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Away from the headlines, local groups help Afghan refugees adjust to N.C. life

More than four million refugees have fled Ukraine since February, dominating headlines around the world. Yet closer to home, Afghans who fled during the U.S. withdrawal from the country eight months ago are still arriving, and Triangle resettlement agencies are still helping evacuees build new lives. 

“I know that it seems like ancient history to the news cycles, but, for us, it’s daily life,” said Adam Clark, director of World Relief Durham. 

While the initial wave of hundreds of arrivals has subsided, arrivals continue. Despite strong community support, local resettlement workers face obstacles at nearly every turn. Afghan refugees face unique legal challenges, as many are not guaranteed permanent legal status in the United States. Short-term housing, permanent housing and language-appropriate mental health counseling also remain critical needs. “Ukraine, in many ways, is making it easy to forget what just happened a few months ago. But, I think the community has not forgotten,” Clark said. 

When Kabul fell on Aug. 15, 2021, professionals across the refugee resettlement community braced for an unprecedented surge in cases. More than 70,000 Afghans would flee the country for the U.S. in the months that followed. “We knew this would be a situation that has never happened before in the United States in the resettlement of refugees,” said Omer Omer, North Carolina field office director for the United States Committee on Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). “Usually, it’s very structured, well organized. But this is completely out of plan.”

Resettlement organizations found themselves heavily unprepared and under-resourced for the influx of cases. The surge of refugees came on the heels of the Trump’s administration’s lowering of the refugee ceiling. President Barack Obama’s refugee ceiling for fiscal year 2017 was 110,000. President Donald Trump set the ceiling for fiscal year 2021 at 15,000, and last year, the United States accepted just 11,411 refugees. 

Then came the news in August and September that thousands of Afghan refugees were headed to the U.S. , including North Carolina. 

“The biggest challenge was the short timeframe. Most of the time, we know months ahead of time when a new population is going to come. In some cases, we had 24 to 48 hours, from notification to arrival of a new family to serve,” Clark said. 

Omer’s USCRI North Carolina field office first proposed it could take 100 refugees following Kabul’s fall. In the two months that followed, the office received over 260. 

Seven months after Afghans first began arriving in the Triangle, volunteer response remains strong, yet substantial challenges remain. 

When refugees first arrive, resettlement organizations look to be as welcoming as possible. “You want to ensure that they receive a culturally appropriate meal when they arrive,” Omer said.

The next focus becomes short-term housing, followed by permanent housing. Durham volunteers have helped with both, Clark said.

“The level of community support has been tremendous,” Clark said. “People offer their homes, their land, their cars.” 

Volunteers have furnished apartments for incoming families, buying furniture, decorations, appliances and more. “We want to make the house just as perfect as we can,” said Nancy Cook, who prepares homes for Church World Service.

Even so, long-term housing remains out of reach for many Afghan families.

USCRI still houses about 25% of its refugees in hotels because permanent housing has not been available. “Being in the midst of an affordable housing crisis in our region and suddenly having such a large number of people to welcome is a challenge,” Clark said. 

Afghan evacuees also face daunting legal challenges as they attempt to secure their future in the United States. The U.S. granted the vast majority of recent Afghan arrivals humanitarian parole status, which allows individuals “who may be inadmissible or otherwise ineligible for admission into the United States to be in the United States for a temporary period for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit,” according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

Many of those Afghan parolees have a pathway to stay in the U.S. lawfully, through having American citizen family members or access to Special Immigrant Visas, which can grant permanent residence to evacuees who aided the U.S. abroad. More than 36,000 Afghans, however, lack these routes. Their only option for remaining in the U.S. legally is to file for asylum by proving that they meet the definition of a refugee—until then, legally, they are considered “evacuees.”

“I think many, many, many Afghan evacuees will meet the definition of a refugee,” said Shane Ellison, supervising attorney at Duke Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic. “But it’s a really long and difficult process to apply for asylum in the United States. If those asylum applications are not granted, then that 36,000 are at the mercy of Congress and the executive [branch].”

Mental health care is another vital concern for local agencies. Afghan evacuees struggle to look ahead when their journeys to the United States come so quickly after encountering extreme trauma and violence. 

“These refugee families are coming fresh with traumatic experiences,” said Clark.

Even in normal cases, where families spend years in the transition process, roughly 40% of refugees are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“Refugees may have been in a camp for years, or even decades, and it takes quite a long time to get to us,” Clark said, “In this case, it was very unique to have folks coming, being able to talk about fleeing from the Taliban just a couple of weeks ago.”

The trauma branches from a variety of evacuee experiences: “They left their loved ones in Afghanistan, the house that they struggled for, they left all of these things just in a matter of two weeks. They have lived in camps, sometimes for months. There is a lack of information about life in the United States, so the expectation and the reality are two totally different things,” said Ahmad, a local Afghan resettlement worker who asked that his surname not be disclosed for the sake of his family’s safety. 

After months of settling families, local volunteer Marian Abernathy still sees refugees struggling with their trauma. “Most of the volunteers do not have the background or skills to provide that kind of trauma counseling or care. I think that’s a big need, particularly for providers who are speaking Dari and Pashto,” said Abernathy, a co-chair of the social action committee at Durham’s Judea Reform Congregation. 

Establishing employment and routines can help refugees feel a part of American society, refugee resettlement workers say. With this, also, resettlement workers say the community has offered essential support: “Employment is not an issue, a long time ago, it was,” Omer said.

Looking ahead, Ahmad says he hopes local residents will remember what Afghan refugees have endured as they continue to adjust to life in North Carolina. 

“If you see an Afghan with a different outfit or a different mindset, or if you see an Afghan who cannot speak your language, I would say please be patient with them. And please help them to the extent you can, because they need time to become part of the community.”

For information on how to help Afghan refugees, contact:

Above: Sebghatullah Jalali and Shane Ellison of Duke Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic are assisting Afghan refugees with daunting legal challenges. Photo by Milena Ozernova — The 9th Street Journal 

 

Group seeks safer streets in Watts-Hillandale and Old West Durham

On a recent, chilly Saturday, roughly 40 Durham residents, all of them bundled against the cold in sweaters and hats, gathered at Oval Park for a group discussion on how to make Old West Durham and Watts-Hillandale streets safer for all means of transport. 

