The Future of Durham

Seen on the exterior of the trendy Happy & Hale on 9th Street
Seen on Duke’s East Campus bridge
Seen on Duke’s East Campus bridge

It is not very difficult to see where the future of Durham is headed given the above pieces of public art.

A graphic of an avocado featured on the exterior of Happy & Hale and Yoga off East; a “F*ck Borders” logo on the East Campus bridge on Duke’s Campus; and “Y’all means All” poster under the same bridge.

The first represents a changing landscape of Durham which allows the priorities of the privileged (aka $12 avocado toast and expensive yoga sessions) to push out the natives of this city who can not afford such commodities or they do not align with the values of their community.

Durham, of all the cities I have been to of late, has a particularly prominent public stance on immigration. Just look at all the red yard signs reading “First, they came for the immigrants”. The amount of people migrating into Durham continues to rise and this population is anything but homogenous. If certain residents are going to be openly vocal about creating a safe space for these migrants, it is crucial that they also understand the stories of migrants past in Durham.

North Carolina was in the national limelight just 2 years ago over the HB2 bathroom legislation. Since then, it feels that there has been a shift towards explicitly making it known that Durham (or at least Downtown) is a place where people of all walks of life are welcome without question. This mentality extends to Duke students who are increasingly engaged with Durham politics and events, including the Pride Parade in the Fall and attending drag shows at Pinhook in Downtown.

These indicators may or may not ring true, but the point remains that Durham already has a history of shedding its skin for what is new and fresh, but at what cost to those who cannot participate in their constantly evolving home?

The Symbols of Durham

The City of Durham can be represented by a number of symbols, all of which are represented in this mural on W Morgan Street.

From left to right: the tobacco leaf which made The American Tobacco Road (and eventually American Tobacco Campus), Duke University, famous jazz music, the NCCU Eagle, the “City of Medicine”, and the Bull – now the icon of the Durham Bulls Farm League team – but reminiscent of the Black Wall Street which once thrived here.

“Black Lives Matter”

Seen on painted on a bus; note the mimicked heartbeat


Racial tensions in Durham, as in the rest of the country, continue to run high. In Durham, the issue is exacerbated by the “white flight” to nicer suburban areas and resulting segregation of public schools, ie. Riverside High school which has a 76% minority enrollment (majority black) which is higher than the North Carolina state average. Police presence on Duke’s campus feels negligible when compared to that of the historically black college down the road, North Carolina Central University, where police cars are positioned every 1000 feet with their lights constantly flashing.

The Black Lives Matter movement has swept across the nation. In Durham, with the new vibe of “politically correct” white residents, it is not surprising to find a “Black Lives Matter” sticker on the back of a Subaru driven by a 65 year old white woman or a button pinned to the hipster barista at Cocoa Cinnamon. But, how often do they drive through East Durham and stop there for a meal?


The Pauli Murray Project

A Pauli Murray mural next to Smith Warehouse
“Pauli Murray taught us that our lives are not defined by our race our gender, but by our striving to make the world better than we found it.”
-Elnora Joyner Shields, Southwest Central Durham Quality of Life Project
“As an Episcopal Priest, Pauli Murray used the pulpit to find the ‘spirit of -‘ and reconciliation as expressed in her ministry as the ‘goal of human wholeness.”
-K. Holloway
Pauli Murray
“It may be that when historians look back on twentieth-century American, all roads lead to Pauli Murray…Civil rights, feminism, religion, literature, law, sexuality — no matter what the subject, there is Pauli.”
-Historian Susan Ware
“We, your family, are so very proud of the magnificent strength, courage, and determination that you showed throughout your incredible lifetime. We should never forget you and those who paved the way and made equality a reality.”
-Fitzgerald Family Members
“It had taken me almost a lifetime to discover that true emancipation lies in the acceptance of the whole past, in deriving strength from all my roots, in facing up to the degradation as well as the dignity of my ancestors.”
-Pauli Murray from “Proud Shoes”

Seen: on the side of The Cookery on W Chapel Hill St

The Pauli Murray Project, put on by the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, is led by a “diverse group of current and former elected officials, business and religious leaders, young and old, African American, white and Latino, straight and gay” whose goal is to build a better Durham.  The group works to make reality of the vision of Pauli Murray by addressing inequities in Durham through “the transformative power of collecting and telling our stories and our truths”.

