Durham's economic development department has proposed funding a cultural center near N.C. Central University that would include a jazz café, a multi-use space for lectures on African-American culture and history, a gift shop and a bookstore.
"Culture is at the heart of what the project is about," Gwendolyn McLaughlin Bookman, daughter of the building owner, Mozella McLaughlin, told the Indy. "We want to develop a very high-caliber center that is a go-to place for the people in Durham."
Yet such a center already exists at 2520 Fayetteville St.—in the exact space proposed and owned by the McLaughlins—a decidedly scrappy, though widely renowned, African-American bookstore, jazz club, soul food café and lecture spot called The Know Bookstore.
The money for the McLaughlins' new venture would come from the city's proposed neighborhood revitalization grant of up to $175,000—part of the $750,000 Durham has committed to boosting development in low-income neighborhoods.
"I'm not against her receiving money," Bruce Bridges, The Know Bookstore owner, said of McLaughlin, who has been his landlord for the past 18 years. "But I'd like to see where I fit into this. I built this business up."
The deal between the city and the McLaughlins seems to squeeze Bridges out of the picture. The McLaughlins' plan diminishes The Know to just one-fourth of a cultural center Bridges helped establish. The building's restaurant and the improvised performance space where Bridges currently hosts Friday night jazz sessions and a lecture series would be farmed out to other tenants, including Dillard's Barbeque, which has a restaurant just seven blocks south on Fayetteville Street. Meanwhile, Bridges would likely have to pay higher rent, Bookman acknowledged, and relocate or shut down during building renovations.
Maureen "Owl" Richmond, a Pittsboro-based jazz flutist who began jamming at Bridges' Friday night sessions, reflected on the possibility of the venue closing: "No more Friday night jam, no more hanging out with tradition, no more watching the cats handle their passages as they do—not just talking about it theoretically, but being up close to them, 6 inches away, breathing the same air, listening to the same cue."
Yet Bookman said that such a sense of place holds little sway in a tenant-owner relationship.
"The concept that his business is somehow rooted in our building is ridiculous," Bookman said. "At the core of it, Bruce is a tenant. If the owner of the property decides to develop the property in the way the owner decides to do, the tenant needs to be part of the owner's conversation. The tenant cannot drive the conversation."
That conversation came to a boiling point at a City Council hearing this week, when Bridges addressed supporters of the McLaughlins' plan, who praised the potential benefits of an all-ages, alcohol-free cultural space.
"The things you all mentioned, I'm already doing that," he said. "And I cannot sit around and just allow the city and members of the African-American community to just take my business, relocate me and relegate the Know Bookstore to nothing."
Durham's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, which has aided major downtown investments like the Durham Performing Arts Center and the American Tobacco Campus, has received a mandate from City Manager Tom Bonfield to look to neglected neighborhoods, such as Hayti, where The Know resides. Under Bonfield's direction, the department will be folded into a new "community building" department that will focus on neighborhood development, in addition to big-ticket downtown deals. And, amid budget cuts, the city committed $750,000 from its FY 2009-10 budget to a dedicated "neighborhood revitalization grant program," one of the few areas where it increased spending.
However, the city must reevaluate the grant because the Office of Economic and Workforce Development erroneously stated that it had confirmed its tax revenue projections with the county tax appraiser's office, which it had not. City Council will discuss the McLaughlins' grant proposal Sept. 21.
"There is something owed to that neighborhood, and it would be to everybody's advantage to preserve and hold onto and raise back up the vitality of the arts and the culture that was there," Richmond said of Hayti. "But Bruce has been doing that. He's been doing it in his own funky little way. Why does it make sense to squeeze out an African-American who has been dedicated to this for two or three decades?"
Bookman, whose family has developed businesses in the area since the 1940s, agreed the city should invest in overlooked neighborhoods, but said she did not feel an obligation to preserve the cultural institution at The Know.
"I feel an obligation to my black community," she said. "My commitment is not to Bruce as an individual, but to bring something of quality to that neighborhood."
Meanwhile, Bonfield told the Indy that revitalizing Fayetteville Street and keeping The Know in business are not mutually exclusive: "Everything I recall is there was an expectation that [The Know] would remain in some way," he said. "That's another piece the staff will look at when we go back. It's one of those fine lines because we typically don't get involved in tenant-landlord issues."
Bonfield added: "I think it's a challenge sometimes, and there's a lot of emotion and a lot of passion about individuals and about history, which is good. But in the case of us making a strategic economic development proposal, we shouldn't base it just on that."