The discussion was organized by Bike Durham, a nonprofit whose mission is to “empower all people to walk, bike and ride transit more often.” Durham is growing fast, adding 4,436 residents for a total population of 283,506 residents in 2020, according to that year’s census. And with all that growth, citizens want to make sure streets are safe for all. Bike Durham has begun holding community meetings to generate input from residents on transportation safety to take to city hall.

Cycling is not Bike Durham’s sole priority, despite its name. The organization, which was named Advocacy Organization of the Year in March by the League of American Bicyclists, seeks to make local streets safer for cyclists, drivers and pedestrians.  

Several instances of pedestrians being hit by drivers have occurred in Durham since last summer. Statewide, more than 2,000 collisions involving pedestrians and motor vehicles take place each year, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation.  

Bike Durham’s goals include promoting healthier, more active lifestyles by supporting bike-friendly and pedestrian-friendly paths and streets. They also include giving drivers enough space to navigate without putting pedestrians and bikers in harm’s way. The organization carries out this mission through meetings with city officials, joint ventures with the city government and public events.

“We’re all on the same page that we’d like to improve conditions, not just for pedestrians, cyclists but also for visually and mobility impaired [residents],” Bike Durham advisor Nikola Milenkovic said after Saturday’s meeting.

The group, a mix of full-time employees and volunteers, began in Durham in 2012 with a goal of bringing proposals from residents to the city government. Bike Durham has worked with residents in the Burch Avenue neighborhood, and has since launched a project in the Old West Durham and Watts-Hillandale neighborhoods. 

The Oval Park gathering marked that project’s initial phase, with a group discussion in which residents voiced their concerns regarding streets, walkways and related issues. 

The chilly temperatures didn’t stop residents from showing up. Some families joined, with kids running and biking in the park while adults listened in on the conversation.

Ali Shoenfelt, an 18-year Durham resident and Bike Durham’s coordinator for the neighborhood project, said she was encouraged by the community engagement.

“It’s cold this morning, [it’s] Saturday,” she said.“I didn’t know how many people with kids would be here because I know there’s often soccer games or other obligations. But I thought the turnout was really good.” 

The meeting included short presentations from the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association and Bike Durham on ways to make the neighborhoods’ streets safer. 

Neighborhood association representatives discussed potential transportation changes, such as repaving curb extensions and widening bike lanes. Shoenfelt and Milenkovic of Bike Durham described some of the most successful initiatives from Bike Durham’s Burch Avenue project last year, including repainting crosswalks and adding traffic armadillos, plastic dividers that separate bike lanes and driving lanes. After the presentations, residents spoke their minds. 

Arleigh Greenwald, who attended the meeting, moved to Northwest Durham from California with her young family last summer. 

Greenwald, a product marketing manager with Tern Bicycles, mentioned the need for expanding sidewalks and bike lanes, and for making sidewalks more spacious. By the end of the morning, she felt encouraged by the dialogue.

“It feels like there’s a consensus of people wanting to be able to safely bike and walk, but they’re confused as to how they can still do it and enjoy their neighborhood as drivers,” Greenwald said after the meeting.

Bike Durham representatives praised the discussion. 

“It was really nice to see the level of detail people provided in their input,” Milenkovic said. “We have a much greater sense of what the issues are. And we have some ideas on what to do moving forward, how to build off of these insights and continuing this engagement.”

The group plans a series of neighborhood “walk audits” starting this coming Saturday, April 30. “Walk audits” are focussed, on-site conversations that zero in on particular traffic concerns within a certain neighborhood. 

Bike Durham will then develop a ranking of the two neighborhoods’ most pressing transportation issues. Ultimately, the group plans to provide a report to the city. 

“The report we can provide [to the city] will be much more comprehensive,”  Milenkovic said. “We’re just not looking to solve problems on one street to have them move to an adjacent street, but rather address everything within our scope.”

Above: Watts-Hillandale resident Ali Shoenfelt. Photo by Kulsoom Rizavi — The 9th Street Journal

Upgrades to Durham Bulls Athletic Park will exceed $10 million

When the City of Durham was asked to spend twice as much as expected to make improvements to Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the result was never really in question. But that didn’t keep the council from debating the question when it met on Monday. 

The city leases the Durham Bulls Athletic Park to the Durham Bulls team, and is required, under an agreement with Major League Baseball, to make upgrades to the Bulls’ stadium by April 2025 in order to keep the Bulls in Durham.

With that in mind, the Durham City Council voted 5-0 Monday to spend an extra $5.35 million to renovate the ballpark, on top of the original $5.22 million it approved in June 2021, for a total cost of $10.57 million. The Durham Bulls are contributing $1 million in renovation costs but it’s up to the city to cover the other $9.57 million. 

During a work session in March, John Paces-Wiles, senior project manager with the city’s general services department, relayed that the upgrades will include renovations to player locker rooms, coaches’ offices and a new batting tunnel.

Prior to Monday’s meeting, Skanska, the company that won the bid for the project, reported to city officials that the higher costs resulted from the coronavirus pandemic, which has affected the entire construction industry. Costs for construction materials went up an average of 45 percent since March 2021, the company reported.

Though the council voted 5-0 to approve the additional expenditures, members were divided on whether the deal to keep the Durham Bulls, which was brokered with the council back in 2014, was truly worth the money.

Prior to the meeting, At-Large Council Member Jillian Johnson and Ward 3 Representative Leonardo Williams debated the topic on social media. The debate continued Monday as each member weighed in on the issue.

Johnson lamented that the council had committed itself to paying for upgrades to the stadium, and pointed out that the baseball league requires many cities across the nation to pay for upgrades to their stadiums. Durham’s lease with the Bulls expires in 2033. She urged the council to broker a better deal with the league at that time.

“I hope that we can have a little more equity in the future for how the city, the Bulls, and maybe even Major League Baseball can split the costs,” Johnson said. “I’m disappointed that it’s falling all on our residents.”

Paces-Wiles and the general services department provided information regarding the Durham Bulls’ cultural events, revenue and overall contributions to the community, statistics which Leonardo Williams reiterated in arguing that the Durham Bulls were, indeed, worth the monetary investment.

Williams pointed to the Bulls’ direct economic impact on the city, which included generating $48.5 million in revenue last year. In addition, the Bulls’ presence in Durham directly supported 23,130 jobs and indirectly supported over 25,00 jobs last year, according to the report from the general services department.

Williams and Mayor Pro-Tempore Mark-Anthony Middleton lamented that there was debate about whether to pay the money.

