On one tip of Durham's Little Five Points section, sandwiched between a tattoo parlor, churches and storefronts that include a fire hydrant shop, local musicians and activists are trying to seize a moment.
Last month, that spirited group opened Bull City Headquarters, a community-supported, multi-use public space at 723 N. Mangum St. In that space, they plan to do what the community wants, offering workshops and public service events for their city. They're also Durham's newest music venue, holding regular free shows.
"There's not really any public space that people can just use in Durham, without some fees involved, and that can be molded by the people who start it," board member Chaz Martenstein says from the sales counter at his Bull City Records. "We're having our fourth show this weekend, and fingers crossed, things keep going."
The timing is right in Durham, too. Bands are springing up in the city, and the rents are not discouraging or pricing out parties interested in opening their doors to those acts. Martenstein is a cheerleader of sorts for Durham and its music scene, the type of fan who includes multiple exclamation points and stream-of-consciousness rants about what he's excited about in his e-mail updates on local music.
For Bull City HQ, he's sharing that enthusiasm and the club's responsibilities with a board of directors comprised of six musicians and activists. There's Catherine Edgerton and Kym Register of antifolk duo Midtown Dickens, Shane O'Neill of Future Kings of Nowhere, Beloved Binge's Rob Beloved, Rebekah Meek, and Toby Mueller-Medlicott, who handles the activist side of the planning. Martenstein says the group's cooperation should work to the space's advantage. "We all have our own vested interest in the space," he says. "We were all friends before this, so that could come in handy if things get tough." [Full disclosure: Meek is a graphic designer at the Independent, and Edgerton is our news clerk.]
Martenstein says rent isn't too bad, and that—because the space has so many equal partners—they're able to split rent six ways during quiet months. They've relied on fundraisers and individual donations to fund their start-up costs for moving into a barren space that needed paint and some other minor fixes. BCHQ will also host a monthly fundraiser show to support its rent. They're getting help from The Durham Bike Co-Op, as well, a nonprofit group working for skill-sharing workshops like how to change a bike tube, bicycle recovery and redistribution. The co-op shares the space and a quarter of the rent: "We have two separate groups, but we try to keep it as symbiotic as possible," Martenstein says. "We're all new to this, so we're trying to keep it up."
The committee running BCHQ also realizes they haven't opened a space in a vacuum: Historic neighborhoods in Durham take on new contexts as the city constantly redefines itself. BCHQ is working to fit into a largely African-American locale, seeking advice from neighbors and historians. The local neighborhood association has provided practical advice, and Gary Kueber—a Durhamite who once served on the Historic Preservation Society of Durham and now runs the Endangered Durham photo-history blog—has "been giving background on the neighborhood, since he is acquainted with the area's past, and introduced us to folks there," Martenstein says. While renovating the BCHQ space, the workers started leaving the space's door open, so neighbors could filter in. After all, they want this to be a community space.
"We didn't have any grand ideas about reclaiming public space. I thought it'd be nice to have a big empty room to do anything you wanted in Durham," says Martenstein. "At the record store [where he once hosted music shows], anybody could walk in, and now we have that at BCHQ. I think it breeds more interesting ideas and, well, positive energy."