Durham is a Home, Not a Tourist Destination

26 years I’ve lived in Durham. For those of you keeping score, that’s 26 out of a possible 26. I’ve never lived in a house longer than three or four years.

My dad might remember this story. It’s the one I usually tell to explain how I landed in Watts-Hillandale. At R.N. Harris Elementary, my class learned to play the violin as part of a new program started by Dan Scheckman. On a summer night in ’98, while I was practicing on the front porch with my dad, a woman was walking her Rottweiler down Underwood Ave in front of our house. Following her were three men. The leader of the pack was wielding a firearm as tall as I was. Seeing them didn’t frighten me in the way it should but I knew something was wrong.

Not long after, we moved from the West End into a house on the corner of Ninth Street and Englewood Avenue. It was here that Durham became home for me.

Without giving too much away, we ended up staying in three different houses in the neighborhood for a total of nine years. For me, it was nine and a half thanks to the good graces of the Tom, Shannon, Lee, and John Barber whose house I stayed in while finishing out my senior year of high school.

I met my closest friends in this neighborhood. I met parents who treated me like kin. I had neighbors who were like lighthouses, guiding my wayward ship home at night so I always felt safe. Compared to where I had moved from, this was heaven on earth.

Recent transplants know Steve as City Councilman Schewel. Fortunately, I know Steve as my neighbor, coach, mentor, friend, and jump shot enthusiast. My introduction to Steve is a critical milestone in my life, similar to the violin story. I was walking by his backyard one afternoon dribbling a basketball. His kids and their friends were in the driveway playing pickup so I stopped to watch. On his way to his horse-and-buggy disguised as a 1980s Toyota Tercel, he noticed me across the street. He asked if I wanted to join in on the fun. I didn’t have many friends in the neighborhood at the time and certainly didn’t have the balls (so to speak) to ask myself. How could I resist? Turns out, it wouldn’t be the last time I made my way onto that driveway.

Who knows? Maybe I would have stumbled into a game of 21 at some point down the road. (Literally. There were at least five families with basketball hoops in their yard). But Steve’s benevolence resonated strongly with me on that day. It didn’t take long to realize that kindness and altruism permeated throughout Watts-Hillandale.

I could go on and on about my childhood (and probably will in future posts). I was lucky to grow up here. Watts-Hillandale looked after me, it nurtured me, and it taught me a lot about myself and the world. Not every kid is afforded the opportunities I had. I wish they were.

Even now, after not living there for eight years, I roam the streets and see familiar faces or strike up a conversation with someone slightly less familiar that might recognize me from my younger days. Nostalgia motivates most of what I do.

Whether they intended it or not, the photo below exemplifies my skepticism about Durham’s future. These signs have been seen around town in the wake of the “Muslim ban” executive order. It reads, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in English, Spanish, and Arabic. As you can see, it’s protected by a tall metal fence.

When I was growing up, we hardly ever locked the back door. A gated fence in this neighborhood feels like “The Wall.” I don’t know this family, so it is not my place to pass judgment but the imagery is undeniable. What kind of sign does this send to the public? Are these the types of people we want to fill the surplus of housing being built around Durham? If I had walked by this house instead of Steve’s all those years ago, would I have felt welcome? Would I have even been invited in?

Durham is not the destination people assume it is because of the restaurants or the tech businesses or the universities or the streetwear boutiques (that last one helps). The character of Durham is anchored by its citizens’ respect, love, and admiration for each other. Everything else stems from that. You can’t just build skyscrapers and expect your town to become more empathetic.

No matter how many “best of” lists Durham lands on, it isn’t satisfying enough. If we are keen on fostering a lasting community and recruiting people to this city who are worth having, then our “20 reasons to relocate to Durham” should be about the principles of our people, not how many James Beard award winners work at our hotels.

Buildings come and go all the time. So do businesses. Your character as a person, as a neighborhood, and as a city is everlasting. The families of Watts-Hillandale taught me that.

For the rest of my life, I will promote those values in their honor.

Please leave a comment below if you feel compelled to do so. You can always find me on Twitter or Instagram. I’d love to keep the conversation going.

Originally published at buddyruski.com on February 19, 2017.