“This is a real city, and we got to put our big pants on,” Williams said at the council meeting. “Which means we need to have assets to welcome people to the city to spend so we can generate the revenue to address the social issues that we have.”

Mayor Elaine O’Neal echoed Williams’ statements, pointing to the Durham Bulls’ history in her life, and the life of Durham.

The Durham Bulls moved from Durham Athletic Park to the team’s current downtown home, Durham Bulls Athletic Park, in 1995. 

Durham Bulls Athletic Park hosted 70 home games in 2021 and dozens of other events, including the city’s Fourth of July celebration. 

Williams and O’Neal also mentioned the fame generated by the film “Bull Durham.” The Durham Bulls are at the center of the 1988 movie, which was filmed at Durham Athletic Park. 

Elaine O’Neal’s family home is just three blocks down from Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and she recalled her father’s pride when “Bull Durham” was released.

“For my father’s 103rd birthday, he wanted to go to a Durham Bulls game, and we have a photo of him and the Bulls mascot up in our home,” O’Neal said. “The Durham Bulls…will never ever go away, if you have been a part of this community for as long as I have.”

Despite the lively conversation, the motion to fund the ballpark renovations passed unanimously.

Opening Day for the 2022 season is set for April 12, when the Bulls will face the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.

Above: Photo of Durham Bulls Athletic Park by Henry Haggart — The 9th Street Journal

As Durham buildings fall to the wrecking ball, a Facebook community gathers to watch, vent and question

​​Addy Cozart’s first post to “The Teardowns of Durham” Facebook group features a series of emojis: angry, sad, crying. 

“My block @ Hillsborough and Rutherford has been sold,” the Feb. 21 post says. “Final day to move out March 4th. The buyers are developers. I’m assuming more apartments will go up.…” 

The comments came rolling in, mostly sympathetic, some angry and indignant.

Cozart’s is just one of the emotional posts that litter the walls of The Teardowns of Durham, an open Facebook group that focuses on pictures and information relevant to Durham’s changing housing landscape.

This is a place of solidarity: with over 3,500 members and counting, the group includes posts about hundreds of buildings that have been torn down, housing justice activism and new, expensive housing in the area. Though the active member count is much smaller, the Facebook group is a public page for a reason: it’s a place for free information. And with about 50 posts per month in the group, and many more comments on each, there’s much to be informed about.

The Teardowns of Durham is partly just what it sounds like — a Facebook group about buildings that have been or are being torn down. But it has also become a forum where locals discuss how Durham is changing and shifting, where new developments are coming and which buildings they once recognized are coming down. 

The active discussion reflects Durham’s housing crisis: in the first three months of 2021, about 2,400 homes were sold in Raleigh and Durham. Of those, more than half were bought either by people from out of state or companies, according to a report from the Triangle Business Journal. According to WRAL, 20% of homes in Durham have been purchased by investors in the fourth quarter of 2021, up from 11% in second quarter 2020. 

Durham housing prices and property taxes also have increased, making it harder for newcomers to buy and for residents to stay. Meanwhile, though Durham has made efforts to create rent relief programs, the demand for housing remains high, and housing stocks are low.

The Facebook group began as a way to exchange information among a small group of Durham friends and colleagues. It has now ballooned to include thousands of members, from Duke students to Durhamites who have been here since childhood. 

There’s a catharsis that runs through each post about a demolished Durham building — a need to tell someone about the frustration at losing a property. A recent post by David Becker is typical of many.

“Big beautiful place on the corner of Gregson and Club was there yesterday when I drove by. This morning….gone,” Becker writes. Much of the frustration aired on the Facebook group reflects worries about losing Durham’s personality, including historic buildings that are dispersed throughout the city. Durham has 15 historic neighborhoods that are listed as National Register Historic Districts. In addition to the Facebook group, other activists and preservationist groups include Open Durham, Historic Preservation Society of Durham and Preservation Durham.

Frequent poster Chris Jay notes that a homeowner refurbished an old home to make it an “weekend getaway” out in Narrowsburg, New York.

“Imagine if all the old homes in Durham that are getting torn down were revitalized and brought back to life to their original classic design, including decor,” Jay says. “That’s what this woman did!”

Another commentator echoes Jay’s sentiment.

“I’m sad we are losing so much of Durham’s history,” the post says. “When someone’s lived here all their life, the changes seem so overwhelming… not always a good thing.”

Some posters on the Facebook group push back, arguing that romanticizing old houses will not make Durham more affordable, and will not stop gentrification.

The posts that consistently get substantial interactions, though? Questions. Many users in the Facebook group wonder what is happening to Durham’s warehouse district, around the corner from Fullsteam Brewery and The Accordion, where commercial buildings are being torn down on Geer Street. Another poster supplies a partial answer, responding that a Washington D.C. developer plans to create two large apartment complexes called GeerHouse.

One user laments the teardown of one home replaced by four modern tiny homes on Pritchard Place, near North Carolina Central University. Another user shares a tip: she heard that a century-old Pentecostal church in West Durham is being sold. Responses flood in. The overtone of the conversation: will the church be torn down? 

Concerned Durhamites started the Teardowns of Durham Facebook group in May 2019, when the pace of construction and demolition around Durham was ramping up in neighborhoods including Trinity Park, Braggtown, Watts-Hillandale, Campus Hills and more. 

In part, the group fills an information gap. Local journalism has been declining in most places in the country, including in Durham, and there are fewer local news sources to keep Durhamites informed about their changing city.  

That is a major reason why Ellen Dagenhart, who previously served as president of the Historic Preservation Society of Durham, joined the Facebook group in September 2019.

“The few remaining reporters just can’t be at every meeting where so much of the sausage is brought up and made,” she said. “There’s an awful lot of mischief happening that is under the radar now. Teardowns is filling a void, a need, for a place where people can share, learn, question, vent.”

Bonita Green was born and raised in Durham. She left Durham for South Florida in 1999, and when she returned in 2012

, she didn’t recognize the city she loved.  Now, she lives in the Merrick-Moore Community and works with the Merrick-Moore Community Development Organization. Fed up with the rapid development, she has used the Teardowns group to air her frustrations, she said in a recent interview.

“I saw all the development in my community and the acres of land that the city bought on the West side of Durham. So I had a fear of being washed out. I was fighting to protect the legacy of this community,” Green said.

For people like Green, the Facebook group has become more than a place to simply share news and vent. It has also become a site of political organization and mobilization. There are almost as many petitions in the group as pictures of bulldozed buildings.  

