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Another vision of Durham

Portrait in progress 

Another vision of Durham

Steve Channing places his much used telephone on his desk in the front office of Video Dialog, Inc. There's a For Lease sign in front of the house on Durham's Broad Street--which was built in the 1920s as company housing for an Erwin Mill supervisor--and Channing explains that he is moving downtown into a building purchased by Cynthia Hill, a filmmaker and Channing's partner in the Southern Documentary Fund, a nonprofit fundraising apparatus the two of them founded. Gesturing around at the capacious office, he explains that editor Tom Vickers has relocated much of the equipment to his home so he can work near his baby. "I've got a little more space than I need right now," Channing says.

The phone rings a couple of times, with callers wanting to offer contributions to Channing's new project, an ambitious multimedia history of Durham. Apologizing for the interruption, Channing says, "It's been crazy right now. We just had a wonderful interview with Felicia Lee [of the New York Times], who's writing a piece about February One," referring to his firm's acclaimed documentary about the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in, which aired on PBS's Independent Lens series on Tuesday, Feb. 1.

As if on cue, Rebecca Cerese, one of Channing's employees and the producer of February One, bustles in. "Any sign of the DVDs?" she asks anxiously. A moment later, Cerese reappears with a faxed copy of TV Guide's upcoming glowing review. A few minutes later, a UPS carrier comes in with the anticipated parcel from a DVD duplicating house. Cerese and Channing delightedly tear into the box, which contains their first retail copies of February One.

Things are good at Video Dialog these days, and Channing is about to embark on his most far-ranging project yet, one that encompasses his passion for documentary film, for teaching, for American history and for the rise, fall and rise of Durham itself.

Tentatively entitled Durham: A Self-Portrait, this project will include an hour-long film containing oral history and archival photos and film, a lavish, photo-filled coffee table book and a kit of educational materials for teachers. Budgeted at $500,000, this is no shoestring, credit card production, and Channing has worked for 2 1/2 years to get to this, the green light phase.

To make it official, he held a press conference early last week at the Durham Chamber of Commerce, in a room filled with civic dignitaries including incoming State Sen. Bob Atwater, Liggett Group CEO Ron Bernstein and retired Liggett CEO and philanthropist K.v. Dey (as well as the genial but mysteriously embattled Chamber President Tom White, one day after his purported resignation was to take effect and two days before the announcement that he would instead take two months paid leave).

Speaking to me two days later, Channing explains the press conference: "We wanted to send a message to the community that this project is happening. It's up and running."

Furthermore, this project differs from other documentaries in that Channing will depend on the kindness of longtime Durhamites to submit their old photos and home movies. The public launch yielded immediate benefits: After the Herald-Sun splashed the film on the next day's front page, Channing began receiving calls, one of which he takes during our interview.

"This woman says her family has home movies from the 1920s and 1930s," he says afterward, marveling while expressing some skepticism about the earlier dates. (In a follow-up phone call, Channing confirmed that the woman indeed possessed films dating back to 1928.)

Channing envisions the narrative of Durham as a microcosm of America, encompassing the major narrative points of settlement, Civil War crisis, development, Jim Crow, the emptying out of downtown, the Civil Rights movement, the loss of manufacturing jobs, the sprawling development outward and then, finally, the re-urbanizing trend of the last generation led by artists and young creative professionals. We discuss the ongoing conversion of tobacco warehouses led by such developers as Capitol Broadcasting's Jim Goodmon and West Village developer Tom Niemann and former Duke b-ballers Brian Davis and Christian Laettner.

When I remark that the developments--such as the recently completed Erwin Square west of downtown--seem to be betting on the arrival of regional rail in 2008, Channing smiles broadly. "Think back 150 years," he says. "In 1854, Bartlett Durham convinced the North Carolina Railroad to put a stop out here, where he'd bought some property," he says. "Without a train, you're dealing with wagons going over dirt roads for hundreds of miles."

It's surprising to learn that not only is Steve Channing, who's a very youthful 64 years old, not a Durham native, he's not even a son of the South. Instead, the future historian and documentarian grew up in Brooklyn's East New York, a neighborhood that had yet to acquire the fearsome reputation it has today. His childhood was spent taking trains into the city for theater and trips to Ebbets Field with his father to watch Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Carl Erskine and the other Bums in their boys of summer heyday. "We would always get seats on the first base side," Channing says, the better to admire the smooth fielding of Gil Hodges.

After getting a bachelor's and master's at Brooklyn College and NYU, Channing headed to Chapel Hill to study Southern history, a fertile time of scholarship in that field, largely driven by the desire to understand Jim Crow and the then-burgeoning Civil Rights movement. When he accepted a tenure track position at the University of Kentucky, his life seemed in order. "I wrote a book on the causes of the Civil War that won a national award. I was playing the game and having a good time."

But a new career beckoned when he agreed to participate in a Kentucky public television program about the history of the bluegrass state. "We were trying to find a famous Kentuckian who could host the series," he recalled. That celebrity turned out to be Patricia Neal. "She'd just had a stroke, right after winning an Academy award [for Hud], and it was all a big tragedy." As part of her comeback, Neal agreed to the film. "She was very kind and funny and treated us as equals. No prima donna stuff," Channing says.

This brush with movie glamour helped seal Channing's decision. "I was teaching freshman in the morning and going home to work with Patricia Neal. I remember thinking, 'I'd rather be doing this.'" Another successful PBS broadcast, Upon This Rock, a portrait of black churches in Kentucky, soon followed. "By this point, I was completely addicted. I thought about it a lot and eventually resigned my tenured position."

Returning to the North Carolina that he'd come to love while in graduate school, Channing first settled in Chapel Hill before relocating to his present home in Durham. A long and fruitful career making a wide range of educational and cultural films followed. (For more of Channing's resume, see www.videodialog.com. )

Despite Channing's credentials, raising funds for Durham: A Self-Portrait was an arduous task, but he received a crucial boost from the support of such local luminaries as retired Duke professor John Hope Franklin and retired Liggett CEO K.V. Dey. Franklin sits on the board of the Charlotte-based Duke Endowment, and his enthusiasm was a factor in convincing the foundation to support the project with a $200,000 challenge grant. Channing has now matched the grant, a feat made possible with the enthusiastic support of Dey, a longtime supporter of Durham cultural institutions such as the Carolina Theatre and the Durham Arts Council.

Now, Channing is looking for material support from the community, support in the form of contributions of photos, film and memories. "In the fullness of time, the materials will all be made available in archival form," he says, although he is still making those arrangements.

Channing hopes to premiere Durham: A Self-Portrait in time for the September 2006 Durham Bluesfest. To contact him with contributions, e-mail schanning@nc.rr.com .

  • Another vision of Durham

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