It's easy enough to get from Duke University to downtown Durham, N.C. Just take the No. 6 bus from Chapel Drive at the U., and 20 minutes later you're there--except that there's mighty little there there.
I was the only unblack on the bus into town. I shifted into my typical cruise mode, looking for architecture to delight it. Precious little. The trademark Kress department store, with the usual delicious terra-cotta decoration, had been recycled into a bank, and the unkind rehabber had obliterated the lovely Kressiana with the new logo. Dodo Deco.
Except for the usual gentrified lawyers' offices (and the sleazier bail-bondman hangouts), there was no downtown. One curious detail: Bail jumpers are Polaroided in a little supplementary rogues' gallery in the street windows, complete with listed rewards (from $50 to $200).
Things were so thin I started schmoozing a Black Muslim who was hawking Minister Farrakhan's "The Final Call." He was several degrees Fahrenheit shy of a blazing sun in his cordiality--but he took my donation.
It's a bizarre read. On the alleged anti-Semitism rap, there's a fulsome take on Stokely Charmichael (under a new Afro name fashioned from two post-colonial black liberators, Kwame Ture) for founding the Worldwide African Anti-Zionist Front. The dateline was Tripoli, where Carmichael was attending the awarding of the Gadhafi Human Rights Prize, which was given this year to the "red Indian nation of the Western Hemisphere." Stokely has just turned 50, "still working like 20" and still spending about six to eight weeks a year in the U.S. laying down his anti-Zionist message.
I had a serendipitous palaver with a matronly black lady in her late 50s. She'd returned to the South--part of that benign black backlash that has just attracted the attention of demographers. She grew up in Pinecrest, N.C., but went north to live with an auntie in Perth Amboy as a young girl (I had fun trivia-lizing our conversation by asking her who was Perth Amboy's most famous citizen--she got "Count Basie" on her second guess).
For 40 years she worked in electronics in Brooklyn, then turned down a job at IBM for the slower pace of North Carolina. "Do you miss Brooklyn?" elicited a sardonic snort. "No way." That on a weekend that began, according to the Sun Herald, with the biggest spate of shootings (seven, one dead) in the history of the Durham PD and ended with four of the meanest-looking cop-killer suspects overpowering their female guard at a county jail.
There was one interesting node of green: a brand new Omni Hotel with a most compassionate rate for seniors--$50 a double, and a festival rate of $55, single or double--and a brand new technogimmick you might try out if you follow my forthcoming suggestion for a visit to the almost-dead downtown: Budget is testing a new automated rental booth. You place your driver's license face down in what they call a "document bin," slip your credit card in a slot, mug at a security camera, and voila! Keys for a car in a lot across the street drop down.
Behind the hotel is an attractive NeoDeco skyscraper for People's Security Insurance, with a parking garage that serves the Civic Center, which is part of the new Omni.
As I took the No. 6 back to Duke, deeply disappointed, my eye caught the Durham Art Center, a recycled 1930s Beaux Arts high school that opened in 1988. It's a bit grandiose for my architectural taste, but it has several commodious display spaces.
Two community-made quilts were well worth a visual dawdle: One celebrated Kwanzaa, the other the 400th anniversary of the first "British American" (careful rhetoric there) settlements in North Carolina, in which the upper right hand squares had been made by Brits, the lower left by Tarheels (that nickname for North Carolinians comes from the British Navy use of the pines for naval stores--the going sometimes got sticky from dripped sap).
But the real story about moribund-appearing downtown Durham is that it will be no corpse during the last weekend of September. Friday and Saturday, September 27-28, at the El Toro Stadium, runs the Fourth Annual Bull Durham Blues Festival, 7:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.; $15 for one day, $25 for two. And there's a September-long series of seminars and workshops on Durham as a center for Piedmont Blues. For a brochure, call the Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-772-BULL.
Beginning in the 1920s, local talents like Blind Boy Fuller, the Reverend Gary Davis and the harmonica-guitar duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee came to entertain for the bustling tobacco markets--and stayed to play roadside jukes.
Overlapping with the music festival in CenterFest, a visual arts bash on the 28th (10 a.m.-6 p.m.) and 29th (noon to 6 p.m.) on the grounds surrounding the Durham Arts Center, a five-minute walk down Morris Street from the baseball stadium. Two outdoor stages and a coffee house, 100 exhibiting crafts persons, an International Food Court, the woiks.
And be sure not to miss the Welcomat of Durham, the Independent Weekly (2810 Hillsborough Rd., Durham 27705), appearing on Wednesdays. The week I visited there was solid reporting on murder and rape trials as well as a hilarious number by columnist Hal Crowther on how the invasion of Manhattan sewers by raccoons is Saddamizing their rep as cute cuddly critters.
The Sun Herald also publishes "Preview" on Fridays. I'm sure there are many other good annual reasons for visiting deadly downtown Durham, but I doubt if there could ever be a better one than the Blues Festival plus CenterFest.
Reprinted from Welcomat-After Dark, Hazard at Large, September 18, 1991