Urban planner and Durham resident Nate Baker said the petitions and political activism of the group tell a greater story: they reflect many Durhamites’ desire for control over the housing situation in their city. He believes Durham residents are not necessarily resistant to change, as long as they are included in the process.

“I think people have anxiety about the world changing around them and not really having much of a say in the matter,” Baker said. “There hasn’t been robust community engagement and planning processes to alleviate some people’s concerns over teardowns.”

He says the city could make changes, like building more affordable housing complexes, that would make Durham’s residents feel more empowered.

Dagenhart, the member who joined the Facebook group in 2019, said the Facebook group is also a place where residents can talk about their aspirations for what Durham could be. She recalled the joyous ceremony that took place in 2011, when ​​more than 2,000 citizens took vows to “Marry Durham,” promising to protect the city and its reputation and to honor its diversity.

“I think Durham is in need of some marriage counseling,” Dagenhart said.

Above: The South Bank building downtown is among many Durham buildings undergoing demolition to make way for new construction. Photo by Milena Ozernova — The 9th Street Journal

City Council hears mixed views on ShotSpotter gunfire detection system

More than 1,900 shooting incidents have taken place in Durham since the start of 2020.

They’ve left more than 650 wounded and nearly 90 dead.

“Folks are asking for help,” said council member Leonardo Williams at last week’s Durham City Council meeting. “They’re saying, ‘Just do something more, please.’”

That “something more” may be ShotSpotter, a controversial gunfire detection system that the council blocked in June 2019 and September 2020. Now, the council is one step closer to setting aside $197,500 for a year-long pilot of ShotSpotter.

A majority of the council voted last month to move forward with a budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year that would include money for ShotSpotter. The council must vote on the budget before June 30, but during public comment at a council meeting last week, several Durhamites showed up — either in person or via Zoom — to oppose funding for the technology.

ShotSpotter uses microphones placed around a city. When the microphones sense gunfire,  police are notified and dispatched. By improving police response times and sending officers to scenes that might otherwise go unreported, ShotSpotter could save lives, proponents say.

Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton, arguably the council’s most ardent supporter of ShotSpotter, said that last year in Wilmington, two police officers received awards for saving lives after responding to ShotSpotter alerts. (Only one incident involved gunfire; in the other, someone had sustained injuries breaking a window.)

“This is about when someone needs help,” Middleton said. If someone is hurt, even “in the middle of the night, someone will come and see about you.”

But does ShotSpotter work? The MacArthur Justice Center found that in Chicago, 88.7% of ShotSpotter alerts were “dead ends” — incidents in which no gun was actually involved.

“What ShotSpotter is effective at is manufacturing consent for increased policing,” council member Jillian Johnson said in an interview. “It increases the number of times that police are called.”

Naana Ewool, who is involved with Durham Beyond Policing, a coalition that advocates for “community-led safety and wellness,” says most cities place microphones only in small areas…or in certain neighborhoods. “And those neighborhoods are often the ones that are majority Black and brown, with a higher number of folks being criminalized.”

“Police who arrive on the scene often escalate situations and introduce violence, so folks are more likely to get injured or killed,” Ewool said. “There’s public health research that shows that regardless of the type of interaction, the more interaction folks have with police, the worse their health outcomes are.”

Danette Wilkins, a health professional and resident of Durham’s Cleveland-Holloway community who works for Johns Hopkins University, implored the council to reject ShotSpotter. She cited a report by the City of Chicago that says  “the very presence of this technology is changing the way Chicago Police Department members interact with members of Chicago’s communities.”

Opponents think the $197,500 would be better spent elsewhere.

In general, “we need gun control, we need housing guarantees, we need a living wage,” Johnson said. “That’s how you end gun violence.”

Johnson said the city can “invest as much as we can into prevention and intervention techniques,” like the violence intervention program Bull City United and the We Are The Ones Fund.

Middleton says these reforms and ShotSpotter are not mutually exclusive: “I think the people reject the zero-sum game. It’s not either/or.”

He resisted comparisons to Chicago and Charlotte, which canceled its contract with ShotSpotter in 2016. “I have to govern based on data from Durham,” he said. “But we don’t have that, and so I really want this to be a pilot in the truest sense.”

In an interview, Ralph A. Clark, president and CEO of ShotSpotter, said the technology bridges “a fairly significant public safety gap.” He pointed out that “80 to 90 percent of gun fired events go unreported. So that means guns are fired, there’s no call to 911, which means there is no police response.”

In Oakland, California, Clark said, ShotSpotter technology has saved more than 100 gunshot wound victims. The company also says its sensors detection rate is 97%.

Clark added: “It’s very confusing to me to see people have a negative reaction to the idea that police are able to respond to incidents of gunfire.”

Williams agreed. “Give us a chance to try this,” he said. “If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, we’re going to try something else.”

Council member Javiera Caballero, who would prefer that the city fund other violence-reduction efforts, says officials will have six months to collect the data about the gunfire detection technology. After that, the city has to pay for ShotSpotter.

She doesn’t think Durhamites have had enough of a chance to hear about the technology, but she expects it to be funded when the council votes on the budget.

Opponents want the city to keep searching for solutions.

“Communities are dealing with so much grief and so much fear because of gun violence,” Ewool said.  “Just offering them something—anything—isn’t fair. People deserve things that are going to provide real solutions and real healing.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming home: A network of Durham organizations supports people returning from prison

Omar Guess was dropped off by his parole officer in front of the homeless shelter on a Friday afternoon. After four years in prison, Guess was finally a free man. 

On the car ride back from prison, the officer looked at him through the rearview mirror and asked him what his plans were.

“I’m gonna get my life together,” said Guess, 48 at the time. 

“If I had a dime for every person that done told me that,” replied the officer, as Guess recalls. 

But Guess’ determination was sincere. He had gone back to prison before, but he had spent the past four years preparing for this moment. 

“I made up in my mind that I was going to do the right thing,” Guess said. “I was going to stay close with the right people.”

From prison, he wrote letters to reentry programs across the state and got connected to the Criminal Justice Resource Center in Durham. The county-funded program supports residents in the community who have had contact with the local criminal justice system.

For Guess, it was going to be his lifeline. But first, he needed to make it to Monday. 

Guess, who was four years sober, survived the long and difficult weekend at a shelter where other residents were using drugs. First thing on Monday morning, he walked to the resource center and demanded help. “I cannot stay in there,” he said. “I’m not giving myself a chance.” 

