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Durham's got a downtown going?

Durham: Cool, gritty, grand and growing 

Durham's got a downtown going?

Is it "gritty"?

I'm on the Durham beat, looking for some things that are the "best of" a city that I don't pretend to know a whole lot about—I'm a Raleigh guy, remember, with the occasional foray to Cary. Every time I come to Durham, unless it's to the Independent office or the DBAP (to the world, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park), I can pretty much count on getting lost. It's the @#%&* streets, stupid! (In the dead downtown!) But I'm nothing if not aware of my prejudices, so I've volunteered for the Durham assignment to see if I might need an attitude adjustment about the Bull City. Asking around about what might characterize Durham's "best," someone says "gritty." All right, I'll try that out.

Cool John Ferguson plays at the West Village Courtyard - PHOTO BY JESSYE MCDOWELL
  • Photo by Jessye McDowell
  • Cool John Ferguson plays at the West Village Courtyard

To assist me in my endeavors, I enlist Lanya Shapiro, the force of nature who started Traction (www.gettraction.org) and right off I want to name them both among Durham's best: Let's call Shapiro the "best organizer" and Traction the "best activist progressive group (for the 20- and 30-somethings, but there are older folk, too) that isn't all battles about the bylaws and/or the critical defects of House Bill-Whatever." Traction is based on the premise that politics is, first and foremost, about creating community spirit, which is supposed to be fun. So its events are a mix of dodgeball games and bicycle tours along with the usual protests and issue dissections.

Is Durham gritty? I ask. Shapiro says we should meet downtown for Third Friday, when Durham shows off its cultural best. The old Culture Crawl? I say. But I thought that was past history since Jo (of the sadly defunct Joe & Jo's) stopped running it. "Well, how's this for gritty?" Shapiro says. "We change the name, and we don't tell anybody."

So we meet at Piedmont (401 Foster St., 683-1213, www.piedmontrestaurant.com), the new restaurant on Foster Street. It's an eye-opener—cool, hip, could be in Raleigh, but maybe not because it's not real big or ostentatious—and in Raleigh today, we're into white-tablecloth restaurants, which this decidedly is not. I will dub it "best new restaurant I saw." (I came back a few days later and had brunch, which was excellent and not expensive, even with a mimosa.) So now, what about gritty? Oh, says my Best Bartender of the evening, longtime Durham artist and musician (Maltswagger) Mark Cunningham, that's so five to 10 years ago. "You kind of take that for granted," Cunningham says. "How about green," he says, in contrast to old, brown Michigan, where he came from. "And burgeoning."

Burgeoning? Durham? I'll have to think about that one, but before I can, in comes Cris Rivera, an accountant and one of the many friends of Shapiro we'll meet tonight. "Gritty?" she says. "That's a great one."

Outside we go. We've been joined by Rivera and, now, by Celeste Richie, who works in Raleigh (she's a diversity coordinator at N.C. State's College of Natural Resources) but loves and lives in Durham. "Durham has so much going for it, but as soon as you tell people you live there, they go, 'Oooh'—we're like the hole-in-the-wall restaurant that's great but nobody knows about it."

Speaking of places no one knows, we are looking, across the street, at Durham Central Park (www.durhamcentralpark.org), something I'd read about so many times without ever encountering it that I assumed it was an urban myth—a name slapped on some dead-downtown corner, maybe. But no, that's it right there, a charming little hillside of green (hat tip to Cunningham) with a footbridge right out of the The Music Man that you're unlikely to stumble upon, however, if you don't know where it is. But you do know its name because it's got the best park-name sign painted high up on the building that supplies its eastern edge. And there are, OK, not a lot of people walking down Foster Street on a crisp spring night, but people nonetheless, in a steady stream.

I'm disoriented. I look to my right, and up the hill, and I realize I'm not far away from the dead downtown, only it doesn't look so dead; in fact, this small oasis of urban community on Foster Street is in neat contrast to the big, bad buildings above me and could, in time, succeed in breathing some life into them, too. Durham's got a downtown going? It goes against everything I've ever believed.

But now Richie and Shapiro are off on the subject of Dumpster diving, which before you say "Oooh," is both a real activity much to be proud of in Durham, apparently, and also, in their view, a metaphor for digging out Durham's hidden gems. The real activity? It's a springtime rite for the young and—in Traction fashion—the young at heart (or the thrifty-to-a-fault). Each spring when exams are over, departing Duke students chuck out perfectly good possessions that, for whatever reason, they cannot be bothered to retain or relocate to their country estates. Shapiro insists that she's fished at least $2,000 worth of "best of" items from Duke's remainders, including the exact model of IKEA loveseat she was fixing to buy. And a working microwave. And—well, it was a long list.

