David Hanson. John and Vida Tubiolo. Nina Parrish. Joshua and Deborah Milan. Their homes and businesses pepper this working-class East Durham neighborhood along and between N.C. 147 and U.S. 70.
Hanson lives in a Depression-era house built from giant gray stones, next to the painting business that carries his name. A few blocks down Miami Boulevard, Tubiolo runs a furniture store in a squat brick building stuffed with plush sofas, its walls adorned with prints for sale; traffic roars a few steps beyond his front door. Parrish owns the duplex on Southerland Street, where pictures of Jesus hang in the windows like talismans. And the Milans moved in 2003 from a trailer to their old two-bedroom house on Angier Avenue, which sits beneath a canopy of trees. Out their windows, they can see the abandoned house next door and the busy Norfolk Southern train yard across the street.
Like 20 other households, seven business owners and two churches, the Milans and the Tubiolos, Hanson and Parrish are among the names and addresses that stand in the way of the N.C. Department of Transportation's plans to build the East End Connector, a highway Durham city and county officials have sought for decades. Most owners are resigned to the fact that their properties will be bulldozed in the name of progress, and some even look forward to starting over in a new place, using proceeds from the sale of their properties to the state. "Because of the growth we've had in Durham and in the [Research Triangle] Park, our highways are inadequate," Hanson, 55, says. "If Durham wants to continue to grow, we have to do something."
But a few East Durham residents with long memories fear that history is repeating itself. Like their fellow Durhamites to the north in Hayti, those whose homes are flattened aren't the only losers: The highway, cloverleafs and ramps will carve up adjoining neighborhoods, which must endure noise, pollution and an indelibly altered community. And some owners worry that the Department of Transportation won't compensate them fairly.
"We're not young," says Deborah Milan from her home on Angier Avenue. "You pay the house off with what they give you, and you may not have enough left over to buy a new house. We'll just have to get a trailer. I sure don't want to go back out in no rental."
The transportation department's most recent plans call for the construction of a six-lane divided highway to connect the Durham Freeway (N.C. 147) with Miami Boulevard (U.S. 70). The project, slated for construction in 2012, also includes widening portions of U.S. 70 and N.C. 147 and turning U.S. 70 into a full-fledged highway, with no access from the side streets. Although the East End Connector will be only 3.6 miles long, the state needs 88 acres and $198 million to complete the project. "It's a small project in length but big in impact because it's a connector," says Beverly Robinson, DOT project engineer.
Standing in front of his two-story house in the Hayestown community, a few blocks from the future highway, the Rev. Sylvester Williams explains why he's intent on preventing the impact and halting construction altogether. "We believe that it's designed to intentionally slight this part of Durham," he says. A pastor, Williams sprinkles his conversations with religious references. When asked how he's doing, he replies, "Good because of the Lord Jesus." But he also approaches his activism with religious fervor. As president of his neighborhood association, Williams says he feels responsible for advocating for local working-class blacks, who are skeptical of the aims of the DOT.
"A lot of people believe N.C. 147 was built intentionally to disrupt the black power base," Williams says, resolutely. "When we see the East End Connector, we see vestiges of the racist past that disrupted Hayti." With a sweep of his hand, he gestures toward the neighbors he says share the same foul taste in their mouths. Then he points to the north to cast the blame.
The East End Connector, a part of the original N.C. 147 project, has been on the books for nearly 50 years, but the state never moved beyond the planning stage because of a lack of funding. In 1989, the General Assembly started the N.C. Highway Trust Fund, but earmarked the multi-billion dollar pot for urban loop projects, not connectors. But in 2002, a grassroots movement of environmentalists and neighborhood associations, which Williams maintains consisted of mostly whites, helped defeat Durham's 20-mile northern loop project, Eno Drive. Then local officials pushed legislation to make the connector eligible for Highway Trust Fund.
"There was a lot of controversy over Eno Drive and there was a process to identify an alternative," says the city's transportation manager, Mark Ahrendsen. Eno Drive threatened the Eno River parklands, as well as several neighborhoods and schools. "What emerged rather than a loop project was a series of projects. And the top priority was the East End Connector."
Williams believes highway construction was redirected to East Durham before his community had a chance to respond. "We didn't feel that it was fair to come to this part of the city because we were poor," Williams says. "The Eno River Association is much more powerful than we are."
But after a series of community meetings at which most people supported the connector route that avoids the most homes, Durham and state officials moved forward with plans for construction.
Kenneth Spaulding, a Durham lawyer who serves on the N.C. Board of Transportation, is sensitive to how the Durham Freeway's legacy affects residents' feelings; he was among the blacks in the community who organized against the construction of N.C. 147. "The state DOT was heavy-handed in trying to push through a project without the appropriate concern for people that were being affected," he says of N.C. 147. "It was forced down people's throats."
But he says the East End Connector has been handled differently. "I know that there has been an effort to make decisions locally to have the least amount of impact on the least amount of people," he says, acknowledging, "Even if there are fewer people, it still impacts them just as harshly."
Jon Pernell Briggs. Milton and Nicole Moore. Brian Keith Ross. Landon Fitts.