That afternoon he was moved into a transitional house.

Guess’ first four days of freedom highlight a few of the many challenges people released from incarceration face. In addition to finding a job and housing (both hard to obtain with a criminal record), oftentimes people coming home are treating substance abuse disorders and undiagnosed mental health issues. They also often lack healthy support systems. But in Durham, a growing network of community organizations — the Durham Local Reentry Council, Welcome Home, Jubilee Home and The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham — are all trying to address the struggles of reentry and give people a second chance. 

“We create these insanely high barriers for reentry. And then we’re surprised when people fail,” said Drew Doll, reentry coordinator at the Religious Coalition. 

In Durham, approximately 700 people return home from incarceration every year. Statewide, around 38% of those who are incarcerated are reincarcerated within two years.“The fascinating thing to me is not that half of the people are rearrested in three years but that the others aren’t,” Doll said.

“It is tougher out here coming home than it is in there,” Guess said.

The First 48 Hours

The challenges begin the moment you step foot outside the prison. With $45 in your pocket, you have 48 hours to meet with your parole officer. With no ID, no phone and maybe no place to stay, you have to figure out where your officer works and find transportation. 

At that first meeting, your parole officer will hopefully provide you with information about Durham’s numerous reentry support programs. Congrats, you have made it through the first 48 hours. 

The Durham Local Reentry Council (LRC) at the Criminal Justice Resource Center is typically the first point of contact. Grant-funded, the council works as a networker, providing assistance and connecting people to support services and employment opportunities. 

The reentry council is most effective when it can contact inmates before they leave prison. Prior to the pandemic, it received a list of names from the N.C. Department of Public Safety detailing who was about to be released. The council would write letters, assess what services inmates needed in advance and build relationships before the tough challenges began. During the pandemic, those lists stopped coming, making it harder for reentry organizations to do their job. 

After incarceration, the most immediate need is housing. About 50% of people leaving prison have no home to return to and request housing. The reentry council can pay for 60 days at transitional houses across the community, giving them a chance to get back on their feet. 

“It’s hard to ask an individual to go look for work when he doesn’t know where he is going to sleep,” said Demetrius Lynn, who runs the Durham reentry council.

Once settled, clients work with the council to devise plans that fit their needs. The council connects them with mental health services, substance disorder treatment, job training and other reentry support programs. 

Need work boots? The council can help buy them. Need forklift training? It can pay for a class at Durham Tech. Need healthcare? The council will get you connected. 

Because of the CJRC and the reentry council, Durham has some of the best reentry support in the state, said Doll. According to Lynn, out of 140 intakes in the county in 2021, only two have returned to prison. 

Lynn was formerly incarcerated himself. When he was released, his college degree was useless because no one would give him a job. Years later, Lynn gets frustrated because, at age 48, he is still talking about mistakes he made at 24 years old. “We have to stop looking at the charge and look at the individual,” Lynn said.

For many of his clients, the social isolation that often follows release can be debilitating. One client, who had just served 32 years, said to Lynn, “‘Man, I just rather go back to prison…everybody looks at me like I’m an alien. Nobody understands.’” 

Lynn’s solution is to build a network of people who you don’t want to let down. “If you are standing behind me, and if I fall, you are probably gonna catch me? Then I’m not as hesitant about falling,” Lynn said.

A Cruel Bureaucratic Cycle

Welcome Home is a city-run program that offers immediate support after release. They provide a box containing some perishable food, toiletries and a cell phone paid for six months. But according to program creator Chuck Manning, the most valuable service they provide is 30 hours of “peer support.” 

Peer support is a form of counseling that centers around lived experience. To be trained as a peer support specialist, you must have had contact with the criminal justice system yourself.

In reentry, it is important to talk with people who know what incarceration feels like, explains Manning, a peer support specialist himself. “You have individuals who can identify with not only the emotional but the mental strain of being away from your family and your loved ones and re-acclimating yourself back into society,” said Manning.

Manning was in and out of the justice system from age 11 to 34. In total, he lived seven years of his life behind bars.

After spending 14 months in jail only for his charges to be dismissed, he swore he would never go back. When he was released in 2015, no one would hire him. To make money, he started his own catering company and worked as an anti-violence activist with Bull City United, a violence interruption program that works to stop shootings in Durham. Four years ago, the City of Durham’s Innovation Team hired him to work on reentry in Durham and he started the Welcome Home program. 

For Welcome Home, he manages a caseload of 15-20 people for whom he provides peer support. In addition to running the program, he heads his own nonprofit, Locked up to Living Life,  which focuses on reentry, violence interruption and outreach. If that weren’t enough, Manning is currently in the process of contacting every program manager at the 57 prisons across North Carolina to tell them about Welcome Home.

For people involved in the program, the recidivism rate drops to 13%, says Manning. 

In the first few weeks home, peer support specialists are key to navigating the numerous logistical issues people face after release. 

The first is documentation. To get a job, you need a state-issued ID and social security card. To get an ID, you need a social security card. To get a social security card, you need a birth certificate. And to get a birth certificate, you generally need a state-issued ID. 

Manning is currently working with a 19-year-old who has been incarcerated since he was ten years old who has never had any form of ID. “We don’t even know where to start with him. Which one do you get first?” Manning said. 

It is a cruel bureaucratic cycle, and even with help, it can take weeks to get all the papers together. Which means four to six weeks before it is even possible for someone to find employment. 

For at least 9 months, you still owe $40 a month to your parole officer, or you risk being in violation of your parole. 

“The day you come out again, nobody tells you this, but you’ve moved from no one expect[ing] you to make decisions, to where everybody expects you to make decisions,” Doll said. “They just expect you to understand that it is now your responsibility to take care of all this stuff.”

Manning wishes that the state, which has all the information, would help inmates gather all this documentation prior to release. “You know, it’s kind of odd that you wouldn’t want to place someone back into society with the best chance of success,” Manning said.

This is Home

Jubilee Home, on the corner of  E. Umstead and Dawkins streets, looks innocuous from the outside. Inside, its bright green doors, creaky wooden floors and pinball machine in the living room make it feel warm and homey. The nonprofit provides supportive housing for residents who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. The home, which started in January of 2020, grew out of the vision of its founder David Crispell. 

As a Duke Divinity student, Crispell worked as a chapel intern in a youth facility. In his final weeks, two teenagers he had grown particularly close with were facing release. One attempted suicide and the other assaulted an officer in order to remain incarcerated, Crispell said. 

