Icon for Diabetes

Edgemont and East Durham

Neighborhoods Above the County Average

East Durham’s relatively high diabetes rates reflect a community that has long had less access to employment, education, and food than its West Durham counterparts. This has not always been the case.   

As in West Durham, Durham’s African American community in East Durham grew up around a mill village. The Durham Hosiery Mill was one of the few southern textile mills in the early 20th century that employed Black workers. Connected by a trolley line to downtown, the Edgemont mill village also provided workers with low-cost housing, and an environment with parks, churches, and small grocery stores. The owner of the complex, Julian Carr, kept a watchful eye on the enterprise from his mansion located just blocks away.

East and West Durham moved in different directions after the Great Depression. Textiles were hit hard. Before closing down in 1938, the Durham Hosiery Mill sold all of its housing to investors. An entire community was out of work. Moreover, white landlords rather than workers owned the housing. Many raised rental fees while allowing structures to go into disrepair. Over time, a cycle of disinvestment set in. Businesses, including grocery stores, moved away.

But East Durham’s economic decline is not just a parable of self-serving landlords. It is a story of policy. Even if the owners of Durham Hosiery Mills had wanted to sell houses to their African-American workers, the law prohibited them from doing so. The Federal Housing Act of 1934 made it possible for vast numbers of workers to own their home for the first time by providing federally-backed mortgage insurance.

The practice of “red-lining” systematically excluded racially mixed neighborhoods, however. Zoning ordinances hardened the boundaries between the middle class and poor. Urban renewal policies in the 1960s were more successful in demolishing decaying properties rather than building new ones. As a result, Durham’s most renowned Black community, Hayti, (D-6 on map), was destroyed to make way for the Durham freeway. Many of its residents moved into already crowded East Durham.

In the early 1960s, Edgemont and East Durham residents had access to major grocery chains. These closed in the wake of urban renewal and the Durham Freeway’s construction, leaving empty lots as grocery chains refused to invest. Winn-Dixie of East Durham closed for 30 years, leaving families without a source of fresh produce.

“Back when I was a child, I bought potato chips cause they were only 16 cents a bag. You could keep potato chips all day long, all night long. People could get beer and wine in the neighborhood, but you couldn’t find fruits, vegetables stuff like that.”

-L’Tanya Gilchrist, Durham Public Health Department

In the past decade, smaller, replacement stores such as the discount grocery Save-A-Lot exemplify how grocery options have changed in the neighborhood. Fresh produce is less available than in their West Durham counterparts.

Why has diabetes become so much more common in east than west Durham? East Durham has become an example of a “food desert,” with limited access to healthy and affordable food. It was not always this way:  Both neighborhoods grew up around textile mills, where workers were provided reasonable housing and access to parks and local stores with fresh produce.  

These two mill villages were similar in many ways, with the exception of race. While many White workers in west Durham were eventually able to purchase their own homes, practices such as “red lining forced their Black counterparts to live in rental properties. Thus began a long cycle of economic decline that eventually created a food desert.

Durham’s neighborhoods provide an example of how the social determinants of health—access to food, income, housing, and other factors not explored here such as education, shapes racial health disparities. These social determinants, in turn, are themselves the product of history and policy.