The sun is shining. Balmy rays beam down on sidewalks in the Southside, a historic neighborhood near downtown Durham. Volunteer Ray Eurquhart paces inside the Southside Community Outreach Center on Enterprise Street and peers out the windows.
"They're active out there today," says Eurquhart (he pronounces it IRK-heart). He drags a folding chair onto the sidewalk, claims a spot in the sun and watches through his bifocals as cars coast by the community center where he's holding open hours.
A shiny black sedan stops a few feet away. A young man on the sidewalk yells, "How many?" then jogs to a nearby tree, retrieving something for the motorist. The quick, anonymous drive-throughs occur throughout the morning as Eurquhart keeps watch.
The Air Force veteran and former city employee, known widely as "Brother Ray," has lived in the Southside nearly his whole life. But this—an area where drugs, violence and gangs have choked out the working-class families—this is not the same community in which he grew up. Now retired, Eurquhart is on a crusade to clean up the crime, replenish affordable housing and restore vitality.
"Everything starts from self-interest," Eurquhart says, looking over the ailing streets. "I live over here, and so did my mother and father and father's mother. It was the village that brought us up. It taught us the value of community."
His work is not only physical—he often can be seen clearing food wrappers and other trash near the community center with a litter pole—but also procedural. He's perhaps the most outspoken person on a 40-member steering committee working for the revitalization of the Southside and adjacent Rolling Hills communities. Eurquhart sends dozens of e-mails daily, applies for grants on behalf of his neighborhood association, and when he shows up to public meetings, he comes with fliers. In addition to driving the creation of the community center, he also has personally staffed it and helped bring summer programs there for schoolchildren.
"I'm privileged," he says. "I'm retired. When you're retired, you can do this work 24/7." Though he is in his 60s, many say Eurquhart—who wears a gold hoop in one ear and recently got his first tattoo—has the zeal of a much younger man.
"His heart is so big ... He has the idealism of a college student. That is a jewel—really hard to find," says Evan Covington Chavez, director of residential real-estate development for Self Help Credit Union, a nonprofit that helps low-income borrowers become homeowners.
Self Help is also working to turn vacant and abandoned houses in the Southside back into livable, affordable homes. Eurquhart has been a major partner in its efforts. He has helped identify problem properties and put Self Help in touch with the owners. To date, Self Help has acquired more than 80 homes in the Southside neighborhood, and Eurquhart can point out just about every single one. Frequently, he can name the former owner or list the repairs it needs. Entrusted to his memory are the annals of the Southside and its people, where they've moved and—often—what they need.
"Nicole!" Eurquhart shouts from his chair outside the community center. He yells to a rail-thin woman who has stopped her car in front of the Stop-N-Go Food Mart across the street. "Nicole. I need to talk to you."
"I got kids in the car, Ray," the young woman replies. "You got a job for me?" Later, the 23-year-old stops by the computer lab at the community center and says Eurquhart is helping her find work. "He checks on me and my kids," she says. When she was younger, he used to check on her report card.
He's only meddling because he cares, says Eurquhart's daughter, Trish Feely. "The newer [kids] coming in might just assume he's being nosy," Feely says. "I try to tell him some of these young kids might interpret it the wrong way." Most realize his intentions are altruistic, she says.
Eurquhart has been a community activist for more than 40 years. He remembers boycotting the cafeteria at Hillside High School as a student to support wage increases for underpaid workers. In the Air Force during the Vietnam era, he served in England and took up with war protesters and the Black Panther Movement and declared himself a socialist. Eurquhart returned to Durham and embarked on two careers in machinery and maintenance for both the American Tobacco Company and the city's Department of Water Management. As a city employee, he was an active leader in the Durham City Workers Union UE 150, says Jackie Carroll-Garcia, a long-time member.
"He really got involved in talking with the [city] council one-on-one, trying to help employees achieve certain benefits," she says. Though a retiree, Eurquhart is still an active member of the union. He also has served 16 years in elected public office as a soil and water conservation district supervisor, and he works on a committee to gain popular recognition in Durham for Pauli Murray, a noted civil rights activist who grew up in the city.
He says he learned the importance of activism from his mother, Mary E. Williams, who worked as a baker in the kitchen at the Woolworth's in Durham during milestone protests against lunch-counter segregation, Eurquhart says. She saw and experienced the Jim Crow era with agonizing proximity. "She taught me the role," he says. "Prepared me for the question of class and race."
Eurquhart has tried to do the same for his daughter and her son. Feely says she remembers standing outside of both the American and Liggett & Myers tobacco companies as early as elementary school, handing out pamphlets on workers' rights. By the time Feely started her first job at Northgate Mall at age 14, she knew more than her manager did about proper working conditions for minors.
"I got in trouble then for speaking my mind," Feely says. Like daughter, like father: Eurquhart is known for being candid. When Marie Hunter, president of the Southside Neighborhood Association, first started working with him, she says his outspokenness was off-putting.
"He tells people what he thinks they ought to know," Hunter says. "People just don't know how to take him sometimes." But by working with him, Hunter says, she's come to realize Eurquhart is just a man with a sometimes overwhelming sense of duty. Almost daily, he drives through the neighborhood in his metallic gray SUV, surveying progress on homes to be rehabbed, or pointing out areas of concern to city leaders and the media. He calls the excursions "windshield tours."
"Some years he says, 'I wonder if things will ever change,'" Feely says of her father. But then something will happen—the neighborhood will get a new sign, or host a clean up—and Eurquhart will regain faith that he'll see a transformation during his lifetime, she says.
Sometimes big changes start small. It's the same warm optimism in the Tracy Chapman song Eurquhart uses on his home answering machine: "They're talkin' 'bout a revolution. It sounds like a whisper ... Finally the tables are starting to turn."