He was initially angry and frustrated with them. 

“Now I recognize that they both looked at the two paths ahead of them. One that’s going home, and one that’s staying incarcerated.” 

The two teenage boys were already high-ranking gang officials. That suggests they were likely made to be drug mules from a young age, explained Crispell.

“They recognized that going home was either a path to death or more incarceration. And they chose the easier, or safer path.” 

After finishing school, Crispell dreamed of creating a community that those two young men could have joined. Jubilee Home’s initial mission was to serve men ages 17 to 24,  but as soon as the pandemic began, the program removed its age restriction and started taking people in. 

Jubilee Home has six beds and 24-hour peer support on staff. Three out of five people working on the team are peer support specialists and have dealt with incarceration or substance abuse themselves.

Jubilee Home has a lower barrier to entry than other transitional housing. The program does not have a zero-tolerance use policy for drugs and it accepts people with mental health diagnoses. If Lynn at the LRC thinks someone would be a good fit, he will call Crispell. About once a month, the home has an empty bed available. Most people stay three to four months, but people can stay up to a year. 

“We try to make people feel like this is home,” said David Logan, who lives in the house as a 24-hour peer support specialist. “You try to help people learn how to live a normal life.”

Radical Forgiveness

Reentry isn’t just about getting a license, a job and a place to live. It is about rebuilding community. That is what the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham is working towards through its reentry faith teams. 

Faith teams consist of three to five volunteers from a congregation and a person going through the reentry process. Distinct from many other services, the goal of these groups is not to fix a problem. 

The goal is to simply “be with.” 

Faith teams gather every other week to eat food, play board games, cook meals and spend time together.

“We’re not trying to fix anybody,” Doll said. “We’re not intentionally trying to change anybody. We’re not trying to do anything other than develop really, really tight friendships. When you’re building friendships, you’re building a network of support.” 

At the heart of this work is the value of radical forgiveness. “Infinite belonging says no one is disposable…And boundless compassion says no one has sinned so greatly they are outside the grace of God,” Doll said. 

In 2009, after being released from incarceration, Doll was supported by a faith team himself. After a year, he stayed on as a volunteer. He now manages all 22 faith teams across Durham and Orange counties. 

The impact goes beyond those who are reentering. Jim Petrea, who leads the faith team at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church, started this work because he wanted to get uncomfortable. At first, making friends with a stranger was a challenge, but now “I don’t have a better friend in the world,” Petrea said. 

I told you so

Omar Guess has been out of prison for four years now. He is currently working for the county as a supervisor for the Department of Solid Waste. In February, he began taking classes to get his HVAC certification. 

Guess knows the importance of maintaining structure. With the help of his faith team, he recently moved into the apartment above a church. He is eight years clean. 

He knows his challenges are not all behind him. 

“Everybody is not going to welcome you in with open arms because you are a convicted felon,” Guess said. “You know, that’s a big F on your report card.” 

But he tells people his story because he hopes to inspire others in the same position. “I’m a walking testimony,” he said. 

He occasionally runs into his old parole officer at his job, who tells him how proud he is of Guess. 

And Guess gets to say, “I told you so.” 

Above: Drew Doll is reentry coordinator for the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. Photo by Josie Vonk — The 9th Street Journal 

The piedmont’s first conservation cemetery is rethinking burial

Maybe you’re an avid environmentalist with an eye to the conservation of native habitats. 

Maybe you’re chemical conscious and can’t imagine contributing to the 827,060 gallons of carcinogenic fluids buried in the ground each year.

Maybe you want your children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy your final resting place as more than a cemetery — as a place for recreation, refuge in, and reverence for nature.  

Whatever the reason, you’ve decided you’re interested in conservation burial. You’re in luck: Heidi Hannapel and Jeff Masten are bringing the nation’s thirteenth conservation cemetery right here to the Piedmont. It’s called Bluestem.

Bluestem practices green burial — which Heidi says is “just a new name for how we used to bury long ago, how many cultures still bury, where there’s no embalming, no vaults, and biodegradable materials instead of metal caskets and steel.”

Current burial norms took shape during the Civil War, when wishes for the bodies of deceased soldiers to be returned home in preserved condition led to the development of embalming technology. But because only licensed embalmers could offer this service, families who wanted embalming could no longer bury their own: they needed the help of morticians and funeral homes. The decades progressed, and families increasingly laid their loved ones to rest in steel caskets and concrete vaults beneath monoculture lawns kept green with pesticides.

The status quo — of clearcutting and manicuring the land, making space to barricade our dead selves from the earth — has reigned for seven score and seventeen years (or so). Now folks like you are searching for something new.

To reach Bluestem, you navigate roads that weave and wind through rolling hills and quaint farmhouses until you arrive at Hurdle Mills Road, where Bluestem sprawls across 87 acres of Cedar Grove in Orange County. 

You bounce along the dirt road and roll to a stop in what Heidi calls the “anteroom” of the cemetery. It’s the first of Bluestem’s “outdoor rooms.”You’re greeted by Heidi, who wears her hair cropped and a stud in her nose, and Jeff, who sports a red cap embroidered with the Bluestem logo. Both have kind eyes etched by years of laughter.

Together, you stroll towards the cozy cabin that serves as Bluestem’s office. The cabin is a ripe 140 years old, and Bluestem’s choice not to renovate or expand it is a conscious one, Heidi says. “We’re trying to promote that idea that nature is enough, so we don’t need to bring a lot of human impact to develop.”

Bluestem took twelve years of dreaming, five years of building. Now they’ve found land and are set to open this June. 

Bluestem is a conservation project at heart, so choosing its home was something Heidi and Jeff did with “great intention and respect.”

“Restoring these agricultural fields back to grassland is a key attribute of our project,” Jeff  explains. Monoculture, the cultivation of one crop in a certain area, is efficient for food production but can lead to damaged soil and loss of biodiversity over time. With the help of volunteers, the project will work to heal the land by planting grasses native to the Piedmont region — including Bluestem grass, for which the nonprofit is named.

“The grassland habitat will be a huge refuge for pollinators, for diversity of wildlife,” Jeff says. “There are migratory birds that fly through, looking for seed sources along the way. Bluestem will provide that.”

The grasses’ root systems will sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide and reach some five feet into the ground. “So the grass actually serves as a large carbon sink,” Jeff says.

