Durham high schoolers might gain a precious extra hour of sleep this year, but it’s come at a cost to hundreds of younger students.
This month, the Durham Public Schools Board of Education approved a new districtwide bell schedule for the 2022-23 school year. It standardizes start times in a three-tier system; elementary schools will now begin at 7:45 a.m., middle schools at 8:30 a.m. and high schools at 9:15 a.m..
Though older students stand to benefit most from this change, it’s had unintended consequences. With elementary schools ending at 2:15 p.m.— early for many working families— more than 700 students have been left without reliable after-school childcare.
The board first began researching later start times for adolescents in 2015, said school board member Natalie Beyer. The scientific evidence is robust; both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Pediatrics Association have found that, due to biological changes that occur during puberty, teenagers perform best when school starts at 8:30 or later. Districts across the country have also begun making the switch. For instance, in 2019, California became the first state to legislate later start times.
“We had high schools and middle schools starting as early as 7:25 in Durham and knew that that wasn’t really in keeping with adolescent sleep,” said Beyer, whose three children attended DPS schools.
According to the July 14 release, the new schedule will also increase the efficiency of bus routes.
However, it has created an overflowing demand for childcare. The new schedule has worsened a critical staffing shortage that first arose during the pandemic. With 42 staff vacancies for after-school caregiver positions, DPS lacks the personnel to attend to nearly 900 currently enrolled students.
And that figure doesn’t even account for the 721 students on the waitlist. To accommodate them, the district must recruit an additional 55 employees.
Scott Capouch, a father of two, is one of many parents left in limbo by the schedule change. He fears that with start times before 8 a.m., his sons will get less sleep and have a poorer quality of education when they enter kindergarten and third grade at E.K. Powe Elementary School this fall.
“It just feels like a lot of these decisions aren’t made in the best interest of young children,” Capouch said. He and his wife, who both work full-time, had previously relied on E.K. Powe’s program for after-school childcare. This year, only one of their sons made it off the waitlist. “I just think that the most vulnerable portion of the school system is the one getting the short straw right now.”
So far, hiring efforts have largely focused on retirees and college students. But with wages at $16 an hour, the district hasn’t been successful, even with an added $2,000 bonus. At one of two July 25 town hall meetings, about two dozen parents gathered to discuss the employee shortage and brainstorm solutions. The sessions took place at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. that Monday.
That morning, parents and administrators broke into groups to exchange and share ideas. Participants suggested ramping up targeted advertisements, providing clear-cut pathways for career advancement within the school system and guaranteeing flexible employment hours.
Capouch, who attended the evening meeting, feels that the burden of filling staff vacancies shouldn’t fall on parents. “Shouldn’t you be the ones who know how to handle this?” he said the following day. “Why are you looking to us? I work as a home inspector— am I the one that should be trying to figure out how to recruit after-school care employees?”
Tracey Super-Edwards, director of community education for the school system, said after the meeting that increased childcare needs were “taken into consideration” when determining the new bell schedule. But until the district can hire the necessary staff, families on the waitlist can look to resources outside the school district, she said.
“On our website, we have a list of other providers in the community that families can reach out to, such as the Child Care Services Association,” she said. The association offers referrals to various programs in the area and also provides information about funding resources for families.
Super-Edwards also encouraged parents to spread the word about the open positions, calling them the district’s “biggest advocates” in staff recruitment. “We hear [the parents], we’re empathetic,” she said. “But we’re doing our best to try to find staff because we want them to be in our programs.”
District leadership will continue active recruitment efforts, drawing on suggestions from Monday’s meetings. Super-Edwards said DPS hopes to bolster its employee referral program (offering $200 to staff members who successfully recruit workers), facilitate connections with local universities and involve community partners such as the YMCA and Durham parks and recreation. The district may also increase the frequency of bonuses for after-school workers.
As the summer draws to a close, parents must race against the clock to find care for their little ones. High schoolers, on the other hand, will be able to hit snooze one last time before the first bell.
Above: A Durham elementary school readies for incoming students. Photo by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal
Taylor Seabrease was 15 the first time she watched the 1988 baseball film Bull Durham. That was back in 2009. Since then she has seen the cult classic at least 15 times.
“I like baseball, I like Kevin Costner and I just think that all the comedy and inside jokes in the movie are really, really great,” she said, eyes wide and a smile flashing.
Seabrease, who lives in Maryland, traveled from her home state with her boyfriend for last Friday’s annual Bull Durham Night, when the Durham Bulls honor her favorite movie.
She looked forward to “seeing the Shower Shoes take home a win.”
Each year, players, coaches and the manager wear a new jersey referencing a scene from the film. This year, they were the Durham Shower Shoes: in an early scene, veteran catcher Crash Davis (played by Costner) finds the shower shoes of pitcher Ebby Calvin ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh (played by Tim Robbins) covered in fungus.
“You’ll never make it to the Bigs [the Major Leagues] with fungus on your shower shoes,” Davis says.
Seabrease’s boyfriend wore a Shower Shoes cap he bought in the team’s retail store. The shower shoes scene is always fun to watch, Seabrease said. But her favorite scene? It’s when the team mudslides through a baseball diamond at night after drenching the field with sprinklers. It always makes her smile and laugh, especially on days when she needs a feel-good moment.
Bull Durham Night is typically held at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in early to mid-June, around the anniversary of the movie’s world premiere. But this year it was held Friday, July 22, as the “Shower Shoes” played the Norfolk Tides.
On social media, the Bulls became the Durham Shower Shoes. Ushers wore unique Shower Shoe-green polos. Fans scattered throughout the ballpark were clad in previous years’ Bull Durham Night merchandise and in Shower Shoes gear. Ahead of the game, the social media team tweeted a reference to Bull Durham character Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon), the team’s biggest fan and the focal point of a love triangle that involves Crash and Nuke.
“We believe in the church of baseball,” the tweet said, an homage to Savoy’s famous opening monologue.
The scene at the stadium traveled across the silver screen into real life.
Husband and wife Robert and Teresa Shell sat next to each other at the top right corner of the stadium, in front of the Bud Light bar. Robert, who appeared to be in his late fifties, wore a white, red and blue jersey with Davis’ name stitched on the back. Teresa, who looks to be about the same age, wore a matching LaLoosh one. Besides the one he wore, Robert owns nine other Bulls jerseys.
The two live in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., but are die-hard Bulls fans. Robert owns a collection of baseball movies, but his favorites are Major League (directed by David S. Ward), For the Love of the Game (directed by Sam Raimi) and, of course, Bull Durham (directed by Ron Shelton). Shelton, who this summer released The Church of Baseball—a book about the making of the film—was not in attendance Friday night.
Robert has seen Bull Durham more than 30 times, he said.
Since they moved to their town (45 minutes south of Durham) nine years ago, the couple has been to five Bull Durham Nights.
Beyond those events, they’ve had their fair share of Bull Durham moments. Once, after visiting a pickle festival in the Warehouse District, they walked outside and noticed they were next to the Durham Athletic Park outfield (the historic stadium where the team used to play, and where Bull Durham takes place). Robert got giddy and began taking pictures of the field. When he walked into the stadium, a groundskeeper stopped him.
