Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Council that Understood the Pivotal Role of Aesthetics

When the 1984 Durham City Council voted to ban outdoor billboards, the last outdoor billboard in the state of Maine was coming down following a ban passed in 1977, making it the fourth state to ban them entirely. The City of Durham was half the size it is now and just recovering from the relatively flat decade of the 1970s.

By 1984 Durham was virtually wallpapered with about 200 outdoor billboards, one for every 550 residents. Today, attrition under that ban has whittled down the number to 89 or one for every 2600 residents. With further attrition slated to take down as many as 10 more over the next decade the ratio by the next census will be 1 for every 3100 residents.Capture

So who were these early pioneers in defense of Durham’s unique-sense-of-place, just three years after the adaptive reuse of Brightleaf Square provided the template for the restoration and revitalization of millions of square feet of Durham’s signature brick tobacco factories and warehouses.

Jane Davis, then a resident of historic Hope Valley, who also pushed for greenways was the driving force and a member of that Council. It also included Howard Clement, still serving today and Tom Campbell, the co-founder of Ninth Street anchor Regulator Bookshop which will turn 35 in December.

Others on that Council included attorney Richard Boyd, longtime resident of an historic Downtown home and Mayor at the time, the late Charles Markham and telecommunications representative Chester Jenkins, now also deceased but who went on to become Durham’s first black Mayor.

It included Virginia Engelhard, an early environmentalist and conservationist and Sylvia Kerckhoff, a League of Women Voters activist who went on to serve two terms as Mayor and Lanier Fonvielle, now Blum who currently works for Self-Help.

It included Carolyn Johnson, a healthcare administrator who went on to be a Judge and whose sister is Lavonia Allison, head of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and finally, Johnny “Red” Williams a NCCU professor and Matt Yarborough a long-time Durham native and furniture-maker who founded Durham Businesses Against Crime and still serves on the Durham Crime Cabinet.

Concern about Durham’s sense of place did not stop there. Joined a year later by attorney Wib Gulley, serving the first of two terms as Mayor of Durham and then a long stint as a NC State Senator, replacing the iconic Kenneth Royall, before becoming counsel to Triangle Transit Authority, the City Council in 1985 joined with the Board of County Commissioners, chaired by now Mayor Bill Bell to request authority from the State that set in motion the creation of Durham’s first organization dedicated as “defender of Durham’s image and brand and the guardian of its unique sense of place.”

When I arrived in Durham in 1989, recruited here to jump-start that public authority, six members of the 1984 Council were still serving and were able and willing to give a newcomer invaluable perspective and encouragement. Many remain friends today, long after I retired from that position.

But the battle to protect Durham and North Carolina from the blight of now-obsolete outdoor billboards is very much alive.

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