I did my first walk of downtown in 2001, but had first laid eyes on Durham in the mid-80s, when my company started Cellular One of the Triangle. Then, it was only one of the dozen or more Southern smaller metros I worked in that felt urban. Though it was deserted. The others had nice neighborhoods, but no center. Durham did, though the buildings and sidewalks were equally empty.
Back then, a small group of pioneering residents hunkered down at Jo and Joe’s or maybe even Ringside (the gay bar for straights and straight bar for gays) and weighed in on the news of the day, annoying the developers and business leaders who thought they ran things. Small victories—an incentive grant to get businesses to consider locating downtown—were celebrated but rarely used. Nobody wanted to be here.
Which was, in a way, cool with us. Durhamites have always said we’re not for everybody. The underdog vibe served us well; we tried tough stuff like building a farmer’s market on $5000 donations, started a beer-and-doughnuts race, laughed at a Twitter-fueled pillow fight on East Campus. Sean Wilson, after popping the cap on the state’s ABV law, started Fullsteam north of downtown in the old factory district, flavoring his suds with sweet potatoes and hops, well before it was cool…..and now routine.
We shot for stuff bigger cities had. A famous French photographer, Georges Rousse, came to town to turn our decaying buildings into fantastic 3D masterpieces. Accustomed to working with a single small class, painting on staircasses or walls and beams to make two-dimensional shapes floating on air, M. Rousse was astonished to find 200 volunteers, work gloves in hand, ready to assist. They created more than a dozen spectacular installations, and more than 5,000 people walked around downtown Durham — yes! in downtown Durham—to check it out. The closing party that night, at Revolution, was unforgettable.
Durham does stuff like that, cooler and bigger, all the time now. Shoot, our music and film festivals alone each draw that many folks. But back then, before the restaurants, before American Tobacco, before much of anything, those moments still bring a smile.