“‘Oh, I’m sorry. I just figured out where I was. I had to take some pictures of it,’” Robert recalled. The groundskeeper nodded for him to go on inside. “Then I go, ‘Man, is this heaven?’ He goes, ‘Wrong Costner movie.’”
Inside the stadium, scores of people carried bags with green T-shirts and hats from the team store. Mascot Wool E. Bull made the rounds taking pictures with fans, some wearing “Lollygagger” T-shirts — another movie reference. Some recited their favorite lines from the film.
“‘It’s a very simple game. You throw the ball. You catch the ball. You hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains,’” said fan Steve Force as he waited in line to order food with his girlfriend and their friends. (He was quoting Nuke in the movie’s closing scene.)
Nearby, standing at an outdoor beer kiosk as Crash, Nuke and Annie mascots raced around the diamond, was Jeremy Trantham. He moved to Durham in 2010, when he was in his early twenties, and has been a Bulls fan ever since. He even used to attend the Bulls’ special game at Durham Athletic Park, played annually in honor of their old home. Since he moved to the city, he’s seen the team and town grow a lot.
“The old stadium has a very small intimate feel — kind of like the minor league baseball I grew up in my hometown,” said Trantham, who works in digital marketing. “I don’t think there’s an Annie Savoy in this stadium right now or [someone] that could access the players in the way that they did in the movie because it’s a different level of baseball.”
In 1995, the team moved from the old ballpark to its new stadium next to the American Tobacco campus.
Three years later, the team went from Single-A, one of Minor League Baseball’s lower levels, to Triple-A, the stage just below the majors. By the early 2000s, Durham had grown its reputation beyond being the hometown of the American Tobacco Company and Duke University, becoming a tech and innovation hot spot. Companies such as Bronto Software (now owned by Oracle Corporation) and Burt’s Bees opened headquarters on the American Tobacco Campus.
The rest of the city grew with it. Real estate developers built high rises and renovated old historic buildings downtown. Government projects revitalized dated neighborhoods with shopping and leisure districts.
All the while, the Durham Bulls’ brand was exploding too. Twenty-nine years ago, five years after Bull Durham’s premiere, Minor League Baseball began releasing a list of the 25 teams that sell the most merchandise. The Bulls are the only team to make every list (the last of which was published in 2020).
Events such as Bull Durham Night also attract crowds larger than the team’s typical game. Last Friday’s contest drew 8,513 people. The average turnout in 2019 — the year before the pandemic — was 7,668.
On Friday evening, when the Durham players batted, their jerseys and caps on the stat screen on the Blue Monster — the left-field wall — featured the Shower Shoes logo (courtesy of photoshop). At one point during the game, a song from the movie, Bill Haley & His Comets’ 1955 single, “Rock Around the Clock,” blared throughout the stadium. Later, a baseball movie trivia game played on the screen, and showcased Durham players and fans in pre-recorded videos answering questions.
As the baby-blue sky turned pink and orange, and the sun disappeared below the high rise buildings behind the outfield, fans sang along with Jatovi McDuffie, the Bulls’ on-field announcer. He led the crowd in Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.”
In the first inning, Norfolk jumped to a 3-1 lead. But Bulls starter Kevin Herget emulated Nuke’s “million-dollar arm” across his next four innings — allowing just those three earned runs. Twilight turned to dusk in the sixth inning and the home team took a 6-3 lead, and fans began to clap to distract Norfolk’s hitters.
“This fan base, they’re very involved with what’s going on in the game itself, which makes it more fun to pitch in,” said Herget, who came to the Bulls this season. He says he has found similarities between the team in the movie and the real-life club, even 34 years after its release. “It’s [Bull Durham] probably one of the most accurate [baseball movies] in how things work — how real, where a lot of the others are very fictional.”
Four more pitchers followed Herget in the final four innings. None allowed any runs. After the Bulls closed out the Tides in the ninth, the bull snorted, wagged its tail and glowed its eyes red. Fireworks soon lit up the dark downtown Durham sky. Seabrease got her wish.
Above: Robert and Teresa Shell enjoy the Durham Bulls’ annual Bull Durham Night., wearing jerseys with the names of two of the movie’s characters. Robert has seen the movie more than 30 times. The theme of this particular Bull Durham Night was “Shower Shoes,” in honor of a scene from the movie. Fungus-laden shower shoes were featured on the Bulls’ caps and jerseys. Photos by Ana Young–The 9th Street Journal
At 10:30 a.m. on July 24, the quiet of Westover Park was broken by the sound of bike chains churning. Cyclist after cyclist began to appear, hauling bikes from cars and emerging from side streets and trails.
A young man walked his bike over the hill into the crowd and patted a friend on the back. “How you doing, man?” he asked. His friend sighed and gave a strained smile.
At the top of the hill, at the Guess Road crosswalk, stood a white-painted bike. Flowers embellished the spokes, and notecards with well-wishes were pinned to the wheels. Candles and makeshift vases made out of water jugs blanketed the sidewalk under the bike.
The ghost bike is a memorial for Matthew Simpson, a Durham cyclist killed in a recent hit-and-run.
Simpson, 40, was on a morning ride home on July 10 from the Museum of Life and Science with his wife, Allison, and their two children when he was struck by a driver. He later died from injuries. The incident occurred on Guess Road, which cyclists must cross while riding the mostly off-road West Ellerbe Creek Trail.
Bike Durham, a local nonprofit that advocates alternatives to automobile transportation, rallied the local cyclist community for a memorial “ride of silence” on July 24 to honor Simpson’s life.`
Like many of the attendees, local cyclist Scotty Mathess did not know Simpson personally, but that did not stop him from showing up to the memorial. “I didn’t know Matt, but anyone who’s in the neighborhood uses this crossing—kids, parents, the elderly—so when you know that it can happen here, you know it can happen to any one of us.”
By 11:15, the sun glinted off dozens of plastic helmets and sunglasses as volunteers milled through the circles of people, handing out neon yellow visibility vests and black armbands. Cyclists typically wear these bands as a symbol of solidarity and mourning while they complete their silent ride.
Near the crowd, a line stretched across the small wooden bridge leading to the bike memorial. People holding armfuls of candles, flowers and ribbons knelt before the ghost bike, lost in prayer or remembrance.
Allison Simpson took her turn at the bike in silence, eyes closed and tears streaking her face. An older couple stood at her right and left, ready to walk her back into the park, arm-in-arm.
As the crowd gathered back together, Tallmadge held up a small thin microphone and the chatter quieted.
Talllmadge’s low voice echoed faintly through the park as the crowd stood still, with bikes by their sides. “It’s important to come together in moments like these,” he said, “to share in our grief and lean on one another in support.” Allison Simpson then took the microphone from Tallmadge.
Simpson was an engineer, originally from Easley, South Carolina. He met Allison in Washington, D.C., before the two moved to Durham in 2014. He was an avid hiker and cyclist, as well as a musician. They became partners in 2006 and married in 2014.
