For those of us who love this region, the State of the South report has been issued every couple of years since 1996 by a think tank based in Durham, North Carolina where I live.
So when a friend who is still in the loop forwarded me the newest edition published a few days ago, I was not only eager to dig right in, but took a moment to reflect on a forerunner I read the month Durham adopted me twenty five years ago.
Published three years earlier in 1986, that report was entitled Shadows in the Sunbelt.
My job back then was to jump-start an organization to market Durham for visitor-centric economic and cultural development and I soaked up that Shadows report for much needed context and perspective.
It declared obsolete “the Buffalo hunt” approach to more traditional “supply-side” economic development and proposed as an alternative that communities, both rural and urban, begin instead to leverage local assets and existing enterprises, such as “place-based” tourism has always done.
Back then, it also signaled something in common with this most recent report, “the tale of two Souths.”
In its epilogue, that nearly three-decade old report prophesied that we in “the South must tend to our roots, or in the end, risk our values.”
Well, it’s been 25 years since I read that report and the “Buffalo hunters” are not only still monopolizing economic development in North Carolina but officials have recently retro-organized it in a way sure to keep its extinction on life support.
And ironically, in at least three of the state’s five largest cities, “demand-side” visitor-centric economic developers have surrendered the far greater value of leveraging sense of place and place based assets in favor of a variant of “big game hunting” around mainstream “edifice envy.”
But the irony is not lost on “stayer” residents of those communities who see it as tragic instead, to see communities once distinct and worthy of love sell out at the altar of “sameness” worshipped by “boomers.”
But indeed, not only are both forms of “Buffalo hunting” still staggering slowly toward extinction three decades later, but in some communities such as Durham, traditional supply-side economic developers seem to be gradually trying to emulate the demand-side nature of tourism by seeking to draw talent rather than big game.
But while Durham may be way ahead of the curve on both economic development fronts, it seems as if far too few here are worried about the unintended consequences surrounding the adaptive reuse of what remains of its “built” elements of its sense of place.
The problem isn’t as a respected friend recently prophesied that revitalization efforts have reached the “tipping point,” but that Durham officials seem totally unprepared that the greater challenge will be to manage success.
Or that if left unchecked, development will almost certainly now begin to destroy the very things so worthy of love here.
Having worked so hard on the front end to leverage its “realness” while sparking the 1990’s image turnaround, a barrier that had been choking off access to financing, I too am stunned at the speed with which. now unleashed, second-wave development has begun to destroy that “realness.”
There seems to be a lack of intensity or sense of urgency, in response, not only to insist on architectural scale and fit but to mitigate gentrification, aggressively get at the systemic roots of poverty and preserve almost temporal community values such as social justice, acceptance, openness, organic creation and diversity.
By failing to “tend to our roots,” in Durham, we too are “risking our values.”
Durham is one of the nine Southern cities and towns highlighted in this newest State of the South report. Durham and its neighborhoods could have been substituted in this introductory description that echoes the warning thirty years earlier:
“In much of today’s South, economic and demographic vibrancy exist side-by-side, as veritable next-door neighbors, with poverty, underemployment, educational disparities, and stagnant social mobility.”
If by bringing appreciation for Durham’s temporal attributes and helping to spark the kindling under this turn-around, was I complicit by failing to see how fast the reinvigoration would turn destructive.
I try to remember to post these essays on social media such as Facebook because those are the places where many frequent readers tell me it is easiest to access, share and/or comment which today is most often via one-on-one emails or text messages.
Recently, in return, several readers forwarded essays related to this shared concern. One is how Portland is fighting to keep things “real” there and in synch with its unpretentious values.
Another cites the changes that unmanaged gentrification has made along one end of Divisidero, a street in San Francisco where I lived for a few months in 1989 before being recruited to Durham.
My apartment was on the Bay end of Divisidero.
But needing to exercise to help build my lungs up following a bout in the hospital with pneumonia that January, for that few months between jobs, I would religiously take daily walks, also, in part for reflection.
