Wednesday, September 17, 2014

If A Statue Should Be Erected One Day

With all due respect to a long-time friend and contemporary of mine who led the final charge, I have a suggestion should a statue ever be erected to honor the individual most responsible for the resurgence of Downtown Durham, North Carolina.

Besides, we’ve already been memorialized (although I’m 25 pounds lighter now).  But we clearly stood on the shoulders of many others, including some with ties to Durham’s founding generation.

Having passed away earlier this year, this person was tiny and unassuming and yet a powerhouse of community activism.  She probably began in areas such as pioneering child-care for families with both parents who work.

When I arrived in Durham on a mission to jumpstart this community’s first official destination marketing organization in 1989, having helped start several others, I was under no illusion that I was coming to the rescue.

For any new DMO exec, the first order of business is research into what has been done to shape any sense of place that may remain.

Dating to its first, it was obvious generations here had shaped a community worth loving and worth visiting, but it was not without battle scares.

Asking around about who had been most passionate about Durham in the decades before my arrival led to audiences with a number of individuals.  It is a good way to learn what had worked and what hadn’t over the years.

None was more dynamic than Margaret Davis Haywood, then in her 70s.  Standing about 5’4” or so, she was unpretentious and humble but incredibly helpful and supportive.

She gave me clues on where I should start, which were echoed in meetings with George Watts Hill, Josephine Clement, Southgate Jones Jr., Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans and Elna Spaulding, all contemporaries of Mrs. Haywood who have also now passed on.

I wasn’t so brave as to expect an interview with these people but often the people I would contact for referral's would insist on paving the way.  Each not only knew first hand several generations of Durham natives back to the very first but had been an activist for Durham.

Margaret Haywood, I would learn from others, fed up with the failed policies of urban renewal, had helped instigate what I call a “sense of place revolt” while in her 50s.

It was an insurrection sparked in defense of the 1920s-era Carolina Theater, which in the early to mid-1970s had been targeted for demolition to create a parking lot by local officials.

The “sense of place revolt” she and cohorts inspired not only saved the cultural landmark, but forged an organization as guardian of other landmarks as well as an inventory of historic treasures by state officials throughout what we call the City Center District today.

As a result, this commercial district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the first in North Carolina so recognized.

Often it is those who raise the funds who get the credit—as they should—while co-conspirators in “sense of place revolts” such as Mrs. Haywood, are overlooked because they take a more strategic role.

The “sense of place revolt” led by Haywood and others raged for a decade, inspiring efforts by others to safeguard other ingredients and assets that make up Durham’s sense of place.

It inspired Duke student to rally in support of a historic black neighborhood and commercial district in the path of the Durham Freeway and formation of an alliance of neighborhoods and the banning billboards.

Others simultaneously worked with landowners and developers to establish a scenic overlay along Durham’s stretch of I-40 and push for signature landscaping around the co-owned airport.

It is through the unsung grit, determination and valor symbolized by Haywood that also a new breed of developer was inspired to begin adaptation of historic structures.

Two decades before their now idolized successors, they initiated the trend of converting these sense of place assets into restaurants, residences, stores and offices rather than just grumble about them being in the way.

A decade before Margaret’s “sense of place revolt” sparked what would become a complete renaissance of Downtown Durham over the next three decades, the New York Times had, in the wake of the tragic implosion of Old Penn Station in that community to make way for an nondescript office tower, penned:

“We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

That, too, spawned a “sense of place revolt” to preserve and adaptively use other landmarks there.

Margaret Haywood is proof that the self-less determination of just a few individuals can save a community’s distinct sense of place from forces that would otherwise homogenize it.

To use a phrase coined by one of my co-workers at the time I first met Mrs. Haywood, communities really can “fast forward without saying goodbye to yesterday.”

Today, Durham’s sense of place is at risk again, but this time from a another breed of developer, who was drawn to this sense of place, but now seems eager to pollute it with “franchise architecture,” and “formula developments” that drive up rents and hollow out the authenticity of its tenants.

All Margaret Haywood could focus on that day we first talked was the failure to save the historic Washington Duke Hotel from implosion a year or so after the revolt.

Opening in 1925 within a year of the Carolina Theater, the hotel had cost $1.8 million, seven times the cost of the theater and nearly $25 million in today’s dollars.

It was the finest hotel in the South at the time.

A mid-century annex is being restored today as one of several hotels around the CCB Plaza where the old Washington Duke once stood, including a 21c Museum Hotel and a boutique hotel called The Durham.

More than a decade later, people in Durham that December would recall to me its implosion with descriptions of clouds of debris flooding downtown streets similar to what we saw when terrorists brought down the Twin Towers in New York, but without the horrific human tragedy.

The implosion, even more than the demolition of Union Station here a few years earlier, galvanized some—but not all—Durham residents around sense of place.

And we would see on the heels of those initiatives I mentioned earlier incredible design incongruity of public facilities such as the Civic Center, Detention Center, Performing Arts Center, Transportation Center and Human Services Building.

I’m reminded by a friend that in the early 1970s, after a Southern business and development magazine labeled Durham a “hot dog” town, Haywood and some friends formed Pride Builders of Durham.

It was a precursor to a grass-roots successor we would forge two decades later as Durham Image Watch involving hundreds of resident volunteers who rallied to help Durham’s community destination marketing fulfill its role as guardian of image, identity and sense of place.

Business and university executives, as well as most politicians and executives of other types of economic development organizations are wary of standing up so overtly on behalf of a community, although most were very supportive when DCVB did.

There were always a few exceptions during my career.  Some would join with us when asked, balancing out a far bigger number who would duck for cover, and a few more trying to pull us back for fear of rocking the boat.

But residents of Durham both in public opinion polls and through personal involvement always wanted us to do more, especially those I mentioned above and none more than Margaret Haywood and her Pride Builders.

The implosion of the old hotel in 1975 spurred local officials a few months later to launch a consultant-led study of the feasibility of a new civic/convention center for the old hotel’s site.

But its location, when erected a little more than a decade later, would be hijacked when officials tore down another full block of historic buildings across the street instead to appease the developer of an office tower.

This island of incoherence remains an inspiration for those who today seem more pursuant instead of “franchise architecture” and corrosion of of sense of place, aided by some sworn or elected to defend it.

Today, thanks in part to the community marketing that gave it oxygen and awareness beginning in 1989, Durham is now recognized as one of the country’s “foodiest” towns, including perhaps even hot dogs.

But unless repeatedly called to task by citizen activists like Margaret Haywood, Durham often seems to take two steps forward only to inexplicably take one or two back when fostering the sense of place.

In her 80s by then and more than two decades after that “sense of place revolt,” Margaret was still rallying others to step forward, this time for a Museum of Durham History to memorialize Durham’s sense of place.

The struggle continues to keep Durham distinct, both in the economic importance of being different and its worthiness of love.

It may even require another “sense of place” revolt.

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