He was a dedicated father to their children Wallace, 4, and Matilda, 22 months, she said.
“I wish everyone here could know him fully,” she said, glancing up at the crowd. “I hope that we can work together to honor his life, the beautiful life that he lived, and also to keep our community safe, so that we can all enjoy it.”
Allison gingerly returned the microphone to Tallmadge and walked back amid muffled sobs to the small pocket of friends and family waiting for her with arms outstretched.
Simpson’s death has sparked fear and anger in the cycling community, with many taking to neighborhood listservs and Twitter. Some, like Mathess and Beth Doyle, called for infrastructure changes like a raised crosswalk or a full stoplight at Guess Road, where the accident happened.
Attendees of the memorial ride echoed those sentiments.
“Until the physical environment is redesigned and rebuilt to separate high-speed motor traffic from vulnerable road users, it’s just gonna keep happening. No end in sight,” said Mathess in an interview at the gathering.
Others like Stephen Mullaney, a Bike Durham staff member, condemned the culture of drivers that teaches a lack of respect for cyclists sharing the road.
Drivers should take responsibility if they injure a cyclist or pedestrian, he said in an interview, despite the possible consequences: “If it’s an accident, stop and help.”
After words from Simpson’s college friend and a member of GoDurham, Tallmadge instructed the group of 146 to prepare for the ride.
They began by crossing Guess Road at the site of the accident. The ride continued for three miles, Tallmadge said, passing the Simpson home on Virginia Avenue before returning to Westover Park.
As the group passed the Simpson home, they waved to Allison and her two children, he said. A chorus of bike bells filled the air as they rode past.
Above (from top): A ghost bike memorializes cyclist Matthew Simpson, who was killed in a recent hit-and-run; cyclists participated in a memorial ride to remember Simpson on July 24. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal
Leonardo Williams was pleasantly surprised one evening when, while vacationing in Savannah, a bartender let him know that he could enjoy his drink outdoors. Sipping leisurely as he browsed through the Historic District’s array of shops, the Durham city councilman was struck with an idea.
“I thought it would be, you know, just something cool to have in Durham,” Williams said. “I think it’ll be appropriate with our local culture here.”
In social districts like the one in Savannah, Georgia, people can consume alcohol outdoors and on city streets within defined boundaries. After Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 890 last September, these districts are now coming to North Carolina. Supporters say social districts bolster local economies, drawing customers to breweries and other businesses that rely upon foot traffic.
They’ve already popped up in Greensboro and Kannapolis. And on July 5, the Raleigh City Council approved a pilot social district along Fayetteville Street, which is expected to kick off August 15. Now, Durham may be next.
“I’m sure many of you can’t wait for this to happen in Durham,” Williams tweeted on July 6 in response to the news about Raleigh. “I’m with you and good news, it’s hopefully coming soon. We provided this as a legislative ask and are now in the process of making it policy for Durham.”
Downtown Durham, Inc., a nonprofit working toward downtown revitalization, is leading his initiative. DDI leaders recently visited the Downtown Greensboro social district with city officials, where they gained valuable insight. For instance, Greensboro authorities report that litter has not been an issue as feared. DDI also collected ideas for graphics and signage, which would identify participating businesses and the boundaries of the district.
DDI President and CEO Nicole Thompson hopes to see Durham’s social district cover most of downtown. The current proposed map draws borders at Foster Street to the north and Highway 147 to the south. The district’s eastern and western edges would lie along Wall Street and S. Buchanan Blvd., respectively.
“Our restaurants are spread out through that entire district, so [we’re] not wanting to prohibit or limit businesses being able to take advantage of this,” she said. Thompson added that hours would likely follow Raleigh’s model, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m daily.
In addition to requiring cities to set aside specific hours for social districts, House Bill 890 mandates clearly labeled cups and imposes drink size limitations. Patrons may not bring their own drinks into the district.
DDI has reached out to local business owners to better understand their feelings and concerns. A March 2022 survey of 93 business owners revealed that nearly 80% endorsed a downtown social district. In a second survey that went out to the public, responses were similarly enthusiastic. Of the 671 individuals surveyed who live, shop and/or work downtown, 94% said that a social district would be “a good idea for downtown Durham.”
Durham business owners, many of whom struggled during the pandemic, welcome a social district, Seth Gross, owner of Bull City Burger and Brewery.
“The damage and destruction that happened in the previous two years, it’s going to take five or more years to try to recover from,” said Gross, who also owns Pompieri Pizza. “I think it’s absolutely critical to helping our downtown.”
Chris Creech, who co-owns The Glass Jug Beer Lab with his wife Katy, was also excited about a social district. It could help brewery businesses like his own, he said, and encourage people to enjoy the scenery the city has to offer.
For example, The Glass Jug sits just across the street from Durham Central Park. “Folks could buy beer from our taproom and walk out into the park and have the beer with a picnic or doing whatever they want to do in the park,” he said. “Eating, drinking, playing games.”
The benefits may extend even to businesses that don’t sell alcohol.
“Maybe people grab a drink at one of the lovely establishments next door and then come and mosey on to us,” said Megan Cain, owner of The ZEN Succulent, a plant and gift store with locations in both Raleigh and Durham. Both she and Creech hope to see the city install recycling bins and educate the public about this proposal.
Some business owners fret that social districts would make downtown unsafe for kids and families, the survey found. They worry that relaxed alcohol policies could increase bad behavior and place an additional burden on police.
“I really think it’s going to be essential for when this rolls out that we have plenty of great messaging,” Cain said. “But also plenty of great signs downtown, letting people know where the district starts, where it ends, so that we’re not having a strain on our already strained law enforcement.”
Thompson doesn’t expect downtown Durham to morph into the next Bourbon Street. “This is not going to be Mardi Gras,” she chuckled, emphasizing that existing alcohol laws will remain in place.
“I want to be very clear that the social district does not supersede ABC laws. It’s just allowing you to carry an open container,” she said. “So I don’t foresee the ability to carry an open container changing downtown, overnight, to a rowdy experience.”
City staff plan to present a proposal to the city council at a meeting in August. If it is approved, Thompson thinks the Bull City could launch a social district as soon as fall.
The pandemic might have dealt a heavy blow to the city’s nightlife. But by Labor Day, the plaza of American Tobacco campus could teem with people relaxing with their drinks. Checkered picnic blankets could break up the brilliant green of Durham Central Park.
“I do think that it’ll create more of a vibrant culture,” Williams said. He added, “I think it’s going to draw people from all over to come to Durham.”
Above: A proposed social district would allow people to walk around with open containers of alcohol in downtown Durham. The envisioned area would encompass the American Tobacco Campus. Photo by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal.
At 7:35 a.m. on July 18, a line of traffic winds down a tree-lined road out to the highway. Impatient passengers peer out the child-locked windows, clutching lunchboxes to their chests with anxious excitement. As they arrive at their destination, the car doors open and children pour out onto the drop-off circle. Parents say (sometimes tearful) goodbyes to their little ones. The students steel themselves for the next six and a half hours, their return to year-round school at Easley Elementary School after five weeks of summer. They take deep breaths, grab the straps of their backpacks, and run inside.
