Does the American Tobacco Trail unite or divide us? | Durham County | Indy Week
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Does the American Tobacco Trail
unite or divide us? 

Hey, is that a boy or a girl?"

I kept walking, and mumbled to myself: If you have to ask, you don't need to know.

"Goddam bitch? Why didn't you answer?"

My name's not bitch.

"Why are you getting all white on me?"

The 30-something man swung his trick bike in front of me, blocking my path shortly before the quarter-mile mark on the American Tobacco Trail. It was July, around 5:30 in the afternoon, with three hours of good daylight ahead.

We're right downtown. Anyone could see this.

I am 5-foot 3, barely 110 pounds. Even though I walk with purpose, per the self-defense manuals that advise don't present like a victim, in my adult life I have been stalked, harassed and chased. De-escalation, I have learned, is a better strategy than revenge.

"Just leave me alone," I replied, scowling. "I haven't done anything to you."

"I didn't mean anything," he said, faking sincerity. "Go on, go ahead of me."

You're not following me.

I dialed 911. He sped north on his bike. I went home another way, and didn't return to the trail for a year.

PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner

At 6.5 miles long and 10 feet wide, the northern segment of the American Tobacco Trail lies over a former rail bed that cuts from downtown to suburbia. Historically, railways have divided communities—thus, the phrase "wrong side of the tracks"—but converting the abandoned corridors to greenways is considered a way to help mend these divisions.

John Goebel was president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in the 1990s, when planning began for the ATT. "We saw an incredible opportunity and a resource to provide a trail, to bring people together from both sides."

Overall, the ATT trail itself is a model United Nations, attracting thousands of people of all ages, economic classes and ethnicities. But that unity ends at the trail's 3-foot shoulder. Because of the nature of railroads and the way Durham has grown, the ATT divides the city into east and west, white and black, north and south, haves and have-nots.

A new study, "Social Justice on the American Tobacco Trail," published by N.C. State University and N.C. Rails-Trails, examines the perception of crime on the greenway. It also looks at the "built environment"—lighting, benches, historical markers and connectivity—and concludes that a lack of it contributes to distrust, biases and, in rare cases, real crime on the trail.

"There only few spots on trail where you can cross into one neighborhood to another," says Kofi Boone, associate professor of landscape architecture at N.C. State, who contributed to the study. "The message is clear."

click to enlarge lakewood.jpg

Few places on the ATT embody the city's economic, racial and social divisions like the area near the 0.75 Mile Marker, where two ramps split off from the main path. To the east is St. Theresa, a low-income community of color, where the median household income is about $15,000 a year. To the west, Forest Hills is a largely white neighborhood characterized by homes in the upper six figures, where household incomes top $70,000 annually.

These neighborhoods used to be linked by the Apex Street Bridge, which the state department of transportation condemned in the early 2000s and later tore down, but not without controversy. The bridge had taken on not just the weight of cars but also the burden of race and class.

The ramps were intended to relink the neighborhoods, but the misperception of the ATT as a crime den, particularly within the first two miles, has persisted.

My unfortunate trail encounter happened in 2012, when there was an uptick in crimes reported on the ATT. I initially felt head shy about returning, but eventually realized the histrionics over the "crime spree" didn't reflect reality.

"It's pretty clear opinions were being formed about safety on the trail, but they weren't being formed on data," Boone says.

In fact, the study shows that in 2012–'14, of the 3,550 crimes reported within a 10-minute walk from the ATT, only 14 occurred on the trail itself. Most of them occurred near one intersection—Fayetteville and Pilot streets, just north of Mile Marker 2.

click to enlarge emergency1.jpg

These facts didn't stop a conservative website whitegirlbleedalot.com, from publishing a story with the headline "Black Mob Violence on the America Tobacco Trail." And when the ATT bridge over I-40 was under construction, social media lit up with comments that northern ne'er-do-wells would use the bridge to invade southern neighborhoods. (Because streets would be inconvenient? Or are they Civil War re-enactors?)

