The cab driver's face is flaking. The young girl's dress is torn. The woman's shirt, covered in rose petals, is full of holes, as if chewed on by moths.
The Hayti mural, painted in 1999 on a concrete block wall at the Heritage Square Shopping Center in Durham, resembles a back that has been badly sunburned and is peeling.
"It's sad," says Angela Lee, executive director of the Hayti Heritage Center, a block away. "This mural is a critical piece of Durham's history."
The decrepit condition of the mural—and the lack of public outcry about it—symbolizes the north-south divide between the relative prosperity downtown and the economic struggles of an African-American neighborhood separated by the freeway, just a half-mile away.
Heritage Square Shopping Center, on six acres at Lakewood Avenue and Fayetteville Street, is as dead as the pay phone in front of Food World, its anchor tenant. Fronted by a sea of asphalt, the center is home to Family Dollar and Subway, a flea market, a hair salon and drug rehab counseling services. On a recent morning, a portion of the sidewalk was cluttered with bed headboards and an upturned maroon vinyl recliner.
Since 2007, Scientific Properties has owned Heritage Square, which it purchased from Charles Justesen of Venture Assistance Corp. That company had defaulted on the shopping center's property taxes and three city-funded loans totaling $962,000, according to media reports at the time.
"No one has seen these buildings as anything but tear-downs," says Gary Kueber, chief executive officer of Scientific Properties, which, until the recession, planned to build new retail and residential on the site, a former landfill. "It's a challenging property to develop."
The challenges began long before Heritage Square was built in 1986. Hayti has never recovered from the "urban renewal" that desecrated the African-American neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s. This is when the Durham Freeway was constructed, and in the process, divided neighborhoods and demolished homes and businesses.
Even with the promise of the new Lofts at Southside, a spiffy mix of affordable and market-rate housing across Lakewood Avenue, Heritage Square has failed to attract legitimate commercial interest. Its only suitors have been Internet sweepstakes parlors and plasma centers, both of which Kueber rejected.
Downtown workers, visitors and residents rarely, if ever, walk south of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park except to park on Blackwell Street.
"People have these boundaries in their minds, and they are hard to change," Kueber said. "The difference in perception is ridiculous, but it's real." It's over the curve of the Earth for people patronizing downtown Durham."
The northern gateway to Hayti along Fayetteville Street is blighted with unfulfilled plans. A Philadelphia company tore down the former Fayette Place housing project with hope of building student apartments on the lot. That never happened, and the ground is littered with concrete slabs. The lot could become the new headquarters for the Durham Police Department.
Phoenix Square, a nearby shopping center, is less decrepit than Heritage Square, but still needs significant TLC. It is owned by Larry and Denise Hester, who asked the city for $500,000 in loans earlier this year to fix up the center. However, the Hesters have a troubled financial history with Durham; they were involved in an attempt to build Rolling Hills with city loans but the city had to repossess the property. A new developer built the Lofts at Southside.
If the Lofts at Southside succeed and the area becomes more economically vibrant, Heritage Square will be demolished. That, and the expense of restoration, are the reasons why the mural has not been repaired, Kueber says.
Two years ago, Eddie Davis, now a City Councilman, discussed the condition of the mural, which commemorates the historical African-American neighborhood, with the Durham Appearance Commission. The commission told Davis that it had no jurisdiction over the mural, according to meeting minutes.
The years of southern sun have scorched the Hayti mural, which would be costly to restore. A different type of paint would have to be used, one that could withstand southern exposure.
"It's terrible, a shame," Davis says. "But no one has spoken up about it. Not even members of the black community I've spoken with."
Contrast that lack of community response with the public outrage earlier this summer when Caktus Group, a tech company, covered over the Eno River mural, which Emily Weinstein had painted in 1986 on the back of the Penny Furniture Co. building downtown.
Weinstein also painted the Hayti mural, with the help of about 200 Durham schoolchildren, including kids ages 8–12 from the PROUD program and the Durham Housing Authority.
"One day, I was walking across the parking lot and I heard a little girl say, 'I was the model for that,'" Weinstein says. "It wasn't true, but it was adorable."
The mural depicts life during Hayti's heyday, including children playing and blues musician John Dee Holeman performing on a porch.
As Weinstein worked on the project, she encountered people from the neighborhood. A dapper, elderly African-American man approached her "He said, 'I worked with the civil rights movement, and there are no white people in the mural,'" Weinstein recalls. So in a corner of the mural, her collaborator, David Wilson, painted a white person—who has since been exfoliated from the wall.
"I get lots of calls asking me what can we do," Weinstein says. "It's tragic to watch. We could find another wall. It needs to be in a prominent place."
A Better Place is a column about Durham development.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The writing is on the wall."