The Easley kindergarten teachers stand at attention by the entrance, armed with smiles and waves waiting to greet their former students. Kindergarten won’t start until later in the week, giving the teachers the freedom to serve as the welcome committee for the arriving first through fifth graders.
As the excited students stumble through the propped-open double doors into the central lobby, they are met with a chorus of “Welcome back! Hello! Good morning!” Teachers and administrators call them each by name and compliment their backpacks and lunchboxes.
“It’s been great seeing all the smiling faces,” says Jennifer Hauser, Easley’s principal since 2015. “It’s a lot of hugs and welcomes.”
As she speaks, a little girl in a pink sparkly backpack (with a matching lunchbox) runs up to one of the teachers and hugs her tightly around the waist, chattering something in the excited language only kids can speak.
The students aren’t the only ones excited to see the teachers. A woman walks two girls through the door, holding them by the hand, when she sees one teacher waiting by the door and her hands fly to her face. She shrieks with happiness, and the two embrace.
“It’s a really good community school,” Hauser said of the 459-student magnet school, “and it really is like a family.”
At 7:42, the first bell rings through the wide halls. Welcome signs plaster the white walls between children’s artwork and motivational posters touting confidence, creativity, and compassion. The linoleum floors hold that clean first-day gleam.
Five students weave through a maze of cinder block hallways toward the principal’s office, but they aren’t in trouble. At the end of the hall is a makeshift library, boxes and shelves tucked away in a corner. Principal Hauser pulls books from the shelves too high for the young children to reach.
It is an Easley tradition– “birthday books.” When a student has a birthday, their name is announced over the loudspeaker and they are invited to come pick out a book from the principal’s special library to keep. The first day back from break is special, because all summer birthdays are celebrated at once.
Hauser points out the “first-grade favorites,” like Ramona and Beezus, to a young girl digging through the shelves. A third-grader shyly takes a chapter book from a box before darting off to class.
Back in the hallways, teachers hand off papers and files like batons in a relay, dodging students sprinting to get to class before they’re marked late. No post-summer break rust in these corridors.
At 7:44, the second bell is imminent. A young boy named Sawyer runs up to Principal Hauser, obviously distressed, and stands bashfully with his hands behind his back. “Principal Hauser,” he says earnestly, “You forgot to say the pledge!”
Principal Hauser gasps with dramatic concern and turns to her assistant principal: “Mr. B., we forgot the pledge!”
Jeff Bugajski laughs: “Who reminded you? Was it Sawyer? Of course it was.”
At 7:45, the second bell rings, and suddenly the halls are empty. Many classroom doors are a collage of stickers with the names of students, a helpful tool for lost children looking for their new homes for the year. Amiable clamor emanates from a classroom as a door swings open for a student clutching a hall pass to run to the bathroom.
When second period rolls around, single-file lines of students emerge, hugging close to the walls. Kids wave to each other across the hall, careful to use their “inside voices.” A teacher walking past salutes the group with a thumbs up, greeting one student with a sneaky fist bump.
Fourth-grade teacher Daniella Clay’s classroom is freshly decorated. A bulletin board is pinned with colorful posters holding places for “Amazing work coming soon!” The corner library is stocked with books impeccably placed on the shelves, soon to be mussed by the hands of students. Clumps of desks are covered with brand-new school supplies, some piled in tall towers made by ambitious young builders.
A mural high above the floor reads, “Today is a good day to have a good day!”
Clay’s new class is in “specials” this period, learning about books and computers. Her bouncing blonde curls and kind smile radiate excitement.
Clay has been preparing for the first day with a team of other teachers and staff, planning activities and ideas to explore with students.
“We want them to feel that sense of community on day one,” she says.
Clay gushes about the community at Easley. She says that the year-round school schedule, used by only five of Durham’s 55 public schools, helps to keep teachers and students close. They are only apart for five weeks in the summer rather than the typical school’s nine.
“All the teachers know all the kids,” says Clay. “We’re all their teachers.”
In Raymond Alban’s classroom, the thrill of the first day has students prattling on, but they quiet down quickly (though still squirming) when Alban says, “All eyes on me!”
Alban, a man with a comforting presence dressed in shorts and a polo, has been a teacher at Easley Elementary for 32 years. He proudly points out those in his classroom he already knows. He has had many of their siblings in past years. Most notably, in his first year at the school, he taught one student’s mother.
His classroom is decorated with sight words on the cabinets (D is for Determined), and a colorful rug covers the floor where the class has morning meetings and “carpet time.” His 19 students work on coloring pictures of train cars and locomotives. Earlier this morning, they read one of Alban’s annual staples: The Little Engine that Could.
“I tell them, there’s only one thing I ask,” Alban says, “and it is that, just like the Little Engine, they try.”
The first day, to Alban, is vital.There are many standards to establish, like when to listen and how to walk in the hallways, but there are also important things for teachers to make clear. “The first day is about setting the tone for the class,” he says, “a foundation on how we’re gonna learn.”
For one, Alban promises to never yell at his students. He aims to make his classroom a safe and exciting space for them. If they love school, he says, they will be ready to learn.
When a student asks him for a second coloring page because she cut out her locomotive wrong, he explains another standard: it is always okay to make mistakes.
As the day goes on, the students’ single-file lines get straighter, their binders heavier. But their excited chatter and smiles do not fade– it is still the first day of school.
Above: Bright, upbeat decorations greeted students at Easley Elementary, a year-round school that reopened on July 18 after a five-week summer break. Daniella Clay motivates her fourth-graders with a sign that reads, “Today is a good day to have a good day!” Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal.
As soon as County Attorney Willie Darby began a public hearing to decide the fate of thousands of cats in Durham on the night of July 11, it was clear where most people stood: A majority of the nearly 40 people in attendance nodded as he read off proposed amendments to the Durham County Animal Control Ordinance. With teary eyes and shaky voices, proponents of the changes persuaded the County Board of Commissioners to unanimously pass the amendments, 5-0, all but outlawing euthanasia for community cats.
Highlights of the changes to the ordinance include establishing a TNVR program (trap, neuter, vaccinate and return) for abandoned and stray cats—now legally known as community cats—which would be euthanized only if they’re sick and unlikely to recover. Under the changes, non-profits would administer the program.
“What we’re doing now, it’s just — it’s not working,” said Wendy Jacobs, vice chair of the Board. “We need to do something different; this is a community problem that needs a community-based solution. I really look forward to the next steps.”
The amendments’ supporters argue that administering neutering and vaccination services to community cats will reduce their population. Anything short of this is inhumane, they say. Opponents are unsure whether the legislation will fulfill its purpose, arguing that ending euthanasia and trap programs could harm the local bird population, as cats are predators.
Currently, there are nearly 60,000 community cats in Durham, Jacobs says. The cost of euthanizing them all would be $120 million. The county spent $70,000 in 2021 on euthanizing around 350 cats.