Each of our lungs is only hand-size but on the inside where they do their work, the various branches, cavities and air sacks called alveoli are the combined surface area of a football field.
Some days the walk would take me 40 active minutes south on Divisidero, up and over Pacific Heights a ridge more three times the height of one we complain about on walks each morning now in Durham.
It crested as I passed what is now “Billionaire’s Row” before descending for checkups and medication-refills at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center.
I think it was called “Millionaires Row” back then and the views are spectacular. But reflection and self-forgiveness are also boosted with a little self-inflicted pain - (Smile.)
The medical center is in the neighborhood that is the subject of Katy Kreitler’s excellent article this month entitled “9 Ways Privileged People Can Reduce the Negative Impact of Gentrification.”
The author is reverse-engineering how Western Addition, the neighborhood around that hospital, lost the soul of its “realness” after I left when frustrated officials, focused only on reducing crime and blight, unleashed forces that also hollowed out its “there-there.”
Others such as Daniel Hertz have countered recently that he sees no way for us to mitigate or manage gentrification through our personal decisions and that the real problem is a “curiously dysfunctional housing system.”
Another by Kriston Capp notes that studies show the massive overbuilding of cultural facilities such as performing arts centers over the past decade is spurring gentrification along with deeper poverty rather than the oft-promised Bilbao-effect.
It is important to note, as a new white paper by researchers at AudienceScan does, that high-come adults are 40% more likely to shop at locally owned business and that 60% of shoppers there have above average incomes.
But that is the paradox of gentrification. These are often not the same locally-owned business that gave these neighborhoods their appealing “real-ness.”
We gentrifyers have a way of killing the things we love.
All of these sources are worthwhile reading for anyone concerned about preserving the values and sense of place in the places they love.
On my return on those walks, I would head up to the historic Fillmore the venue and birthplace for rock, blues, folk and roots music legends of the late 1960s such as Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Band, Emmylou Harris and Janis Joplin).
Sometimes before turning back north I would continue on up Cathedral Hill and listen to mid-day prayers sung as Gregorian Chants.
These neighborhoods were still the “real” San Francisco back then compared to those more touristy east of Van Ness/north of Market.
I have been back to San Francisco but not back to those neighborhoods, probably sensing at the time that the forces drawn to them including visitors would ultimately “kill the very things they loved.”
Organic “real places” aren’t created as much as enabled by developers when they are sensitive to scale and work with a light touch so as not to disturb sense of place or force out small, local businesses such as the developers of Durham’s Brightleaf Square did there and then along Ninth Street.
Developers without those sensibilities are drawn to these areas but without officials who are attuned to activist neighbors and small businesses and who are unafraid to say no, places can be quickly overwhelmed, relegating historic structures to little more than an amenity.
Sometimes this corrosion of place is even further enabled by public facilities that are even more disrespectful of sense of place values leading some to warn we should watch what edifices officials build, not what they say, when it comes to preserving values such as reducing poverty.
Looking back, I was fully aware that many of those with whom I stood alongside in the push for revitalization didn’t really share Durham’s sense of place values, or if they did, also didn’t realize that safeguards needed to be embedded long before any tipping point occured.
My reflective ego says I could have and should have done much more to warn officials about the failure inherent in success and that sense of place and community values, while nearly temporal in nature, are not guaranteed.
But starved for the day when revitalization would fully ignite, many officials, hypnotized by arm-twisting on behalf of the “shiny and new,” dismissed warnings that were given back then as merely naysaying.
You can steer a community to “best practices” but there will always be a few otherwise well-meaning souls who seem to always seek out “worst practices” instead.
To use a term from Accounting 101, they, along with formula developers will be “last in, first out” too when community values are purged and the reasons to love a community begin to flicker.
Those who truly value sense of place are more often “first in, last out.”
I’m not going anywhere and my time may be past but the real fight to preserve sense of place began not with revitalization but in its wake.
It isn’t too late for Durham but it is very, very close.