A TripAdvisor commenter named "Bubbatron" from Durham wrote in 2013 that "I got on the American Tobacco trail at a quiet suburban park and started peddling [sic]. In just a few minutes, I was in a part of town where I normally wouldn't go without a squad of Marines. I saw an interesting variety of emotions on the faces I passed. ... Some were filled with class or racial resentment."

Really, Bubbatron?

"Whenever you build a trail, people think hoodlums are going to come into neighborhood," says Goebel, chairman of the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission. "That's not happened."

Mile Marker 0 - PHOTO BY LISA SORG
  • Photo by Lisa Sorg
  • Mile Marker 0

Miles 0–1

Median household income, neighborhoods east of trail, $18,000–$21,000; west of trail, $58,000–$70,000African-American population: 84 percent east; 18 percent west

By the fall of 2013, I missed the trail more than I felt skittish about it, so I began commuting on it again—without a squad of Marines.

At Mile Marker 0, a sign tells me it is 1,263 miles to Key West and 1,637 to Calais, Maine, and I enjoy thinking about that connection.

Heading south, though, I notice that without formal connections to the trail, people create their own paths, known as "desire lines." In the first half-mile of the ATT, at least four desire lines cut through long grass or up a steep hill, where users have placed old boards to help them make the climb.

A Lakewood Connector, so named because a trail bridge crosses Lakewood Avenue, Boone says, could link the Southside and Henderson Towers to the ATT. [image-7

During the study's three community workshops, he says, "we heard from people that for them the trail is more utilitarian and not recreational. We need to create public spaces that attract positive behavior and connect neighborhoods."

I also notice surveillance cameras, paid for by Jim Goodmon, who owns the American Tobacco Campus, have been installed on poles within the first half-mile. I wonder where that footage is kept and for how long.

Lions lead to a back yard - near the 5.5-mile mark - PHOTO BY LISA SORG
  • Photo by Lisa Sorg
  • Lions lead to a back yardnear the 5.5-mile mark

Miles 1–2

Median household income: $22,000–$45,000 (near N.C. Central)African-American population: 84 percent

From the bus stop at Fayetteville and Pilot streets, I can hear the Dhuhr—the midday prayer—ringing from the loudspeakers at Masjid Ibad Ar-Rahman a block away.

It's something I rarely experience, and I feel lucky to have heard it.

This bus stop functions not only as a neighborhood gathering point but also as a friction point; most of the crime on the ATT occurs near here, between Mile Markers 1.5 and 2. One Sunday morning several years ago, I saw two people get into a fistfight near a spot where homeless people hang out.

"When the ATT was designed 15–20 years ago, that intersection came up then," Boone says. Part of the problem is what he calls the "weird built environment": cut-throughs, vast parking lots, the bus stop itself and a lack of amenities. For example, there are no lights—here or most places on the trail, even though it's open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Nor are there trail benches here, so someone has stuck an old chair under a tree.

If the desire lines were lit, paved or even covered in gravel, and included benches, these spaces would be what Emily Herbert, executive director of N.C. Rails to Trails, calls "formalized."

"The informal access points create and contribute to feeling of being unsafe there," Herbert says. "We can wall in these neighborhoods, or we can formalize the access points. Personally, I hope to formalize them. Otherwise it cuts off low-income residents' access to a community resource. That's not a direction we want to go."

To create a sense of community, the parking lots could be used for health fairs or produce and craft markets. The bus stops, Herbert says, could also have multiple uses. Some people already use them to do pull-ups. (Perhaps they're Marines.)

Boone suggests installing more cultural markers in the historic African-American neighborhood—similar to the one honoring Blind Boy Fuller near Mile Marker 2—to create a sense of pride and safety among residents and trail users. These markers say, "Someone's paying attention. Someone cares."