“This is not something that we’re gonna solve tonight. It’s not something that can be solved in one ordinance,” said the hearing’s first speaker, Danielle Bays, a senior analyst for Cat Protection Policy at the Humane Society of the United States. “But it’s not going to be solved by continuing down the path that Durham is on now.”
Handgun in her pocket and hair in a bun, Lt. Wendy Pinner, of animal services at the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, matter-of-factly told the audience that her department traps animals only when Durham County residents request removal from their property. And because they recently paused the animal trapping program due to overcrowding at the Animal Protection Society shelter, she has had many “frustrated” and “angry” citizens come into her office.
“We had one address in Treyburn [a neighborhood in north Durham] where we received 171 calls for services to trap animals,” she said after stressing that the sheriff’s office is not staffed to carry out trapping.
Andrew Hutson, Vice President of the National Audubon Society and Executive Director of Audubon North Carolina, and Barbara Driscoll, president of New Hope Audubon Society, also opposed the amendments.
Hutson, who represented 2,000 members of the Audubon Society in Durham, said that the trapping and vaccination program “fails on all accounts” because it is “nearly impossible for 100% of cats to be trapped and vaccinated.” He added that “cats also have toxoplasmosis” — a disease that comes from a parasite found in cat feces — and kill more than two billion birds yearly in the U.S.
Driscoll restated Hutson’s claims that the programs have failed to reduce populations and added that it makes “abandonment by pet owners easier.” She worried that these efforts would make it harder to have a “more bird-friendly Durham.”
On the other side, Shafonda Allen, executive director of the Animal Protection Society of Durham, a local shelter, told the Board how much work the community is willing to put into protecting these cats.
For instance, Susan Elmore, a veterinarian for Independent Animal Rescue (IAR), a local non-profit that provides homes for unwanted cats and dogs, is already helping cats for free. (She was among those who spayed and neutered roughly 1,500 cats at IAR and at Orange County Animal Shelter and Durham County Animal Shelter last year.)
“We realized now the reality is that we have these community cats. But if we spay and neuter, their numbers will go down,” Elmore, a veterinary anatomic pathologist in Chapel Hill who attended the public hearing, said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “And we have seen this done successfully in many counties in North Carolina and in many states in the country. So this isn’t new ground that we’re breaking, you know, this is a tried and true method of taking care of the community cat population.”
Before Allen’s two minutes were up, she asked everyone in the room, “who is in support of the Animal Welfare Committee’s ordinance changes to allow TNVR in Durham” to stand. The majority of the room stood up.
“These are your citizens; these are your voters,” Allen said. “Everyone here is willing to do something to help with this problem. They notice this doing more, not less. And for every person that calls, that wants them just removed and doesn’t know they will die, there are more who are willing to help them.”
Above: Shafonda Allen, executive director of the Animal Protection Society of Durham, testifies before the Durham County Board of Commissioners on July 11th. Later in the evening, a majority of the audience stood up to indicate their support for ending euthanasia for abandoned and stray cats. Photos by Ana Young–The 9th Street Journal.
Since before he knew what a typewriter was, Chris Vitiello had a way with words. As a child, the poet and communications strategist dictated poems to his parents aloud. Perhaps it was destiny that he would stumble upon a giant fox suit and grapple with the question posed by a 2013 viral video: What does the fox say?
Apparently, quite a lot. Vitiello handed out his 35,000th poem as the Poetry Fox this April. When he dons the vulpine costume— a gift from a relative, who gave it to him as a joke 11 years ago instead of tossing it into a dumpster— he tackles themes of love, change, politics and even mortality.
On a recent Saturday, Vitiello sat behind a typewriter at the Durham Farmers’ Market. Barefoot in the dewy morning grass, perhaps to cool down from the heat of the fuzzy fox suit, he waited expectantly for poetry-seekers.
Within a few minutes, curiosity had drawn a father and his two young sons to the stand. The sons presented the Fox with a single word. After chatting with the patrons, Vitiello pulled the costume over his head, entering what he calls “the smallest studio space in the world.”
The keys clattered loudly beneath the Fox’s fingers, which poked out from amber-colored sleeves. Roughly forty-five seconds later, he presented a complete poem. In his trademark style, the lines were “cut up all over the page,” deviating from standard structures such as sonnets or limericks. The brothers beamed as their father dropped a donation into his jar (labeled “TIPS in $$$ or live chickens”).
In his years as the Fox, Vitiello has heard prompts ranging from “pickle” and “sunrise” to “gun” and “change.” Though the words he receives vary, his role as the Fox is the same whether he’s booked at a charity event, a birthday party or a wedding. With a vintage typewriter by his side, he creates custom poetry on demand that has reached people from all walks of life.
When he’s not in costume, the only thing that gives away Vitiello’s alter ego is the fox tattoo inked on his left forearm. The D.C. native is a published author and editor (“I have three books as a human, not as a fox,” he clarified). He has also ventured into other forms of street poetry, and most recently, screenwriting and filmmaking. He’s a father of two young adult children.
“It’s always fun when you have a family member who does something kind of weird,” he said with a smile. “My kids have grown up with me being the Poetry Fox. So this is just what we do.”
Vitiello, 53, had been an active member of Durham’s arts community for several years when the idea came to him. It was a weekend night at The Space, a downtown gathering place for creatives including writers, performers and filmmakers.
“We’d have somebody playing some music and we’d be screening a film and we’d have some kind of activity. And this was just a night of several strange things going on,” he said.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, well, I’ll write and I can put [the fox costume] on and do it.’ You know, it was just sort of a very just spur of the moment, spontaneous kind of decision.” The Poetry Fox was born.
As early shows gained traction, audience members began asking him to perform at other gatherings. He now appears at upwards of 150 community events per year.
Chris Tonelli, author and founding editor of the independent poetry press Birds LLC, attended some of the Fox’s first gigs without knowing the identity of the larger-than-life canine at the typewriter. He was excited to find out that the Fox was also the author of Irresponsibility, a book he’d recently devoured.
The two connected through the Triangle’s poetry community and now work alongside one another in the library department at North Carolina State University. Tonelli described his colleague as “the model arts community citizen.”
“[Vitiello is] always saying yes, always trying new collaborations, always open to crazy ideas that will really be interesting to the community and will help the community. Very, very selfless in that way,” he said.
For instance, Vitiello created “The Cabinet” last year in the midst of the pandemic, inspired by Victorian fortune-telling cabinets. When he sits inside the seven-foot mahogany wardrobe, he is concealed completely from view. This sense of anonymity, he says, can foster meaningful connection. Passersby fill out cards with their fears, hopes, memories, or secrets and enter them into a slot. From inside, Vitiello types and returns a poetic, personal response.
The Fox is selfless, Tonelli noted. He gives away his work rather than adding to his own repertoire. And then there’s the sheer volume of poetry Vitiello has written as the Fox. An average poetry book, Tonelli said, is around 100 poems; the Fox has produced the equivalent of 350 books.
