended to destroy the black business district as they did,” Korstad said. “However, since it happened the same way in virtually every southern town, that the black business community was destroyed as well as the residential community, made me think that was part of what it was all about.”

The highways effects were brutal for Henry L. Gunn III, who left Durham for Vietnam in the 1960s to join the Air Force. When he returned from duty nearly 20 years later, his neighborhood was completely gone.

His son, Joshua Gunn, hip-hop artist and vice president of member investment at the Durham Chamber of Commerce, says the highway is “a scar for him because he has no way to go back to and tell us about his childhood and his youth. The physical space is gone. Black Durham never really recovered from that. Many people never recovered from their homes quite literally being destroyed.”

Today, black people account for more than 60 percent of those in poverty in Durham, despite representing more than a third of the city’s population.

Middleton aims to right wrongs

Applying the lessons of the past, Middleton hopes to break the racial gap and inspire black entrepreneurship.  

Middleton hopes to provide tax incentives and grants.

“We should be as precise in targeting for communities for help as communities were targeted when [Highway] 147 was built,” Middleton said. “Everybody knew who lived in that neighborhood when [Highway] 147 decimated the Hayti community. It was black folk. Whoever was most impacted by those policies should be the folk we’re most targeting to help.”

Although his vision of reviving the spirit of Black Wall Street is less tied to physical real estate on Parrish Street, he also hopes to work with private developers to create a “demonstration project.” That may entail building an anchor project on Hayti’s Fayetteville Street, perhaps at a former housing project that the city bought a few years ago, Middleton said.

Middleton also helps to bring apprenticeships and vocational training back to local high schools. This would help create high-paying jobs, he says.

These changes won’t come overnight, Middleton acknowledges. But he hopes that in the short term, the city will make a significant commitment to stimulating black entrepreneurship. He noted that the city put $2.4 million aside for a participatory budgeting initiative, and hopes the city will put at least that much into bringing back the spirit of Black Wall Street.

Korstad is not optimistic about the possibility being able to come to fruition.

“A lot of it is about money and capital and access to credit. There are a lot of African Americans with great ideas and a certain amount of business skill and stuff, but unless you can go to the bank or a venture capitalist and get credit to build a big development or start a new business, it’s very hard to see something like that developing again,” Korstad said. “Wealth inequalities in the black community—black people got no savings and no money on average….I’m pretty dubious about it.”

Gunn hopes the city steps up to spur black business ownership.

“It’s time for people to put their money where their mouth is, especially for the city and county of Durham, which benefit greatly from the story of Black Wall Street, to begin to use their resources to help finance this,” Gunn said.

Slow steps in the growth of sidewalks in Durham

Above, Jose Gomez has to walk in the grass beside a busy highway for his morning commute to work because there are no sidewalks. Photo by Daniela Flamini

Jose Gomez commutes by bus from his home in northeast Durham to State Road 54 and Carpenter Fletcher Road. He then must trudge a quarter-mile to his job at Jimmy’s Famous Hotdogs. There are no sidewalks, so he has to walk on a patch of grass beside the busy highway.

“It gets really dangerous when I have to walk home at night, around 11, 11:30 p.m., when I can’t see my surroundings well,” said Gomez, 47, a fry cook. “It would make a huge difference to have some space for pedestrians.”

The area along State Road 54, from east of State Road 55 to the western limit of Research Triangle Park, is typical of many Durham neighborhoods and commercial areas. It’s not a friendly place for pedestrians. According to Bryan Poole, a city transportation planner, his department has identified 500 miles of sidewalk needs evenly spread around the city, and existing projects address only about 20 percent of that.

In late November, Durham’s Public Works Department presented designs for new sidewalks in the area around Highway 54, including the patch of grass Gomez and his coworkers use on their way to work. But these designs are still six years away from completion, and there are already significant complications due to obstacles like retaining walls, driveways and bike lanes.

Poole helps the city decide which areas of Durham most urgently need sidewalks. He explained that the process of actually getting them constructed can be a slow, heavily bureaucratic endeavor. “It’s hard for the public to understand how long it takes for sidewalks to be built,” he said.

