Two fault lines are among the many things that distinguish Durham, North Carolina, where I live, from Raleigh further southeast. These two cities are otherwise only confused by those who view geography through the lens of airports.
A fault line is a fracture deep in the earth. Durham and RDU, in fact, lie upland from the Jonesboro Fault. About 74 million years ago, what is now Durham might have been able to add ocean views and beaches to its unique sense of place.
If above water at all, what is now Raleigh would be in dire need of the kind of waterproofing underway in New York today as a hedge against climate change.
When I arrived in Durham twenty-five years ago from my lifetime until then at various points along the western slopes of the Rockies, a friend in Raleigh told me, “One of these places might just as well be Kuala Lumpur and the other Tulsa.”
If one of those fault lines had slipped a little further several hundred million years ago as the continents were still forming, Raleigh could easily have become part of what is Africa now while Durham attached itself to North America.
By the time a young New York Times (NYT) correspondent named Frederick Law Olmsted traveled through North Carolina in the very early 1850s, one of his cousins once removed (who shared a grandfather with FLO’s father,) had already uncovered the special geology of what is now Durham.
Denison Olmsted, while then serving a temporary stint at today’s University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill during hiatus from his career at Yale, had discovered the geologic Deep River basin where Durham is now (not to be confused with today’s surface Deep River.)
That was three years before Durham would be recognized with another name by the postal service and two decades before a not-yet 30 year-old Dr. Bartlett Durham would sell four acres to a new railroad for a station along a new route being laid in 1853 from Charlotte to Raleigh along an old wagon route.
This gave the emerging crossroads the name Durhamville, then Durham Station by the time the Civil War came to its end here 150 years ago next year and finally Durham, absorbing the earlier Pinhook and Prattsburg.
The new track was not finished soon enough to enable the younger Olmsted a visit to Durham as he toured the south incognito on assignment by the then two-year-old NYT.
That would need to wait until his return near the end of his life, when he had become the nationally-recognized founder of the new profession of landscape architect, to layout reforestation and non-ornamental landscape for Biltmore Estate in Asheville.
But he was able visit and comment on Raleigh, then a village of 2,500 people, including observations about its then still existent sense of place.
Traveling down by rail and stagecoach via Gaston, now the namesake for Lake Gaston along the border with Virginia, he also noted that on public conveyances, North Carolina treated slaves much with more respect than other slave far more pretentious states such as Virginia, as well as some abolitionist states.
Even then, a few years before he would create Central Park in New York, Olmsted’s writing, which was published as a book three years later entitled A Journey in the Seaboard States, (1856) reflected a keen eye for the sense of a particular place.
After noting some kind observations of Raleigh such as mansions and tree lined roadways, he writes:
“It is hard to admire what is common; and it is, perhaps, asking too much of the citizens of Raleigh, that they should plant for ornament, or even cause to be retained about such institutions as their Lunatic Asylum, the beautiful evergreens that crowd about the town;”
He’s not taking a cheap shot, just making an observation as he continues about Raleigh’s failure to incorporate groves of trees around facilities:
“but can any man walk from the Capitol oaks to the pine grove, a little beyond the Deaf and Dumb Institution, and say that he would not far rather have the latter than the former to curtain in his habitation?
If he can in summer, let him try it again, as I did, in a soft winter's day, when the evergreens fill the air with a balsamic odor, and the green light comes quivering through them, and the foot falls silently upon the elastic carpet they have spread, deluding one with all the feelings of spring.”
Olmsted’s line – “It is hard to admire what is common; and it is perhaps asking to much of the citizens of Raleigh…” – is true today of the North Carolina General Assembly there which has recently sacrificed thousands of acres of public forests all for the benefit of out of state billboard interests.
The trees, a signature part of North Carolina’s appeal to tourists, including those secretly shopping as potential newcomers and scouts for relocating or expanding businesses, have long been taken for granted in North Carolina.
But why sacrifice them for an obsolete advertising form?
As Columbia Law professor Tim Wu reminds us in his incredible book on the history of communications platforms that in a stage of Joseph Schumpeter’s cycle of innovation there is always “the reluctance of the obsolete to go gently.”
Research now shows that roadside or street side billboards are now used by less than .4% of consumers as “a source where they are likely to learn about products and brands they would like to try or buy” and by only .2% as “influential in purchase decisions.”
Two-tenths of one-percent.
This drops to .1% in the critical 18-35 age group and zero in mine. The only age group higher is teenagers age 13 to17, where until their brains are fully formed, 3.1% use them, thus the plethora of billboard use to sell them beer, alcohol, and sugary soft drinks.
Ironically, the legislature was pressured internally by members who are car dealers, just as that industry was shifting to online advertising where it now devotes an incredible 40% of all ad dollars, more than any other type of media including television or print.
This is even truer of franchise dealers which now spend 44% of ad dollars online, while every other type of media is in sharp decline.
Once the legislature figures this out and restores trees to their rightful priority, it will take nearly a hundred years for them to grow back to their full potential and restore North Carolina’s appeal.
We didn’t take heed of Olmsted in 1853 when he noted how wonderfully wooded our state was, possibly the first travel writer to note that signature part of North Carolina’s appeal.
We know now that legislators meeting in Raleigh at the time were enabling “boomers and raiders” to clear what would be an average of 13.5 square miles per day nationwide between 1850 and 1910, denuding 50-60% of the state within a decade of Olmsted’s observations.
Obviously, we still aren’t paying heed today.
Even North Carolina cities such as Durham which were farsighted enough to ban billboards in 1984, are still not able to mount a long-needed a “boots on the ground” inventory and assessment crucial to managing its overall tree canopy.
Instead officials settle for telling residents, aghast at its disappearance, to plant shorter trees or cave to another obsolete technology such as above-ground power lines whose enablers suggest hormone injections to make trees grow more slowly.
If he were alive and making another tour, Fredrick Law Olmsted would find a lot of us Tar Heels very slow learners.