Some of his poems confront contemporary political issues, such as climate change, gun control and abortion rights. When he gives them away, he hopes that those who don’t see eye-to-eye find them thought-provoking, “both fulfilling and undermining expectations.” Though he has received some criticism for his political writing, he doesn’t take it to heart.
“I usually just write back saying, ‘It looks like we disagree on this.’ I’m not going to attack somebody as the Fox,” he laughed.
To Vitiello, the most memorable moments as the Fox are when he’s able to connect with his patrons beyond the surface level. He recalled a recent event where an attendee shared a deeply personal experience.
“He sat down and told me that his father had just recently passed away and he didn’t have anything else to say,” Vitiello said. “So I wrote him the poem and it was…I couldn’t tell you exactly what the poem was, but it was a really moving experience.”
He paused. “That’s a poem that connects me and him now for a long period of time. So, those are the memorable ones. It’s the interaction that’s memorable, not the poem.”
Vitiello plans on continuing his work as the Fox indefinitely, illuminating his patrons’ most defining moments. He composes lines about births and deaths, weddings and divorces, hopeful beginnings and bittersweet endings.
Vitiello sees certain common threads running through the human experience. It’s of no importance to him whether the recipient of his poems is a kindergartener or a grandmother.
“Everybody eats, everybody puts on clothes,” he said. “Everybody goes to sleep and wakes up. Everybody likes trees and birds. Everybody looks at the sky. There’s a huge number of shared experiences and…the Fox’s writings draw upon that strongly.”
At the market on Saturday, he was presented with the word “reflection.” He wrote:
don’t show you
and your thoughts
the winds die down
and the water
becomes a mirror
so you can see
your reflection at last
and know more
about who you are
until the calm
into the water
Above (from top): Chris Vitiello, aka the Poetry Fox, spins poems on demand at the Durham Farmers’ Market. Photos by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal
On April 22, a cryptic Craigslist advertisement titled “Durham FREE Historic Houses (10) YOU MOVE: Act fast!” rattled Durham Facebook groups and email inboxes. Local preservationists quickly identified the properties as remnants of the once-prosperous Erwin Mill Village—parcels recently acquired by Wood Partners, an Atlanta-based developer and manager of high-end apartments. Three days later, the listing was flagged for insufficient information and removed, leaving unanswered the question of who posted the ad—and what would become of the houses.
It’s been three months since that ad and the story of the homes has come into focus, revealing an unusual tale of preservation, bulldozers and the tension between old and new Durham. By July 11, the 10 historic homes on Rutherford and Bolton streets have dwindled to seven. The other three, 738, 736 and 732 Rutherford, were heaps of deformed roofing, fractured wooden planks and forgotten household necessities. The sides of the remaining structures were tagged “Abate” in sloppy magenta spray paint with a number assigning their place in the demolition timeline—a timeline set to be complete by the end of July.
For Tom Miller, president of Preservation Durham, the nonprofit that has led efforts to protect the houses, the story of the Erwin Mill Village homes represents a missed opportunity.
“Whether Wood Partners was responsible for the Craigslist ad or not—it wasn’t a bad idea,” says Miller. “Wouldn’t things have been better if Wood Partners reached out to us back when they first got control of the property? Then, they could have made themselves local heroes.”
A WINDOW INTO DURHAM’S WORKING-CLASS PAST
To the average eye, the mill houses on Rutherford and Bolton streets are not remarkable. But to Miller and Chris Laws, the remnants of the old Erwin Mill Village, illustrate Durham’s working-class origins.
So when Laws saw the Craigslist ad on April 25—emailed to him by Cathleen Turner, regional director of Preservation North Carolina —he took notice. Laws opened the email, clicked, and found a broken link. But, for Laws, a fourth-generation Durhamite with familial ties to the mill, the headline and the words “act fast” lingered. He and Miller grew determined to save the old mill houses.
“In historic preservation, it is seductive to find the great man’s mansion and save it. Who doesn’t like that?” says Miller. “We get to experience a bit of HGTV in our neighborhoods. But that’s not always where the history is.”
“Durham’s history is in these worker houses,” says Miller. “A home is where life happens: where mom and dad lived, where the piano lessons occurred, where kids did homework, where people grew old. Some families have lived in these homes for over a century. We need to refocus our energy on these stories.”
The mill homes at Rutherford and Bolton tell the story of a vanishing Durham. In the late 19th century, cotton magnate William Erwin envisioned a self-contained community for textile mill workers in West Durham. So, he built a village: 440 residences, a company store, an auditorium, a playground, a zoo, and more. In 1986, West Durham—including the mill village area—was named to the National Register of Historic Districts—a designation that recognizes historical significance but grants no regulatory protections. Today, there are 25-30 surviving mill houses in Durham—including the seven parcels at Rutherford and Bolton, all that remains of Erwin Mill Village.
To Chris Laws, the mill village’s history is personal. Laws’ grandfather, a mill worker, attended Durham High School during the day and worked the third shift at night. Every morning he returned to his humble abode on 14th (now Rutherford) Street.
With a swipe of a finger, Laws leafs through memories stored in his iPhone photo gallery. He beams as he shares a digitized home video: a shaky frame that captures Laws, an infant at the time, and his grandfather lounging in the side yard of their family home in the mill village.
He swipes again, stopping at a photo that shows dozens of people, dressed in winter attire and crammed in a narrow mill house kitchen.
“At times, there would be 83 people in these little houses for communal gatherings,” says Chris. “Two generations removed, we’ve continued the annual Laws Christmas party tradition—a tradition that started in this mill village.”
The modest homes will be replaced with a six-story apartment complex of 336 units. The development is the latest of many new apartment buildings springing up across Durham in recent years. Rents for the apartments have not yet been set, a spokesman for Wood Partners said. When asked if the development will include any affordable units, Wood Partners did not respond. Rents at a neighboring Woods Partners property, Station Nine, range from $1583 a month for a small one-bedroom unit to $2937 for a two-bedroom unit.
Laws sighs at the idea of another high-end apartment building in the Bull City.
“Yes, we need places to house Durham’s growing population,” says Laws. “But we also need to address that people are being displaced by luxury development.”
Laws and Miller were both steeped in the mill village’s history. So when they learned that the Rutherford Street houses were coming down, they were determined to do something. Miller emailed Wood Partners, hoping to discuss the mill homes. Weeks went by, and the email was unanswered.
By late May, Laws and Miller became concerned that they had not heard back from Wood Partners. On May 21, they called the firm’s branch at Chapel Hill, where their calls went to a greetlingless voicemail box. They left several voicemail messages all saying essentially the same thing:
We are interested in the possibility of saving the historic houses on your property at Bolton and Rutherford streets in Durham. We would like to talk to you about the homes and how we might work together to save some of them.
No call back. So on May 25, Laws decided to visit the Chapel Hill branch himself and met briefly with the branch’s managing director, Caitlin Shelby.
“She didn’t have much time to talk. But she told me that they did not put up the Craigslist ad. She said she did not know where it came from.”
According to Laws, Shelby said that demolition of the homes would begin in a few days (it wouldn’t actually begin for another month). Laws offered his business card and personal cell number, and Shelby promised to follow up, Laws says. He left the office optimistic.
