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Watts Hillandale & West Durham

neighborhoods below the county average

The neighborhoods of  Watts Hospital Hillandale and Old West Durham lie far below Durham County’s average diabetes rate. They grew up in the early 20th century around  Erwin Cotton Mills. William Erwin projected a benign paternalism as he oversaw his enterprise. Like many southern mill owners, he provided his workers with modest but affordable company houses. Such mill villages were supplied with running water, vegetable gardens, and had access to nearby small grocery stores. Middle-class families lived not far away in the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood, built adjoining the city’s first hospital endowed by businessman-philanthropist George W. Watts.

Mill villages should not be romanticized: workers (most of whom were women) labored for long hours for near-poverty wages, and were exposed to diseases such as Brown Lung. Yet especially in their early years, the textile mill environment did encourage a sense of familial solidarity between workers and management. Both, it might added, were largely the same race—textile mill villages were almost exclusively a space for white employment.

Old West Durham changed after the Great Depression. Labor strikes undercut the benign paternalism of the older era, but also led to better wages and conditions. Most critically, the mill houses were sold to workers. Home ownership allowed workers to build equity, keeping Old West Durham’s working class identity intact well into the 1970s.

The decline of the textile industry led to the closure of Erwin Mill in the 1980s. Duke University began to invest more in the area, and outside residents began to displace the workers. In the past 20 years property values have risen rapidly in both Old West Durham and especially Watts-Hillandale. Food stores catering to an ever more educated clientele have followed.

Currently, 4% of West Durham’s population is living with diabetes. 21% of residents live in poverty. White residents earn 6% more than residents of color. Currently, 6% of residents in Watts Hillandale are living with diabetes. 3% of households rely on SNAP to buy food. 42% of residents work in healthcare.

Watts Grocery Store, opened in the 1920s, sold bushel baskets of fresh vegetables along with practical items ranging from soap and flour to fertilizer. It served a southern working-class neighborhood, and served as a community center where people shared recipes and stories.

After the departure of the textile mills,  Watts grocery store closed and was repurposed as an art studio. The transformation symbolized how a more educated and cosmopolitan culture was moving into the neighborhood. Now a Whole Foods is one of several grocery options in West Durham.

Hear oral interviews describing access to grocery stores by people from West Durham and East Durham…

“…There is an abundance of disparity between East and West Durham. In this [West Durham] neighborhood alone, we have Food Lion, Harris Teeter, and Whole Foods. Plus there is the Kroger down the street, which is being redeveloped…”

-John Schelp, President of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association