The ghosts of Durham's industrial age are alive and well in Golden Belt. The land where houses stand today was once where mill workers spent their precious leisure hours, just blocks from the busy textile mill that employed them. Golden Belt, which lies about a mile east of City Hall and is the last intact mill village in the city, isn't like the city's other historic neighborhoods. There are no sprawling front porches or pronounced entryways; it's decidedly working class, and it's been this way for over a century, since the mill was built in 1901.
The residents within Golden Belt's nearly forty acres live and breathe this history. And for DeDreana Freeman, who moved to Golden Belt in 2007, that history serves as a connection to the whole of Durham. Her four-bedroom home is similar to almost every other house in Golden Belt, single-family structures built in the early twentieth century to accommodate workers at Golden Belt Manufacturing Company.
On a recent Friday evening, Freeman's three kids were out front in the small yard riding bicycles, while her husband, Antoine, grilled burgers and hot dogs on the front porch. Inside, she was hosting a community potluck, something residents have done frequently since 2008. Neighbors came and went, but for the dozen or so who stuck around well into the night, this wasn't just another neighborhood gathering. It was a strategy session.
Since 2010, the residents of Golden Belt have been lobbying the city to designate their neighborhood a local historic district, a tool often used to prevent unwanted new development or stabilize neighborhoods in transition. That's what Golden Belt is—in transition—a place once riven with drugs and prostitution that today displays markers of progress: owner-occupants instead of renters, houses and yards kept up, crime declining, the sort of up-and-coming neighborhood developers eye like hawks.
Other former mill villages in Durham have fallen prey to real estate pressures. In the eighties, the now-burgeoning Old West Durham saw 450 mill houses razed to make way for the Durham Freeway and part of Duke University's campus. So far, Golden Belt has been spared. But given its proximity to downtown, that's likely to change.
A historic designation, the neighbors say, will ensure that new construction respects the neighborhood's history and architectural style. All they need is for the city to sign off when the proposed district comes before the city council on September 6.
But one Bull City institution is not on board: the Durham Rescue Mission, which for the last several months has been aggressively lobbying the city to exempt twenty properties it owns from the historic district. The Rescue Mission argues that the designation would preempt its plans to build a community center on those lots.
Since April, when the Historic Preservation Commission first approved the proposed boundaries, emails from Rescue Mission supporters have poured into council members' inboxes: "I am writing to ask you to support the Durham Rescue Mission in its efforts to build a civic center in North East Central Durham. You can do so by excluding the Durham Rescue Mission's property on the East Side of Highway 55 from the proposed Local Historic District for the Golden Belt Neighborhood," reads one.
But doing so, preservationists contend, would undermine the entire purpose of the district. "Our historic districts are something that help us retain the patterns or our history, and that context is really important," says Lisa Miller, the point person for historic preservation in the Durham City-County Planning Department. "So when you start carving out portions of a district, at first it doesn't have a significant impact, [but] whittling it down makes it more difficult to hold on to that sort of context."