Dale McKeel, a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said that “residents have shown a strong demand for the last thirty years.” The crux of the problem lies in the fact that Durham was largely built and developed before the 1990s, when cars were the primary mode of transportation and sidewalks weren’t a major concern for city planners.

“It doesn’t seem like it’d be that complicated [to install sidewalks], but there are lots of details that need to be worked through,” McKeel said.

A local push for sidewalks in cities

City planners have long cared more about cars than bicycles or pedestrians, said Dan Gelinne, a program manager at the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, a state-funded resource housed at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. “Places like Durham, Atlanta, and Phoenix were pretty much developed when people were driving, so the sidewalk was an afterthought.”

And yet, cities that boast comprehensive sidewalk coverage like New York and Boston flourished much earlier, when most people were getting around on foot.

Recent decades have seen a push from local efforts to enforce and encourage sidewalks in cities across the United States. Not only do sidewalks decrease the likelihood of pedestrians getting struck in vehicle crashes by 80 percent, but they also raise property value, make shops and businesses more economically viable, and signal a more physically active neighborhood, according to Gelinne.

In 2006, the Durham City Council adopted the DurhamWalks! Pedestrian Plan, which was meant to check up on existing sidewalk networks and recommend improvements for better safety and accessibility.

Of the 300 projects that were born after its adoption, only 35 were actually completed, Poole said.

The projects that have been most successful are the ones that address pedestrian safety in particularly risky areas, such as Fayetteville Street, where pedestrians often have to walk alongside cars due to gaps in the sidewalk network.

Poole said that while the city has its own methodology for deciding which sidewalk projects should be prioritized, the North Carolina Department of Transportation does too. Because most sidewalks get federal funding through the state DOT, the city often must wait for the state to decide what it will approve.

It’s common for the city and the state not to see eye-to-eye on prioritizing sidewalks, because the state is much more conservative about small-scale projects. State level funding tends to go towards highway projects.

The cost of sidewalk installation varies greatly depending on what obstacles the landscape comes with. In Durham, materials and labor for 500 square feet of sidewalk can cost on average between $1,500 and $3,000.

A long-term approach to planning

City officials want to make sure that sidewalks help everyone in Durham, from the rich to the poor. But officials are aware that the need isn’t spread so evenly. “Certainly sidewalks are needed everywhere, but in some places, (people are) more reliant on being able to walk, like poorer neighborhoods,” Gelline said.

“This can come across in the public’s view that the city isn’t responding to what [its residents] are asking for, but a lot of times it’s the wealthier people in the community who are better at effectively communicating with the local government, so they know how to make a loud public argument for more sidewalks.”

Durham’s sidewalks are mostly concentrated downtown, which Poole says is great since it covers some poorer areas, but gentrification poses a threat to this. Otherwise, they’re spread fairly unevenly around the county and don’t follow any demographically-related pattern. McKeel noted that “in a lot of the neighborhoods around Duke’s East Campus (an affluent area), there are no sidewalks. That’s not usually what you’d expect in a city, but there’s just no correlation.”

Poole did say that most the emails and comments that the city gets about sidewalks come from wealthier neighborhoods, but that he “tries to be mindful” of this by making equity a primary concern.

Gelinne said that “sidewalks are pretty expensive to build… it can be very expensive, and generally cannot be done quickly. Durham probably struggles with the fact that, at the end of the day, the budget allotted is not enough for what is required, so they’re still catching up.”


In the midnight hour: The nocturnal email habits of Durham’s mayor

Mayor Steve Schewel has a werewolfish habit of staying up late into the night answering emails.

While most of the city is asleep, he sends messages on subjects ranging from “Downtown Post Office Parking” to “Demilitarize Durham.”

In fact, Schewel sends more emails between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. than any other time of day, according to an analysis by The 9th Street Journal.

