Changing Durham

It was fifteen years ago this month that I first moved to Durham. My sister and her husband were kind enough to share their tiny house on Shenandoah Avenue, which had window A/C units in the bedrooms, but no central air. The heat horrified me. As did the two-inch cockroaches I found strolling casually around the premises (assurances that these were, in fact, “just palmetto bugs” only convinced me that southerners were delusional). From what I could tell, there was just one bookstore (thank god for The Regulator), one upscale restaurant (then, The Magnolia Grill), and one (maybe two?) decent bars. I found that I had moved from what I thought of as a cultural mecca - Ann Arbor, Michigan, land of bookshops and gourmet restaurants and reasonable temperatures – to a sleepy Southern tobacco town. I spent a lot of time on my sister’s side porch, smoking (and crying) in the heat.

Things started to look up after I landed my first job at Fowler’s, where I served coffee and stocked the shelves with wine, pepper jelly, and chocolate bars. After work, I spent hours on the Fowler’s porch, watching trains go past and soaking in the essential southern funkiness that is Durham. I started to – kind of, sort of – like this foreign world of kudzu and “y’alls” and sleepy afternoons. My second job – after a stint at UNC Chapel Hill getting my masters degree – was at Durham School of the Arts. I stayed there for ten years, during which time I got married and had two kids (by then I guess I’d decided I’d stick around). My first years at DSA, I taught in the Carr Building, which had enormous, pulley-operated windows that you could open (and maybe close again, if you were lucky) to let in the smell of tobacco from the Lucky Strike factory up the street.

By the time I left DSA, the Carr Building had been renovated, the tobacco factory had been converted to luxury condos, The Magnolia Grill had become Monuts, Fowler’s had become Parker and Otis, and little-by-little, Durham had become what it is today – a thriving, urban area that people move to for the art and the culture that I thought was missing when I moved here from Ann Arbor.   

The unique culture of Durham – the grit mixed in with the charm, like fancy new letters on a brick wall that’s been there for a century – had always been there, it just took me a while to see it. In many cities that undergo the kind of change Durham has seen over the past fifteen years, the change has come from the outside in. That’s happened in Durham, too, in the form of chain restaurants and corporate skyscrapers that longtime Durhamites may or may not be fond of. But still, the best and most prevalent kind of change in Durham has been from the inside – Durhamites opening art galleries and restaurants, starting non-profits and farms and small businesses.  Independent business still thrives in Durham, and the way things are looking, it will continue to thrive for a long time.

Part of that thriving success is due to another changing landscape – that of the internet. When I moved here, I didn’t have a laptop – if I wanted to learn more about a business, I walked into it.  I didn’t have a cell phone, either – or Facebook, or Instagram. My social media outlet was the Independent Weekly newspaper, and when I finally summoned the energy to apply for jobs one humidity-soaked afternoon, I went on foot.

I love the brick and mortar shops in Durham, but I make a living now by helping to build another kind of presence for Durham businesses – the online presence. As Durham becomes more and more well known, that presence is becoming more and more important. Our restaurants are being written up in the New York Times, our art and film and dance festivals are nationally renowned. By building the websites that put our local businesses out into the world, Detail & Design is helping to shape the way the world sees Durham – as hip and attractive, sure, but more importantly, as progressive, independent, and sure of itself, confident in its own identify. Durham is its own brand, but the most original and organic kind, the kind that has grown up out of a rich history and that is continuing to be shaped by the people who are a part of that history.

We’re proud of our Durham roots and we’re proud of the businesses we serve. As an individual, I’m proud of Durham, too. I still hate the heat. And the cockroaches. But I’m glad I was too broke to move anywhere else during those first sweaty and miserable weeks. Because I love Durham. It’s my town now. And I’m definitely not going  anywhere.