“This is part of our ethos of thinking globally, acting locally. We’re not moving a world needle on climate change. But maybe we’re getting people to be more cognizant of how we’re impacting the world.”

You want a tour of the property, so you follow Jeff and Heidi out of the cabin and through the “anteroom” to the barn. It’s as old as the cabin and equally picturesque. Delightfully anachronistic. The barn serves as the Information Center, as well as a place people can gather with their loved ones or host their faith communities during the burial process.

“It’s an invitation to any faith communities to come and hold services,” says Heidi. “But also, for people who don’t have a particular faith, this can be a reverential space to come into nature and have your own spiritual experience. To feel one with nature.”

Heidi and Jeff lead you on the pedestrian trail, where you trod on damp amber oak leaves and occasionally brush against a spindly branch. The trail system spans four miles, looping around a glassy silver pond and unfurling into distant woods. But now you’ve reached the middle of a clearing. 

You stop, throw your head back, and look up. 

Green leaves dotting slender branches swirl and play in endless fractals across deep blue sky. It’s almost like stained glass. Like you’re in a cathedral. 

You see what Heidi was talking about: this really does feel like an outdoor room.

And something else, too. Since you left the barn, you’ve traveled about 70 feet downhill. The hill shields you from the last vestiges of sound from the road. All you can hear is birdsong and quiet.

“This land sang to us,” says Heidi.

Beyond the pond is a sweeping field, where the horizon reveals itself. “It’s like the big sky of the West,” says Jeff.

“When you come out here, you can let go of all the city life that you carry,” Heidi says. “You arrive here, and the sky opening up… it’s a release.”

“This place will be able to carry the souls of the people who will be buried here. And we think of that as an incredibly healing opportunity.”

You emerge from the forest and amble down a dirt road. Then Heidi stops, sweeping an arm in the direction of the large field that fans out in front of you. “This is our big, wide-open field for grassland burial.”

At Bluestem, one can choose between grassland burial in the fields, and woodland burial amongst the trees. 

“We’re trying to limit those things that have a sizable environmental impact,” Jeff says. So for grassland burials, “we won’t be mowing pathways to each grave.”

These aren’t comfortable ideas for everyone. When trying to find a home for Bluestem, Jeff says many potential neighbors “shook their head or turned white or talked about zombies.” Others worry about whether animals will dig up graves. (“Our colleagues have not had a problem with that whatsoever,” Heidi says.) You can’t put up a bench, or that traditional veteran marker with the flag: headstones are welcome, but they’ll have to be flat to the ground. If you choose a woodland burial, a tree might fall on your spot and it might have to stay there. 

“It will challenge a lot of people,” Jeff acknowledges. “But our philosophy is that it’s less about the individual space, because the whole of Bluestem is the memorial to each individual here. You become integrated into it.”

Jeff explains that the grasses help to hold soil in place. “So when someone is buried, nothing is removed from the site. All of the soil that comes out will go back in the same hole, so it will be mounded. And over time, as decomposition occurs, it will subside and become flat again.”

A tangible reflection of incorporation into the earth.

You stroll on until you’ve passed the large field, and you stand, looking out at another field for grassland burial. It’s bordered by a distant forest, where woodland burials will take place. 

Before Bluestem, Heidi and Jeff led careers in conservation: Jeff worked as conservation director at Triangle Land Conservancy and Heidi as the Southeast program manager for Land Trust Alliance, and the two later joined forces to launch a local conservation consulting firm, Landmatters. Then Jeff met Billy Campbell, co-founder of the nation’s first modern conservation cemetery. Campbell spoke of cemeteries where each burial supports the conservation of the land.

“With conservation burial, you’re not burying your wealth,” Heidi says. “Instead, it’s going into preserving a living, healing space.” (And the pricetag doesn’t hurt: what you’d pay to be buried at Bluestem — sans embalming, fancy caskets, and vaults — is about half the cost of traditional burial.)

Campbell inspired them, but starting their own cemetery still felt out of reach. In 2006, Jeff says conservation burial still seemed “a little bit ahead of its time for the Triangle.”

Then in 2015, Heidi’s mother was diagnosed with a glioblastoma. She didn’t have long. Heidi dropped everything to take care of her.

Shortly after, Jeff’s father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and he became the caregiver for his father.

“After we helped our parents to their end, we realized that the way our parents chose to be for their final disposition… it wasn’t what we wanted,” Heidi says.

Jeff agrees. “We thought, there’s another way for us to think about this.”

Heading back, you ascend what you now realize is a slight hill. Heidi and Jeff point out additional fields that will someday be used for burial. Until then, they’ll be filled with wildflowers.

Choosing a conservation burial means participating in the ecosystem financially, in body, and in spirit. Heidi and Jeff have already spotted 32 species of birds on the property. It’s a peaceful thought, to think of yourself as contributing to this community of grasses and wildflowers and birds. 

Heidi and Jeff say Bluestem will serve as a living memorial to the souls that dwell there. 

“It’s something that’s not just after the fact,” Jeff says. “It’s not a feeling of, ‘Oh, I’m choosing a place where my remains will be.’ It’s choosing a place that I want to be when I’m alive. And for my family, when they come to visit after I die.”

Heidi agrees. “We don’t have to be terrified of death. We can make space for the fact that we’re all impermanent. And so, when that time comes, why not become part of this gorgeous place?”

You like the sound of that.

 

Bluestem is not currently selling burial plots, but volunteer opportunities and group tours are underway. 

Above: Heidi Hannapel and Jeff Masten, creators of Bluestem Conservation Cemetery. Photos by Milena Ozernova — The 9th Street Journal 

Oysters, aguachile and resilience at the newly reopened Saint James

The table settings at Saint James Seafood are the first sign it’s a special place: a blue striped cloth napkin and a paper menu with cheeky illustrations – a claw nabbing a cherry from a cocktail glass, a fish with sexy lady legs, and a shark tanning on a beach inside a bottle. 

The Main Street restaurant promises “quality seafood” and “reasonably good times” and says that it’s been open “off and on since 2017.”

Less than two years after Saint James first opened, a deadly gas explosion in April 2019 forced the restaurant to close. The building was condemned and Matt Kelly, the chef and owner, didn’t know when his business could reopen. “I was stressing out about it. The debt was piling up. It was awful,” he said. “Also, like, I’m a chef. I’m pretty risk averse … but I was committed on reopening for some reason. And we did it.”