The Scrap Exchange - PHOTO BY REX MILLER

We come to the Scrap Exchange (548 Foster St., 688-6960, www.scrapexchange.org). "Best place to find recycled, overstock, very useful and/or gotta-have-it-for-your-crafts projects stuff" I've seen anywhere. And it's nonprofit. Need blue ribbons? (And who, at some time or other, doesn't?) They're 25 cents. Pieces of rope? Empty ribbon spools? I could go on. (And on.) Wallpaper rolls, fabric scraps (or whole bolts)—my wife, with me on a return visit and imagining some existence in which we had both time and skills (Writer's Note: She has skills; I do not), declares that she could make a fabulous patchwork coat, and visions of old Red Skelton routines come into my head. But then, some people do make patchwork coats.

We meet Sarah Woodard. She was born in Raleigh, inside the Beltline even. Likes it. Doesn't go there much anymore, though, same as Raleigh people don't come to Durham. "We have great culture here, great restaurants," she says. "Durham is the undiscovered city of the Triangle."

As if on cue, in comes Robert Harper. He's a friend of mine from Raleigh. Spending more time in Durham though, he says. He likes Alivia's Durham Bistro (900 W. Main St., 682-8978, www.aliviasdurhambistro.com) as a "best of" restaurant. It's new. When I seek it out later, it's all good—a relaxed bistro with big glass windows, bar food late and "corrected coffees," which means they use a fair-trade product called Intelligentsia and add liquors. It's over by The Federal (914 W. Main St., 680-8611, www.thefederal.net), another Harper "best," but older, darker and more neighborhood bar-like. Both places feature outdoor seating, an urban draw, with a view of the comings and goings from nearby Brightleaf Square (905 W. Main St., www.historicbrightleaf.com).

An old standby, Brightleaf Square should not be overlooked. It's still got the "best pizza, beer and watch TV or don't watch it" place in the Triangle, imo, that being Satisfaction (682-7397). To which Brightleaf has added a couple of newer places to eat that people bragged about, Piazza Italia (956-7360, www.piazzaitalia.us), where the pasta's homemade, and Mt. Fuji (680-4968), where sushi's the specialty, with half-off specials sometimes. Plus antiques, sundries and—another nice find—Offbeat Music (688-7022), a locally owned music store where, says owner Patrick McKenna, "we emphasize the things that the chain stores are ignoring—stuff that's just below the charts." (For sale the day I went in: the original Home Cookin' platter, used, by Jr. Walker and the All Stars.)

Brightleaf, remember, is the model for adaptive reuse of an old tobacco building, and it set the bar high for the American Tobacco complex and West Village developments that followed and—between them—contain the promise of an alive, diverse and—note bene, Raleigh—even affordable downtown. With transit.

Back on Foster Street, we drop in to the Bull City Arts Collaborative (www.bullcityarts.org) next door to the Piedmont and meet Dave Wofford, proprietor of Horse & Buggy Press (401-B Foster St., 949-4847, www.horseandbuggypress.com). His letterpress printing and design work is a clear "best"—best booklets, books, posters, signs (and the cover of this week's Independent)—and I recognize it from his days when he was part of the antfarm collective in Raleigh's Boylan Heights neighborhood. Yes, Wofford says. He married a Durhamite. For a while, they had a bi-county relationship, but finally she convinced him to leave Raleigh for Durham, and now he's glad he did. "The neighborhoods are more neighborly," Wofford says. Downtown, you can walk from one neighborhood to another more easily, he adds. And it's easier to leave town, too, and get out to the country on a bike. And the clincher: "You can live downtown and not pay $300,000 to do it. I'm trying to convince my Raleigh friends of that—who've been looking for a house over there for four years and are about to give up."

Some other Foster Street attractions:

Manbites Dog Theater (703 Foster St., 682-3343, www.manbitesdogtheater.org). Is it the best local theater in the Triangle? We ran into Margaret Sartor, author of Miss American Pie: A Diary of Love, Secrets and Growing Up in the 1970s, who told us MBT should be a "best of." I'm not a theater critic, but I will say that Manbites' solid brick building is exactly the kind of stage door experience you want in a comfortable downtown.

The Durham Farmers' Market (501 Foster St., 667-3099, www.durhamfarmersmarket.com). Saturday mornings. It's small, unlike the State Farmers' Market in Raleigh, and it's in town, not out. "It's just so fun and down to earth, and all of these local people selling their crafts," said Kendra Cumming, a Chapel Hillian I met on my way in. "I love to come here."

