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What is it about Durham? I've lived in Raleigh, I've lived in Chapel Hill, and now I live in Durham, and I can tell you, it's different. It's beautiful, confusing, friendly, infuriating--and that's just on my way to work. But more than anything else, it acts like a full-fledged city, with all the joys and annoyances that go with that.

That's not quite as true of the other cities in the Triangle--though they aren't the places we stereotype them to be. Raleigh is bigger, but inside the Beltline it's a small Southern town, to the north it's Atlanta, and Wake County to the south and east is countryside and tobacco towns on their way to becoming something else. Far from being just a bedroom community, Cary is a city, all right, just without the big buildings. And Chapel Hill hasn't been a village for 50 years or more, but loves maintaining the myth.

But Durham, with its manufacturing, tycoon, banking, union scale, insurance and academic past, has just had more time for people to build the institutions and relationships that make for a big city. And it has done it with an incredible range of residents--white, Latino and African American, intellectual, rural and rich, downtown, suburban and working class.

Which brings us to this week's medley of stories. What do progressive political machinations, Michael Peterson, a class in protest and an arts council in flux have to do with each other? And why don't stories like these seem to happen as often in other places? They're all the products of a city where a variety of well established communities are, well, involved with each other.

The Durham Arts Council is a good microcosm. It has generated concern not because people don't like it, but because it is a remarkable institution that's so essential to the lives of so many people in the city. Thousands of children dance, act, paint and study there. So do many adults. It's a crossroad where people from all over town get together. And Durham is still a small enough city that many of those people know each other from their participation in other institutions. All you had to do was stroll through the Arts Council-sponsored Centerfest last weekend to see how many people knew and were known by so many others.

Politics and Peterson gossip and protest classes are the same way. The beauty of the Durham Committee-People's Alliance story is that it's about committed people finding ways to work together--or not. But they're out there, and they're working on it. As a columnist and politician, Michael Peterson became a touchstone for the whole town before his wife's tragic death; his trial has enlarged him to mythic proportions. And Duke--an unavoidable name in Durham--provides the setting for a class that makes protest a laboratory for high school writers at places everyone in Durham can identify.

Cities are machines of tremendous efficiency that make it possible for a vast range of people to support each other while pursuing their own dreams. What do these stories have in common? For Durhamites, they involve us all.

More by Richard Hart

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