We looked at more than 4,000 emails sent by Schewel since he was elected mayor in November last year and obtained by The 9th Street Journal through a public records request. Among the findings:

  • Around dinner time — between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. — he writes fewer emails.
  • He sends more than 40 percent of his emails between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m.
  • His email production peaks around midnight and tapers off around 1:30 a.m.
  • He does apparently sleep. We found that he sent almost no emails between 2:30 a.m. and 5:00 a.m.

By day, he attends city meetings, reads materials prepared for the City Council, and presides over ribbon-cutting ceremonies, leaving little time to respond to emails.

At night, he becomes a ferocious emailer. He says he stays up late because he needs to respond to his constituents. “People have really important problems, even if some of them are small problems. It might be a pothole … or an issue about rezoning or affordable housing,” he says. “It’s important to them, and I’ve got to respond. I think that’s part of the job.”

Data analysis by Asa Royal

His nighttime routine begins when he returns to his West Club Boulevard bungalow, kisses his wife Lao, and trades his jacket and tie for a cozy cardigan.

After dinner, he situates himself in front of the television or a book until his eyelids begin to feel heavy. “I read with my eyes shut,” Schewel jokes, explaining that he may nap until 11 p.m. or so.

Some nights he’ll wake up and go to bed. But oftentimes, he climbs the u-shaped staircase to his home office, opens his black laptop and starts sifting through his inbox.

The wood-paneled room is crowded with overflowing bookcases and a large upholstered chair. Schewel’s desk overlooks the backyard, but at night the view is obscured by the artificial light from inside.

“In the daytime, it’s a fabulous room,” he says.

Schewel averages between two and three late-night email binges each week. More than 37 percent of the days, he’ll send at least one email after midnight.

The subject lines of the emails he responds to are a Durham zeitgeist: a mix of invitations, city news, and complaints about urban problems, such as “Ms. Morris 3rd Grade Class Presenting at City Council Meeting,” “Six People Arrested in Prostitution Operation,” and “plant odors getting worse but no action from city to stop them.”You can also spot trends from a flurry of emails on the same topic:  “Loud music in downtown Durham,” “Loud music from DBAP, late at night, two nights in a row,” “too loud!” “Outdoor concert noise,” and “loud noise from music festival on Friday and Saturday Sept 28-29.”

Thomas Bonfield, Durham’s city manager, says it’s normal for him to wake up to several emails that Schewel sent at 1 or 2 a.m. Bonfield says, “He’s so conscientious and there are so many people who are wanting a piece of him … and I think he’s trying to be responsive to all of them.”

Durham turnout up in 2018 midterms

Durham County had a big blue wave in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Turnout outstripped the previous midterm in 2014 by more than 30,000 more votes cast. That meant 55 percent of registered voters showed up compared with 45 percent in 2014.

And although the rest of the state passed four of six proposed constitutional amendments, including a voter ID requirement, Durham heavily opposed all of them.

Durham voted against all six amendments by at least 69 percent, including 77 percent against the voter ID requirement. The three other amendments that voters approved statewide “strengthen[ed] victims rights,” enshrined recent tax cuts and established a right to hunt and fish with “traditional methods.”

North Carolina also confirmed Democrat Anita Earls to a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Statewide, she earned about half of the vote while two Republican challengers split the other half, but more than 80 percent of Durham voters supported her.

Voters again chose Democrats for Durham’s legislative seats. Incumbents MaryAnn E. Black, Marcia Morey and Robert T. Reives II will retain their seats in the state House of Representatives, while Floyd McKissick Jr. and Mike Woodard will hold onto their Senate positions. In the House, Democrat Zack Forde-Hawkins will fill the spot of Mickey Michaux, 88, who is retiring.

Durham offering free bus rides to vote in midterm elections

Durham voters who still need to cast their ballots in Tuesday’s elections can get a free bus ride to the polls.

For the second straight year, GoDurham buses will be free while the polls are open, from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

The fare-free service was supposed to be approved during a City Council meeting Monday night, but a power outage at City Hall postponed the meeting until Thursday.

City Manager Thomas Bonfield told the 9th Street Journal that he approved the free service for Tuesday and the City Council will confirm it Thursday at his direction.