Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Thin Line Between Funky, Gritty And Just Plain Seedy

Listening to a good friend, Bob Ingram, speak recently made me remember a line that “there is a thin line between funky and gritty, which are two Durham values, and just plain seedy.

That Bob is always so generous personally and now chairman of the North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation reminded me that he will be fascinated to learn about the science that has now confirmed that what is termed “environmental disorder” can be linked to why some individuals may be less willing to make charitable contributions in a cluttered environment which tends to ignite the anti-social behavior of stereotyping.Ingram2

Bob Ingram is a vocal proponent for making “overall appearance” one of the things Durham must most improve and, as an example he points to another city where he has lived that has done a remarkable job of improving appearance, Cincinnati.

He personally understands the thin line between funky and gritty and just plain seedy.  Bob knows improving appearance isn’t contradictory but critical to retaining Durham’s historic neighborhoods like the one where he lived during his more than two decades here and intends stay.

Nor does improving appearance conflict with Durham’s unique architectural signature, inherent in historic brick factories and warehouses converted to residences, offices, shops and restaurants like the one in which Bob spoke this week.

Nor will it conflict with newer construction evoked by that architectural signature including drug stores, hotels, the ballpark and the fashionable Streets at Southpoint.

Banning outdoor billboards and stiffening sign ordinances as early as 1984 and 1985 was a great start by a very strong and insightful Durham City Council two and one-half decades ago after the community had become wallpapered with 209 examples of this long obsolete and desecrating advertising form that offers no content and no opt-out.  Attrition is removing the remaining 80+ ten times faster than the average including means such as when roadways are widened or improved.

While given lip service by nearly every Council since, none finer than the one we have today, in my opinion, that momentum to improve overall appearance hasn’t been sustained in other ways.

Bob and I first became friends not because we moved here about the same time nor just because my job was to stand up for Durham and he almost immediately bonded with this community like no other before nor because he rose to head Glaxo, one of Durham’s major and arguably most community-spirited employers, which he ultimately helped guide through two mergers to become GSK.

Our personal friendship formed around a mutual, life-long passion for old cars, in specific Porsches, of which Bob has an extraordinary collection. One of the prized gestures made at my retirement on the last day of 2009 is a personal letter Bob slipped into my pocket, after a farewell hug, inviting me to help exercise his fleet.

We were also both very early-adopters and vocal proponents of a new kind of regionalism, exchanging the imperialistic, homogenizing kind typically dominated by a self-proclaimed center for a much more organic and contemporary polycentric model that pluralistically celebrates the linkages of equals around very distinct and varied communities such as Durham.

It gives me hope that our community’s other leaders will heed Bob’s evangelism for appearance and they will coalesce around this very important need, one that touches more areas than any other including not only charitable giving but diversity and tolerance, property values, historic preservation, clean air and water, place-making, recycling, tax base, crime reduction, economic development (visitor-centric and traditional,) community engagement, public health and much more.

Just to be sure, I’m going to keep writing about it until they do.

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