Pauli Murray was raised in Durham, NC and boasts a vibrant lifetime of social activism, religious pursuit, and elevating communities with histories of discrimination. She faced Jim Crow and gender discrimination when applying to UNC and Harvard Law, but nevertheless she prevailed. A close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, she worked with Betty Friedan to found the National Organization for Women, and had a final triumph as the first African-American Episcopal Priest.

Publicly honoring a figure such as Murray as one of Durham’s home-town heroes through such colorful public art has a profound impact on visitors and the next generation of Durham: its youth. Now that her story is being told, with the support of Duke, there is a dream to strive for and an inspiration who set the bar for future Durham citizens to achieve.

“Old Bull Building”











“Old Bull Building”, 201 W Pettigrew St

Built in 1874 during the height of the “Bull Durham” tobacco brand owned by W.T. Blackwell and Company. The building now serves as a National Landmark and up-scale residences.

The red neon of the “Old Bull” sign lights up the night sky near the D-PAC in clear view of all event-goers who first enjoyed a delicious meal in one of Downtown’s many restaurants. The “Old Bull” serves as a testament to the American Tobacco Road and the great success of Durham’s tobacco factories as it overlooks the active rail tracks which have connected the North to the South for centuries. Of course, this prime real estate has since been converted into luxury apartments whose residents have the fun tagline of living in the building with the Bull.

But, do they ever wonder what their walls have seen? Would they wish the phrase “if these walls could talk”?


“Make Duke Students Scarred of Durham Again”

Seen: The stairway of Cosmic Cantina restaurant in Durham, NC

This is the image which inspired the idea behind this final project. Unpacking this message makes me feel borderline elitist because who am I, a Duke student taking a class on gentrification in Durham, to dissect this image as if it was a specimen. Nonetheless, the image stopped me in my tracks and seemingly without trying, captures Durham’s recent history.

First, the misspelling of “scared” speaks volumes about whoever wrote this. I believe they were intending the message of fear, or were they actually trying to say “scarred”? Either way, the individual’s understanding of the correct use of the  English language did not stick. This fact is reflective of the education crisis in Durham’s public schools which faces repercussions of  “white flight” and elevated high school drop out rates. Who is this person roaming Durham with a reading level probably equal to the national average (the fourth grade) and looks to instill fear in a population of individuals attending a world-class institution? Are they angry at the disparity?

Secondly, the intended message speaks to the facts of gentrification in Durham. Visiting Duke alumni tell stories of not being able to walk through Downtown Durham just 10 years ago without worrying about being caught in crossfire. Students were mostly contained to campus, but their money and influence were not constrained by time. Since then, Downtown grew into a bustling urban area with “foodie” restaurants, up-scale clothing stores, and events at the DPAC.

This piece raises a million-dollar question yet to be visited or seen in real life: can gentrification be reversed?

Statement of Intent

Public art represents society’s wild side while reflecting current events and popular sentiments. Art conveys our unspoken words; our feelings and thoughts that cannot be said outright. Public art projects represent an unfiltered glimpse into unpopular opinions and serve as accurate representations of the surrounding society. Whether the art is random, such as the use of graffiti, or constructed under works such as “Mural Durham” the nature of these works dares to visualize the undercurrents of daily life.

In the past 3 years of living here, I have noticed that Durham is home to a wide variety of street art. As the city sheds its skin again, a more “hipster” artistic vibe has begun to emerge. This may be a reflection of more national trends among the millennial population who flock to graduate programs at Duke and end up staying here or come to work here for the lower cost of living. A bigger picture reason for this shift can also be linked to the behaviors and trends empowered by gentrification.

The architecture of Durham, mainly beautiful old red brick textile and tobacco factories, perfectly fits the mold of gentrification currently experienced in other cities across the country. Using pre-existing relics such as these saves builders the headaches of locating and funding a space to build, but the real money draw is from the tastes of current clientele. Working out of buildings of the past is “trendy” among start-ups; young adults are looking to live in a luxury apartment that mixes the old with the new.

As Durham’s charm draws in a certain crowd, the art scene has grown with it. This website features several prominent works of public art found around the city as well as a few images of graffiti spotted over the years. My interpretations of the pieces will be offered, but of course with any work of art, the beauty lies in the privilege we are given to be provoked, resulting in an array of interpretations. Comment with your own — enjoy!