Saint James resumed operations in January 2020 only to shut down 39 days later because of the pandemic. For a brief stint in 2020, the restaurant launched a takeout joint called Jimmy’s Dockside. It reopened on Feb. 2, 2022.

Kelly said that Saint James was able to stay in business because of the federal Paycheck Protection Program grants distributed during the pandemic. 

“We, of course, want to have high-end service and high-end cuisine, and we aspire to greatness,” said John Quintal, Saint James’s general manager. “But at the end of the day, we have been closed twice due to things beyond our control and all you can really do is laugh.”

Kelly draws inspiration from classic coastal dishes. The menu features Calabash-style fried seafood, raw oysters and Juan’s aguachile. Kelly is also one of the owners of Durham restaurants Vin Rouge, Mothers & Sons and Mateo.

“When I open a restaurant, it’s a way to explore a culture,” Kelly said.

Kelly, 46, started as a dishwasher. He remembers buying $80 cookbooks, hungry to learn how to cook. Since then, he’s fallen in love with different food cultures and become one of the most prominent restaurateurs in Durham. 

Recently, Kelly has been working the raw bar at Saint James, named after the patron saint of shellfish and the hospital founded by Kelly’s family. Most dinner guests don’t suspect the owner is the bearded guy wearing overalls and shucking oysters. 

For Kelly, oysters are special because they demand simplicity. “Oysters are full of umami, good flavor, salt. They don’t need anything,” Kelly said. His menu allows less flashy ingredients to stand out, too – like the fries. Kelly starts with Idaho russet potatoes, which are then brined in vinegar, fried, and tossed with old bay seasoning.

Before Kelly bought the place, it was a seafood restaurant called Fishmonger’s for 34 years. He had been wanting to open a seafood restaurant – as is evidenced by his prolific personal collection of oyster plates, which now adorn the wall behind the hostess stand.

The place is warm but eclectic. He left the original black-and-white tile flooring from the site’s former life as a car dealership. The bluefin swordfish hanging above the main dining room, however, is a more recent addition, as are the glass buoy lighting fixtures, portholes and bright yellow bar stools that allude to a fisherman’s slicker. In the second-floor dining room (a.k.a the Captain’s Quarters) is a mural of a giant octopus crushing a ship. 

Quintal said Kelly is “definitely an artist.” “This is his vision – the food, the building, the design, the art. He’s just got a keen eye.”

Above: Customers return to the reopened Saint James, where chef Matt Kelly works the oyster bar. Photos by Julianna Rennie and Milena Ozernova – The 9th Street Journal 

Reflections podcast: Compassion in courthouse reporting

In December, we published Milla Surjadi’s elegant essay about how she is learning to do her reporting with both rigor and humanity. She has now followed that up with equally compelling insights in the third episode of our Reflections podcast, in which she expounds on the theme of her essay. Milla’s work is the latest in our Reflections series, occasional pieces that feature 9th Street Journal reporters writing and talking about lessons they’ve learned – about themselves and about journalism.

Grace Abels and Lilly Clark wrote the first two pieces, and you can listen to all three students discuss their insights on our Reflections podcast, available on Spotify and Apple. Reflections is funded by a generous grant from The Purpose Project.

Above: Photo of Milla Surjadi by Winnie Lu

A Durham Moment: “We just roll on. That’s how it works.”

Story by Nicole Kagan, photos by Kulsoom Rizavi 

Major the Bull, a 10-foot, 2,500-pound, bronze statue who watches over downtown Durham from his brick pedestal, is a symbol of strength, power and pride. And, on Fat Tuesday, he dons a bright pink tulle tutu around his waist. 

Hanging around Major’s neck is a yellow, green and purple sign made out of duct tape. “Happy Mardi Gras,” it reads. He stands frozen, waiting for the celebration to begin. 

The sound is faint at first, but when the parade of krewes rounds the corner onto the plaza at 6 p.m., a symphony of trumpets, drums, tubas and trombones bursts through the air.

People flood into the square, turning it into a dancing sea of colors and sparkles.

An older gentleman frolics around in a pink leotard, tutu, tights and bright red lipstick, his shoulder-length gray hair gelled back behind his ears. Little kids run past him weighed down by dozens of beaded necklaces, sequined headbands and feather boas. At sudden intervals, the kids break out in cartwheels. 

Some people have made their own outfits for the celebration. One woman is completely hidden under a crow costume on which she glued hundreds of black feathers. Another is barely visible behind a multicolored, papier-mache dragon head. 

Others join the festivities in street clothes, beaming when fellow decked-out participants offer up handfuls of beaded necklaces. 

At the center of the crowd are the Bulltown Strutters, who have run the event for over a decade. They lead the now-packed plaza in glorious renditions of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Second Line.” 

Kelley Grogan, a member of the krewe, marches around in a green wig carrying a sign that says “strut with us.” Her husband bangs on the drums a few feet away. Grogan’s never been to New Orleans, and this is her first Durham Mardi Gras, but she’s quite sure it won’t be her last.

“The camaraderie is amazing,” she shouts over the trumpets. “Everyone is just letting loose.”

In front of her, adults and children alike skip and hop around in circles, stomping on the bricks while they pump signs in the air. 

One little boy with reflective sunglasses climbs up onto a stool and, gripping his silver harmonica with both hands, plays a unique version of what might be “Piano Man” before star-jumping back to the ground. 

Other krewes include the Tic Tac Teauxs, the Krewe of Mischief and the Society of the Sacred Bull. 

The last, a krewe of neighborhood kids from Trinity Park, shows up with a float made of painted wood and cardboard. It’s dripping in beaded necklaces, stocked with half a dozen King Cakes and has been signed by all of the krewe’s members for the last seven years. Its wear is starting to show.

“We’re probably gonna lose a wheel tonight,” says Walt Barron, one of the krewe’s adult leaders. “But we just roll on. That’s how it works.”

After a half hour of dancing, singing and twirling about in the plaza, the Bulltown Strutters decide it’s time to begin the procession down to the Blue Note Grill, where the celebration will continue into the night.

The music stops momentarily while the musicians gather their instruments and props and prepare to leave. Then after just a few seconds, a man in a chicken suit, carrying a massive tuba, shouts “NEXT SONG!” and the Strutters oblige, starting up again with “When the Saints” as they make their way down Foster Street. 

Above: Scenes from Mardi Gras, Bull City-style. Photos by Kulsoom Rizavi – 9th Street Journal