Bicyclists travel farther on the ATT than - joggers - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Bicyclists travel farther on the ATT thanjoggers

This is the same approach the city took in redesigning the streetscape at Angier and Driver streets in Old East Durham. In fact, the study suggests re-envisioning the entire first two miles of the ATT to create cohesion between the neighborhoods—and between the neighborhoods and the trail.

Several new loops—to N.C. Central and Lawson Street, to the Hayti Heritage Center—could be created to link the trail to the Hayti neighborhood, which was demolished in the 1960s by the construction of N.C. 147. (The Open Space and Trails Commission is already planning three additional trails in East and Northeast-Central Durham.)

Trails are expensive, though, about $1 million a mile, paved. That kind of money isn't in the city budget, so paying for extra trails would likely require a bond. In other words, expect progress to be slow.

"These new connections will take significant community and city commitment," Herbert says. "These are large-scale recommendations and a big conversation."

I'm at the Fayetteville Street bus stop again, waiting for the No. 5 to rescue me from the heat.

"Did you win?" A woman yells at a friend sitting at the stop.

"I didn't win shit," replies the man, who had just scratched off his lottery tickets.

"I thought you were lucky."

Durham is indeed lucky to have the trail. Now it's time to spread that fortune around, to create new connections with neighborhoods—and most important, between people.

Miles 2–4

Median household income, miles 2–3: $46,000 African-American population: 83–95 percent Median household income, miles 3–4: $38,000–$45,000 African-American population: 70 percent

Although I can hear Fayetteville Road to the west, this is the most isolated portion of the ATT. Flanked by curtains of kudzu, the trail guides me past thick groves of trees. This is akin to shinrin-yoku, Japanese forest bathing, which studies have shown reduces stress, anger, anxiety, depression and insomnia.

When school is in session, students from Hillside High use the trail, but on a weekday afternoon in the summertime, it’s just me and a comforting stretch of solitude.

click to enlarge woodcroft.jpg

Miles 4–6.5

Median household income: $69,000 African-American population: 19 percent west, 28–50 percent east

I emerge from my forest bath to confront a life or death question: Do I trust the Walk sign?

I have a greater chance of being creamed by a car at Martin Luther King Parkway at Fayetteville Road than of being robbed on the trail. I race across the intersection, and then on to the Mother of All Scary Crossings: Fayetteville Road at Solite Park. Some day, the city has assured us, Fayetteville Road will be realigned to resemble something other than a spider vein. Until then, say a couple of Hail Marys and cross with the light.

After Forest Hills, these adjacent neighborhoods, including Woodcroft, are the wealthiest along the ATT. Several homeowners have built private paths from their back yards to the trail—one is flanked by bronze lions—and most are protected by gates and No Trespassing and Private Property signs.

Several members of the Woodcroft Women’s Club wield long trash pickers to clean the trail of water bottles, empty beer cans and telltale palm-sized plastic bags.

“The bags of dog doo are what I hate the most,” one woman remarks.

The trail is packed with bicyclists and joggers on this Saturday morning, but many neighborhood residents, like their counterparts near Mile Marker 2.0, use it for transportation, an alternate to the busy and obnoxious Fayetteville Road.

“I take the trail to Southpoint to go to the movies,” one woman says, using her trash tongs to grasp a cap from a water bottle.

“I use it go shopping,” adds another, as she weighs whether to wade into poison ivy for a plastic cup. She decides against it.

While people can get to the mall on the trail, using it to travel to Southwest Elementary School is less popular. After several years, a small spur leading to the school has not been improved. “It’s just a dirt trail; it’s not been paved,” Goebel says. “There’s not an emphasis on biking and walking to school like there used to be.”

The trail used to end at Mile 6.5; now it spans another 11 miles and over I-40 via a new bridge. Joining the northern and southern ends was essential, but now it’s time to turn our attention to the underserved areas.

Walking Durham is a monthly column about exploring the social, economic and environmental issues of the city on foot.

  • Race and class on Durham’s favorite greenway

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