They own nearly new homes on the 3200 block of Rowena Avenue, right in the middle of the connector's path. Built in 2004, the neat row of two-story cottages sits atop land once covered with towering trees. Herndon & Herndon Enterprises, a large Raleigh developer with projects across the region, sold the homes for $115,000 apiece; each of the owners leases the houses to renters.
Fitts' purchase made him a landlord for the first time. "I was researching getting into real estate investment a couple months prior to buying the property," says Fitts, who lives in Cary. "A friend of mine knew a builder who was building some properties on that street." He says he had no idea about future plans for his lot and that he and his tenants still have not heard from the DOT.
Briggs learned about the East End Connector last year. "The properties were bought specifically as an investment vehicle," he says. He owns four homes on Rowena, three of them in the path of the long-planned highway. "I'm still surprised." He says he did not research the proposed project until after he heard about it from the transportation department, when it was too late.
"The Department of Transportation was well aware," Briggs says. "The City of Durham was well aware. I'm surprised that knowing this they let somebody come and build on Rowena."
Frank Duke, outgoing director of the city-county planning department, says there's little he could have done about it. "They would have been approved because the plat was before the final [highway] alignment was chosen. Under state law, we can't hold up plats because of tentative plans. There have been cases where I wanted to hold one up because something is coming down the road, but I can't."
Briggs, who lives in Durham, says his real-estate investments support him and his family. Losing the homes will affect his livelihood, and he wonders how he will be compensated for his loss. "No one could provide real details as to how the properties would be assessed," he says.
When governments buy private land for public projects, they are required to pay "just compensation," or fair market value, for homes and land, although that varies widely in practice. "We have to have them appraised," says Robert Mathis, who handles right-of-way acquisition for the DOT. "It's not a figure that we pull out of a hat." He says appraisers with the department or private contractors visit each property and take account of the square footage, condition and building improvements, among other considerations. "We do not tell them what to appraise," he says. The department then makes an offer for the exact amount of the appraisal—almost always more than the tax-assessed value, he says—plus relocation costs in some cases.
But lawyers who regularly argue eminent domain cases say that the DOT tends to lowball land owners. "It is in their best interest to get property for the cheapest price available," says John Alan Jones, with the Martin & Jones law firm. "That's their mission. Fair-market value is such a subjective term."
"The Department of Transportation knows they are ultimately spending taxpayers' money and their job is to acquire property on the low end," says attorney Chris Olson, from the same firm.
If the Milans, Briggs, Fitts and other owners cannot reach a settlement, the Department of Transportation can initiate court proceedings to take the property, a process called eminent domain. Governments rarely lose those cases.
Renee Lindsley. John and Brenda Hintz. Thomas Poole. Longtime neighborhood residents, they've seen the price of progress and are resigned to it.
Lindsley runs a waterproofing business on Ellis Road, tucked in the forest at the end of a long driveway. Her end of Ellis has a strange mix of old homes and heavy industrial warehouses. Her property is no different. An older man rents the house that sits in front of her office building, which is flanked by a fleet of trucks. Lindsley apparently doesn't deal with many customers face-to-face: She keeps the office building locked and comes down when she hears the bell.
"I'm not happy about it," she says about the connector. "There's nothing I can do about it....You know what they'll do? They'll condemn the property and they'll take it. The government is not for the people."
Judging from the American flag that waves from a pole their lawn, the Hintzes might disagree. They've shared their home for 35 years, with its cozy porch ringed by bird feeders and chimes. A small wooden shop sits farther up their gravel driveway, filled with tools and the thousands of glass bottles John Hintz has unearthed over the years.
They reside across the street from the new homes on Rowena, where the children live who Hintz says play a little too close to the grass he's trying to grow. For decades, he's watched the neighborhood change.
"Right in front of you, there was nothing but woods—oak trees, pine trees," he says, reminiscing. "There used to be a little couple that lived there. Then these guys bought these houses."
He says Durham needs the new connector—"these people have to go somewhere"—and he's not opposed to surrendering his house to make way. Then he and his wife could move closer to their grandchildren, who beckon from points farther west.
"We're at the age now where this is a big house for us and this dog," John Hintz says, not mentioning the cat shying away in the next room. "We're hoping that they'll come sooner rather than later."
"We've been hearing about it so long," Brenda Hintz adds. "When it happens, it happens."
For the most part, the residents and business owners bow before the power that promises to push them away; only a few hold on to the hope of resisting.
Thomas Poole Sr. lives on U.S. 70, neither here nor there, but on the path in between. His country home is quaint and out of place on the rip-roaring highway, a relic from more idyllic times. He says he puts his life in his hands whenever he pulls his car in or out of his driveway. But Poole, who used to be a supervisor at a local sausage company, is not burdened with nostalgia, nor does he cling to the property that's been in his family 40 years.
"I'll be fine," he says of the possibility of relocation. "I got no problem with that."
Poole's had cancer twice and he suffered from an aneurysm just a few weeks ago. "I'm 80 years old. I'm going to leave the house to my son when I kick the bucket. I would like to stay here 'til I do, but if I don't, I don't. I don't get excited anymore."