Liberty Arts (538 Foster St., 682-2673, www.libertyartscasting.org). It's the "best foundry" in the Triangle, but that's faint praise. It's right across from the Farmers' Market; check it out. They'll show you how they do bronze casting, and for a fee, teach you to do it, too. Their building, the George Watts Hill Pavilion, is a great work in its own right—cut steel and forged gates that invite you into what is—to my surprise—a hot, hard-working, even gritty (yes!) if nonprofit metal shop. A shop, not incidentally, that's turning out artful bronze casts all over Durham, including the giant turtle ("Mr. Al Pickles") in Durham Central Park.

Last word from Foster Street goes to Barry Ragin, a leader of the nearby Duke Park Neighborhood Association (www.rtpnet.org/dukepark) who, when we meet him, starts singing the odd virtues of their recent Beaver Queen Pageant (beaverlodgelocal1504.org). "You've never seen anything like it, it's like a drag show about beavers," he says. (Beavers are a big issue in Duke Park, apparently. And yes, next year bring the kids, because the double entendres go right over their heads.) Is this more evidence that Durham's "gritty"? I ask. "Hmm," he says. "How about human-scaled?"

So now, for the rest of the story. In our wanderings downtown, we were told about a bunch of other "bests," too many for one expatriate Raleigh man and his faithful wife to pin down in a single year. But we nailed a few:

Locopops (2600 Hillsborough Road, 286-3500, ilovelocopops.com) is the place for Mexican ice pops called paletas, very tasty. But what we liked best was how happy this little strip-mall place is, with the moms and dads and kids, and in particular—the day we were there—Miss Esme Roberts, age almost 1, with her purple-cream-covered smile.

By day, Chino Latino (2900 Holloway St., 596-9478) is a nondescript Chinese-Mexican restaurant. But by night, it's a sweaty Latin dance scene—mostly gay-male and Hispanic, but with a smattering of Anglos, straights, women, men dressed as women, and so on. And Saturdays, after midnight, the dance floor clears for two shows by an array of drag-queen performers who give new meaning to the term "diversity." (Safe? Sure felt like it. And the massage parlor across the way? No complaints in four years, said one of the two cops who were standing duty outside.)

Durham's got a lot of good taco joints, but Los Comales (2103 N. Roxboro Road, 220-1614) is the best, in our very unscientific sample.

The Regulator Bookshop (720 Ninth St., 286-2700, www.regbook.com) just celebrated its 30th birthday, so hopefully you know about it. If not, it's maybe the best thing in Durham and anchors Ninth Street, which is still a place worth going.

And when you're on Ninth Street, have lunch at Bahn's (750 Ninth St., 286-5073), which really is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with generous portions of good Chinese and Vietnamese dishes for pretty cheap. Wednesday lunches are the best—that's when the authentic Vietnamese fare is featured.

The black history of Durham is a subject for books (and there are books about it in the Durham County Library, which in my experience has always been a "best" community gathering place). I didn't spend enough time on it, but I do highly recommend Stagville (5828 Old Oxford Highway, 620-0120, www.historicstagvillefoundation.org), a restored plantation north of Durham complete with slave quarters. This year, on June 23, Stagville will be holding its first Juneteenth celebration, marking the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The event will feature another Durham "best," a black stringband called the Carolina Chocolate Drops (www.sankofastrings.com/ccd). And on the subject of Durham musicians, I just heard bluesman Cool John Ferguson (www.musicmaker.org) perform for the first time recently (in Raleigh, oddly). He's not just "the best" of Durham (especially since he's recently moved back to South Carolina). He's one of the best alive. Definitely gritty.

Bull City Headquarters - PHOTO BY KYM REGISTER
  • Photo by Kym Register
  • Bull City Headquarters

Our last stop that Third Friday night was at Bull City Headquarters (723 N. Mangum St., www.myspace.com/bchq). It's a throwback of a very sweet sort—I was imagining the first place in Greenwich Village, before they thought to call it "the Village." Old high-ceiling building, nice acoustics, an old sofa and very few chairs, so people with good knees are setting on the floor listening to the music. I picked up a schedule. They've got writing nights and urban gardening nights and art openings for students' works, and on Sunday afternoons they fix bicycles "for the community" (it's a co-op). We arrived in time to hear The Water Callers, two guys named Bart Matthews and Jason Fagg who were quite good on guitars and drum. They have a song called "Durhamite." Its last chorus:

Durham, my Southern home
Durham, where colors blend
Durham, I'm proud to call myself a Durhamite to the end.
Durham, I'll take a walk in
Durham, and see my friends,
Durham, I'm proud to call myself a Durhamite to the end.

  • Durham's got a downtown going?

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