Meanwhile, Miller made inquiries with groups that might be able to use the homes, such as Durham Community Land Trustees. The affordable housing nonprofit expressed interest in discussing the options, said asset manager Sherry Taylor.
“It would take a good amount of funding,” Taylor said. “The trust would need a good assessment of the structures. They may need to be renovated. But, we’re interested in figuring out what the possibilities could be.”
Laws and Miller were not naive. They have long known the hurdles associated with moving a historic structure. Still, they hoped—at least—for a meeting and conversation with Wood Partners.
“I mean, we’re not kidding ourselves,” Miller said in early July. “You don’t just come around and pick up a house. You have to get all kinds of permissions. And the power company goes nuts! The railway hates it. It takes time. But if there were a way that these folks could work with us, we would be delighted. And I don’t see how it could hurt them.”
SALVAGING A BIT OF HISTORY
The weeks ticked by, and Preservation Durham did not hear from Caitlin Shelby or Wood Partners.
On July 1, Miller and Laws mailed a letter to Wood Partners’ corporate office in Atlanta.
On July 6, the first of the 10 homes, 738 Rutherford, toppled. Locals in the Teardowns of Durham Facebook group shared photos of the once neat and quiet street, now marred with red caution tape and demolition equipment, framed by sad and angry emojis.
The next day, a fretful Chris Laws drove to Rutherford Street, hoping to, at long last, discuss the homes with somebody with hands on the project. He pulled up in front of 736 Rutherford, where a sunburnt contractor in a fluorescent green t-shirt with the Wood Partners logo directed excavation machinery to remove scraps. Laws told the contractor about the community campaign to save the houses. It was the first he had heard of it.
Preservation Durham works with partners who renovate historic buildings, and those projects often require using vintage materials.
Laws asked the contractor for permission to collect architectural salvage—windows, doors and door knobs, and the contractor agreed to check into it. “If we were able to collect windows, for example, that would be helpful,” says Laws. “And it would give new life to another space.”
On Friday, July 8, 736 Rutherford was demolished. The remains were trucked away, leaving an empty lot.
The next day, in response to an inquiry from The 9th Street Journal, Caitlyn Shelby of Wood Partners released a statement:
As part of our commitment to positively impacting the communities we serve, Wood Partners is always happy to coordinate with our neighbors in Durham, and we are open to speaking with Preservation Durham in response to their interest in potentially salvaging materials/sections from the mill houses prior to the completion of demolition in the coming week. While we did not participate in any way in posting the previous Craig’s List advertisement, we will aim to keep the community abreast of the latest developments surrounding this project and will share information regarding intended plans for the complex via the property website as those become available.
On July 11, 732 was also bulldozed, leaving another empty lot. On July 13, Chris finally spoke with Wood Partners.
“It was a pleasant conversation,” Laws said. “She said she would talk to the site superintendent about pulling some things. From what I understand, someone from the firm will contact me—but I do not know when that will be.”
On July 14, interior doors, a kitchen counter, and a box of light fixtures appeared on the front porches at 711 and 721 Bolton Street.
On July 15, bulldozers clawed ground on the three newly leveled parcels at Rutherford Street. Discarded red caution tape drapes from electric poles and trees. The seven remaining structures awaited demolition.
Chris Laws still doesn’t know who posted the Craigslist ad, he said. He wishes things could have ended differently.
“I just wish we could have effective dialogue,” Laws says. “I don’t think they understand how important these places are to the community. They are physical reminders of our heritage.”
“I’m sad, but I can’t mourn. There is still a lot of history at peril in Durham. So, we will press on. Hopefully, we learn something from this, and we will be better for it.”
Above (from top): Bulldozers demolish a home at 738 Rutherford Street; more Rutherford Street houses await demolition; a mysterious Craigslist ad said the houses were free for the taking; Chris Laws of Preservation Durham. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal
It’s 97 degrees, and at Forest Hills Park, children sprint up the playground stairs and chase each other down the slides. “Tag, you’re it!” they scream. Like clockwork, when a few minutes in the sun have passed, they soothe soon-to-be burnt skin by running through a “sprayground” — water that mists from colorful metal tubes. When it is time for a breather, the kids head to the shade, where parents offer snacks and water bottles.
Less than 100 feet from the playground, a fence gate padlocks the entrance to the pool. On a typical summer’s day scores of people would crowd into the water. But today, the pool sits empty. No submerging and simmering down from the hot and humid air, it appears.
Forest Hills Pool is one of three public outdoor swimming pools in Durham, the others being Hillside and Long Meadow. Yet, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, none of them is open. Hillside is not open on Saturdays either. But on the days they are open, each is only available for swimming for four hours during the afternoon. On Saturdays, Forest Hills and Long Meadow are open between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.
“That’s such a restricted time frame,” says Taylor McCarther, who recently moved to Fletchers Chapel Road from Greensboro with her two young sons and partner Ben. “Yeah, it’s kind of weird that it’s just that chunk of time. I mean, I get it. But not really.”
As she says this, her younger son, Kayden, tears up before he walks toward the shade.
“You’re the one standing in the sun,” she says playfully.
The city has seen temperatures soar beyond 90 degrees 10 times since July began. Staffing issues have hampered Durham since the outdoor pool season started in early June. There’s a lifeguard shortage — not just on the local level but statewide and nationally.
The American Lifeguard Association says the lack of lifeguards affects one-third of the nation’s pools. Pools in the three most populated cities in North Carolina — Greensboro, Charlotte and Raleigh — have found themselves understaffed.
Even some of the country’s major cities such as Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Houston and Boston have struggled with shortages.
“I recently learned that there is a city in Michigan that is paying $27 an hour to try and entice lifeguards to work for them,” says Jason Jones, assistant director of Durham Parks and Recreation. The average lifeguard salary in the U.S. is $13.94 per hour, according to Indeed.com.
To address the shortage, Parks and Recreation partners with Durham Aquatic School to provide free lifeguard certification training for participants 16 and over. It also offers a competitive salary. The city government website says that lifeguards for Durham pools make between $17.99 and $21.56 an hour, which Jones says makes it the highest pay for lifeguards in the Triangle.
He says no one has called his department to voice concerns about the reduced pool opening hours.
Jenny Rendon, who has lived in Durham for 18 years, used to take her children — who are 8, 9, and 20 months old — to the pool once or twice a week. But this summer’s restrictive schedule changed that.
“That’s one of the biggest things, that sometimes with those schedules and depending on the distance, for example, if I go to the….closest one, you know, it’s not [always] available on the day that I want to go take my kids,” Rendon, a homemaker, says.
“You know, some people don’t have enough personnel, staff, to run their places,” she adds, referring to the Department of Parks and Recreation. “So I don’t blame it on them.”
When swimming in a public pool is not an option, spraygrounds are an alternative. They are open seven days a week, for free, at four parks throughout the city: East End, Edison Johnson, Forest Hills and Hillside. Each operates between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m.
McCarther and her family have spent many days exploring water spots, such as Jordan Lake and the Eno Quarry. Since moving to the area, they have come to Forest Hills Park twice. They liked it because it is surrounded by a forest. The family has also been visiting other playgrounds around the city, seeking to get the children outside to play — and get wet.
As she sits on a shaded bench, McCarther, who is in her mid-to-late 20s and expecting her third child, watches children at the park play. Next to her lie orange peels and a red-and-white soda cup.
Her little boys are part of the crew of children making use of the sprayground this afternoon. The older one, Kellan, almost 4 years old, is an “outside child,”she says. He has “super-high energy, and playgrounds are always just perfect for him to just let all that energy out. Sun beating down on him, letting that energy out.”
Kellan runs around in a soaked red T-shirt that his mother says will be dried out by the sun. Kayden, 18 months old, stomps, chasing his brother in a navy blue fox-themed onesie and a diaper.
“They don’t need swim trunks,” McCarther says. “They don’t need any of the extra specialties. Like if it’s there, they’re ready to go—dirt, mud, water, sand—they love it.”
Above: With Forest Hills Pool (top) and other swimming pools open limited hours, Taylor and Kayden McCarther (center) seek out shade. Photos by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal
When DJ Rogers was 9, he could not read fluently. Rogers’ ADHD made it nearly impossible to get through long texts, his attention span waning too quickly to finish a page. Medications did nothing but put him to sleep. Growing up in South Raleigh as one of 14 children and lacking accommodations for his disorder, he felt like school was a place where he could never succeed.
In the third grade, Rogers’ teacher, Mr. Peterson, and his assistant, Ms. Cook, saw an opportunity to change Rogers’ experience. The two approached the struggling student with works by famous poet and activist Langston Hughes.
Suddenly, things clicked. The pieces were creative and eloquent, but short enough for Rogers to read without losing focus. He pored over the stanzas, learning words and phrases and structure and prose. Soon, he taught himself to read and write poetry of his own.
“Seeing that there were writings in a book that were this long was incredible to me,” Rogers said. “I was like, I can do this.”
To this day, poetry shapes Rogers’ language–and now, he will bring that language, passion, and talent to the public as Durham’s first Poet Laureate.
The Durham City Council announced his one-year term, beginning on July 1, as a leader in the arts and culture community on June 22.
Just over one year ago, a group of local poets–Dasan Ahanu, Crystal Simon Smith, and Chris Vitiello–went to the City Council’s Cultural Advisory Board to propose the creation of the position.
“I feel like there’s been some splintering and loneliness among the poetry world,” said Vitiello, who has been part of the Durham poetry scene for almost 30 years. “I think to have a publicly recognized poet doing public events is a good point of conversation for the arts to gather around and for writers to find each other.”
The Poet Laureate will bridge the gap between Durham and its poetic arts scene by bringing the craft to the streets and the schools. Beyond writing commemorative poems for Durham events, Rogers will showcase his work through readings in the community and lead educational opportunities to encourage arts involvement across the city.
“I wanted [the Laureate] to not just be someone who kind of sits in the studio or writing studio and writes poetry and publishes books,” Smith said. “I wanted somebody who was going to bring poetry into our various communities, particularly our vulnerable communities, and use that tool to bring us together.”
Rogers’ quiet, calm presence would make anyone comfortable. He speaks in sentences with no clear ending, figurative language embellishing his ideas like flecks of gold. Narrative and prose poetry flow out of him naturally. Poetry is the foundation of his speech and thinking, and it is how he tells his own story.
A University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill graduate, Rogers, 33, has been involved in teaching, activism, and the arts for over 12 years. His first experience with teaching came when he helped to found Building Bonds, Breaking BARS (Barriers Against Reaching Success) in his junior year of college. This group raised awareness of the African-American male school-to-prison pipeline. Its members also went into juvenile detention centers to work with youth, teaching subjects such as black history to help spread knowledge of subjects typically overlooked in school systems.
Rogers, a tall man with long hair and a full beard, began his journey as a teaching artist after he graduated in 2011. He helped form a slam poetry team at UNC called the Wordsmiths. The group trained for regional and national competitions of spoken word performance. Rogers served as an “idea generator” for the new group, he said, and a coach for the budding poets.
Former Wordsmiths managing director Kat Tan, 25, explained that Rogers always encouraged his students to embrace the full scope of themselves. “I think the biggest thing for me,” she said, “is that he took my perspective seriously.”
She worked with Rogers for three years in the group while he was community advisor. “He reminds me a lot of a preacher sometimes, and that is something elevating,” the medical school student said. “It does inspire you to see how you might play a role in a larger story.”
“I love slam because it does encourage people to write,” Rogers said, “and that is one of my goals—I want people to be writing and to generate work, to take their ideas and bring them to the audience.”
Rogers worked with the Wordsmiths from 2011 to 2020 (when the national poetry slam competition was put on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic). At the same time, he introduced teens to the creative arts through projects like the Street Scene Teen Center and the group Sacrificial Poets.
The nonprofit Sacrificial Poets uses poetry to develop artistic and personal growth in youth around the Triangle. Rogers, as executive director and teaching artist, co-led workshops with youth in middle and high schools as part of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City and Orange County Sschools’ Boomerang program. The program works with students suspended from school and provides them the opportunity to make up lost credit hours with development classes and activities, one being Rogers’ poetry activities.
“I worked with a lot of students who were having a lot of issues pertaining to their home life or mental health,” Rogers said. “They had written these poems that were brutal to read and listen to. But they were the story that they needed to tell and being able to do so allowed them to feel heard and listened to in a way that fostered communication between them.”
Much of Rogers’ philosophy of teaching poetry stems from this idea of self-expression. “Empowering people to tell their own stories,” he said, “is something I’ve seen be transformative for people of all ages and walks of life over my years of doing this work.”
His experience with Sacrificial Poets revealed to him his passion for teaching, he said. Rogers has taught at multiple schools and now works as an instructional coach and teacher at Art of Problem Solving, a national virtual program, providing administrative guidance for the school’s English teachers.
“I wasn’t someone who grew up knowing that I wanted to be a teacher, educator, or artist,” Rogers said. “I was just somebody who tried to find my niche and also tried to build a future where I could then use what I had to help other people.”
In his piece, “I would love to applaud but I am too tired,” he writes:
To be a black man
and an educator
is to be
a voodoo doll —-
a thing that holds others’
Every one of us that dies
feels like they swept through my classroom —-
not a ghost, a needle.
Intentional and precise.
He plans to use his new position to develop poetry and creative workshops in Durham’s housing projects. Residents of the projects are often forgotten, said Rogers, but they have just as much art to share as the rest of the city. He hopes that as laureate he can bring recognition and resources to those communities and others so they can tell their stories.
“I don’t want to find their voice, because they already have it, but to engage with them in a new way, to say ‘This is how I want to tell my story.’ To say ‘This is important to me because I was here and nobody can take that away from me.’ Just to say ‘I’m here now—nothing’s gonna change that.”
Above: Durham Poet Laureate DJ Rogers. Photo by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal