A Better Neighbor

Twenty years ago, Duke set out to bridge the gap between the wealthy university and struggling nearby communities. The effort began with Walltown.
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February 24, 2015

Here is the campus. Washington B. Duke, cast in bronze, seated and gazing into the distance. The green lawn, prim and peaceful, surrounded by stately brick dormitories, a pillared library, and a domed auditorium.

There is the neighborhood. Modest bungalows and squat duplexes line the sloping streets, shaded by towering willow oaks with crooked alleyways running between. A brick Baptist church, a littered creek, a basketball hoop, a porch clinking with handmade wind chimes.

The space between here and there—between Duke’s East Campus and the Walltown neighborhood—is a hop, skip, and a jump; less than a quarter mile. Yet sometimes it has seemed much farther.

In the early 1990s, the neighborhood was visibly ailing, and a few university leaders decided to reach across the divide. Walltown would become the staging ground for Duke’s first official community-development project. In return, Walltown would teach Duke how to be a better citizen of the town it calls home.

The neighborhood was named for a man named George W. Wall. In the early 1900s, Wall built a small shotgun house for his family in the wooded area north of Trinity College, where he worked as a janitor. Other blue-collar, black families soon settled nearby, and by the 1920s, the community was known as Walltown.

People born and raised in Walltown in the 1940s and ’50s recall their neighborhood as a vibrant, tight-knit village. Neighbors borrowed cups of sugar, shared produce from their gardens, and disciplined each other’s misbehaving children. Youngsters played football and jump rope, shimmied up backyard fruit trees, and scratched hopscotch grids in the dirt roads. On warm nights, they had sleepovers on front porches.

This 1937 map depicts Walltown's streets color-coded by race. To the south of the neighborhood lies Duke campus. (Source: Open Durham)

This 1937 map depicts Walltown's streets color-coded by race. To the south of the neighborhood lies Duke campus. (Source: Open Durham)

“Everybody looked out for each other. It was like one big family,” says Audrey Mitchell, who has lived in Walltown for all but three of her sixty-nine years. “We were considered poor people. But we didn’t know we were poor, because we had whatever we needed.” Hemmed in on each side by wealthier white neighborhoods, Walltowners founded their own elementary school, grocery store, barbershop, wood yard, juke joint, and several churches. They also established a neighborhood council, the city’s first neighborhood community center, and their own symbolic mayor.

While many engaged with the civil rights movement in Durham—participating in sit-ins, integrating white schools, and lobbying policymakers at City Hall—they also felt wary of outsiders. To enter Walltown, “you had to know somebody,” says Mitchell. “If you didn’t, you would get run out of there. And that’s literally.”

Likewise, Walltown folk avoided passing through nearby neighborhoods, black and white alike, not to mention the intimidating Georgian campus next door. Annie Vample, born in 1944, remembers childhood walks from her home in Walltown to Bible school in Brookstown, a black community that was later decimated by construction of the Durham Freeway. East Campus offered a convenient shortcut, but rather than face unwelcome stares on the quad, Vample preferred to walk along the top of the East Campus wall, her small leather sandals snapping across the uneven stones.

Despite divisions of race and class, Walltown and Duke have long shared a permeable boundary. While some Walltowners found well-paying jobs in the downtown tobacco factories, many others worked at Duke. These janitors, housekeepers, yardmen, and line cooks labored behind the scenes at a school they were not allowed to attend—at least until the university began admitting black students in the 1960s. Wall’s descendants would continue cleaning up after Duke—and relying on it for their livelihood—over the next century.

The gradual fade of tobacco and textile factories left Duke (both its university and medical center) as the largest employer in Durham County and one of the only corporate powers in the area. Duke had a near-monopoly on jobs: “They had the only horse and show in town,” recalls James Hill, who was born in Walltown in 1939. Hill’s mother worked as a maid in one of the women’s dormitories on East Campus. Every summer, the students would give her their used clothing, which she would then distribute to the young girls in Walltown. One Christmas, she fell sick and was unable to prepare for the holiday, so the dorm girls took up a collection and bought an electric toy train for her children.

“Everybody in the neighborhood played with that train. It was top-of-theline,” says Hill. “That was big stuff. We kept that train for about twenty years.”

These gestures, while memorable, were not potent enough to scrub out the resentment experienced by some Walltowners, who felt theirs was a servant community to Big Duke. “People who worked there would call it the Plantation. It reminded them of slaving times,” says Mitchell, who worked at Duke’s Private Diagnostic Clinic for thirty-one years.

Other employees were grateful for the income and even felt a sense of kinship with the university. Vample’s father worked as a cook at Duke and later at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Upon his retirement, he was thrilled when Duke gave him season football tickets. “My daddy loved it,” she recalls. “Although you were just a worker there, not a student, you still loved the school.”

As Duke's footprint grew, some people residing at its edges were pushed aside. In the 1960s, Duke purchased 153 homesteads and evicted swaths of working-class cotton-mill workers in West Durham to build apartments for Central Campus. In the late 1980s, Duke announced plans to expand the medical center, resulting in the eviction of forty-two families and prompting student protests, according to local newspaper articles. Duke made efforts to support some residents with relocation assistance and housing loans, but these attempts were quickly eclipsed by the next expansion project.

Another community-relations fumble occurred in the early 1990s with the Burch Avenue neighborhood, which sits south of East Campus. As then-senior vice president for public affairs John Burness remembers it, Burch residents were exasperated by the nightly rumbling of Duke hospital laundry trucks through their otherwise quiet streets, as well as by ten Duke-owned properties, most of them vacant.

Burness met with the neighborhood association over several months and devised a plan to rehab and sell the properties. It was a mutually beneficial proposal: Duke would avoid becoming a slum landlord and protect its public image, while Burch residents would rid themselves of eyesore properties and acquire homes for families. But less than a year later, Duke announced plans to erect a 160-foot television tower in the neighborhood.

“How is it possible?” Burness responded furiously when he learned about the tower, which had been approved by Duke telecommunications representatives unbeknownst to him. Twenty years after the fact, he’s still miffed by the lack of coordination and empathy Duke showed with that decision. “We weren’t malevolent, we were just incompetent,” he reflects. “If you read back through the [meeting] minutes, the question was asked, ‘How would this look from Duke’s campus?’ It didn’t occur to people to say, ‘How would it look from the community?’”

Duke's murky town-gown history was waiting for Nannerl O. Keohane when she became president of the university in 1993. The eldest daughter of a socially conscious preacher, Keohane grew up accompanying her father on visits to poor communities in rural Arkansas and South Carolina. Years later, as a graduate student at Yale, she witnessed the disparity between the sparklingly well-endowed university and crime- and poverty-addled New Haven.

Upon taking up her new post at Duke, Keohane noticed “a considerable sense of distance and suspicion, even at some level, hostility” from some Durham residents toward the university. The contrast was tangible: Duke was erecting multimillion-dollar academic and research facilities, while just a stone’s throw away, Durham was dealing with unemployment, floundering public schools, the war on drugs, and crime. In the shadow of East Campus, Walltown in particular was struggling.

One resident remembers when her street was infamously dubbed Skid Row. “Gunshots crackled in the night. Drug dealers peddled their wares out of desolate, boarded-up homes. Squatters haunted the old elementary school, where all the windows had been broken out and smashed beer bottles glittered on the ground,” the Durham Herald Sun would later report about Walltown.

A boarded-up house pre-revitalization. (Photo courtesy Sam Miglarese.)

Longtime local pastor Robert L. Daniels M.Div. ’84 remembers a shooting outside of Walltown’s Knox Street Grocery, a former mom-andpop shop that had become a den for drug dealers, gangs, and prostitutes. “It was a neighborhood that had become a fearful place to live,” Daniels recalls.

Residents were especially troubled by the patches of rundown housing that had cropped up in the past few years. Absentee landlords, transient renters, and the exodus of new generations had left a shortage of invested homeowners. The wood-frame dwellings of George Wall’s era were abandoned and crumbling.

Early in her presidency, Keohane made the decision that East Campus would house all first-year students. If Duke planned to place its youngest, most vulnerable population in the midst of the city, instead of tucked away in the forest, it needed to ensure safety and stability for students on campus as well as residents living nearby. Suddenly, the issues in Walltown seemed much closer.

Until this point, individual campus groups, such as the Duke chapel, had tried to reach out to local communities, but Duke’s collective impact in Durham was “a mile wide and an inch deep,” according to Burness. In Duke’s long-range plan, Keohane outlined her vision for more sincere, coordinated investment in Durham communities. The trustees signed off, and Burness went to work. His team would begin in Walltown, as it was close to East Campus, peopled by many Duke employees, and in need of improved housing.

But what did Duke know about residential housing development? In search of an ally with strong local ties, it turned to Self-Help, a local community-development organization focused on helping low-wealth families become homeowners and small-business owners. After many meetings among Self-Help, Duke representatives, and community members, a plan developed. Self-Help would buy, gut, and renovate the ramshackle properties, transforming them into spruced-up homes, which would ideally attract new homeowners and other developers. Eventually, in theory, the community would stabilize.

In April 1994, Duke loaned Self-Help $2 million. Along with city bond money, Duke’s loan became the primary fuel for Self-Help’s housing revitalization in Walltown. With the funds, Self-Help hired two staff members to research every house in the neighborhood, identify the ones in need of rehab—nearly threefourths of properties—and track down the landlords. Once renovated, the properties were sold at affordable prices to first-time, low-income homeowners, the majority of them black, with preference given to Duke employees.

One of these first-time homeowners was Carolyn Smith. A Durham native, Smith had reared six children in rented apartments in Durham’s West End, where she says she yearned to paint the walls in colors of her choice. “I had always lived in a house, but it wasn’t my house,” she says. “To me that was always the American dream.”

In the late 1990s, Smith noticed the houses for sale in Walltown, applied for the loan, and was thrilled when she was approved. She’s been living in the lightbrown bungalow on Berkeley Street ever since. In 2005, Smith retired after working in housekeeping at Duke Medical Center for twenty-two years. She still cleans the homes of several Duke professors who live nearby. She didn’t know about Duke’s hand in her new house, but she commends Martin Eakes Hon. ’06, Self-Help’s founder, for the work of his nonprofit. “It was a good thing he did, especially for black people,” she says.

Today, Smith is sixty-eight years old and has an aching knee, but she still cares for her house with visible pride. Every week she dusts the porch, hoses down the vinyl siding, and tends to the pink-and-white four o’clocks in the front yard. When she cuts the grass, she eagerly cuts part of the neighbor’s lawn too.

Smith feels comforted because when she dies, she will have something to leave to her children. Her favorite part of owning a home? “You can paint it any color you want.”

A renovated home, post-revitalization. (Photo courtesy Sam Miglarese.)

The Walltown housing revitalization would end up spanning more than a decade. But before it even began, Duke had a much deeper, intangible problem to solve. Over the years, trust had eroded between university and neighborhood like the termite-gnawed foundations of Walltown houses. Audrey Mitchell recalls the feelings of certain residents toward Duke in the early years of the partnership. “We were skeptical about Duke being the help, because we knew Duke would want to take over,” she says. “They have that takeover mentality. Duke thinks, ‘It’s going to be run the way we want it run.’... No, it’s going to be run the way we want it run. This is our community.”

Duke was not the only local force capable of “taking over” in the eyes of Walltowners. For years, Mitchell and others in Walltown had waged slow battles with the City of Durham for smoother sidewalks, working streetlights, and recreational spaces. Then came the threatened expansion of Northgate Mall, whose owner reportedly announced that within ten years, Walltown would cease to exist.

With Northgate to the north, Duke to the south, and whiter, richer neighborhoods on either side, Walltown was surrounded. Even today, residents express suspicion that Duke might one day bulldoze their neighborhood to clear space for academic facilities or student housing. “Duke is such a powerful institution. If they want to come in here and buy up this community, they have the potential to do that,” says Pastor Daniels. “But if we don’t have any dialogue and discussions working with them, talking with them at the table, then, over the long haul, they will just be like any other university. They will get the property.” (The situation wasn’t helped by Duke’s purchase of Trinity Heights, the six-block-long strip reserved for university faculty and staff. Some Walltowners still view the district as an elite and telling “buffer zone” between their neighborhood and the campus.)

Early in the process, before any construction began, Burness’ office sent a graduate student to talk with Walltown residents about the issues they were dealing with. She was promptly turned away. Apparently, Duke needed a different approach. “We really needed to cease presenting ourselves as this sort of paternalistic neighbor who brought groups in occasionally and knew what was best,” Keohane recalls, “but instead go and ask them, ‘What do you need that we might be able to help with? We want to sit down with you in your community centers, in your homes, in your churches, and listen to what you say instead of somehow thinking that we have all the answers.’”

Next, Burness enlisted city and county representatives Bill Bell (now in his seventh term as Durham mayor) and Sandy Ogburn to survey several local neighborhoods about their needs. Burness credits these two well-respected ambassadors as key to establishing lasting trust with Walltown. “Duke can’t go do this stuff without assessing need,” he says. “There needs to be somebody who really knows the neighborhood saying, ‘We need this in our community.’ And if Duke is just doing it without asking what’s needed, then it’s a failure, a total failure.”

Bell and Ogburn emerged from the surveys with a list of issues, including affordable housing, health care, education, youth programs, and crime prevention. As housing renovations got under way, Duke and Self-Help joined with Daniels and four other pastors to establish a neighborhood clinic and a children’s theater. The trio also collaborated to transfigure the drug- and gang-infested Knox Grocery into a headquarters for the five-pastor ministry; it will soon be used by a jobs and life skills training nonprofit. Duke continues to have a presence through a number of divinity-school alumni, who run three hospitality houses in Walltown and promote social justice in the Triangle.

The Walltown housing revitalization marked Duke’s first strategic attempt to connect with a community of regular, working-class people. When the project began, Walltown was plagued by gang activity, gunfire, and blighted properties.

These days, Walltown is quiet and relatively peaceful. Kids play ball in the street at night; graduate students rent houses there. Carolyn Smith’s porch, once the site of a gunpoint robbery, is now a haven where she sips coffee most mornings, watching the traffic pass. Audrey Mitchell, along with many other longtime black residents, has stayed in Walltown. Annie Vample coordinates the annual Walltown reunion, which draws former neighbors from as far as Atlanta and Philadelphia. James Hill now lives in another neighborhood, but he visits Walltown every day.

The houses Self-Help renovated—about eighty properties over thirteen years—are neat and white-trimmed. “The landscape of the housing is so much better,” affirms Daniels. “People feel good about being able to purchase a home here.” Other Walltown residents agree that the new houses brightened and beautified the neighborhood. “Duke has done a tremendous service for the Walltown community by investing resources there—a win-win initiative,” commented one pastor.

Despite many gains, some residents worry about the loss of affordable housing as the neighborhood becomes nicer. A smattering of shabby and vacant buildings persist; there is still an occasional robbery; and residents are concerned about education, employment, and health care, according to a recent survey conducted by a local nonprofit. White and Latino families have moved in, creating a more diverse, if somewhat fractured, community makeup.

From Walltown, Duke learned the importance of learning a community’s history, listening as residents identify their own self-determined goals, acknowledging power differentials, and striving for genuine, long-term collaboration, not parachute- in paternalism. Duke also learned that it cannot simply replicate and scale the Walltown model in other areas. “You have to recognize that there are these histories, and that each neighborhood has its own culture,” says Burness. “What might work in one neighborhood isn’t necessarily going to work in another.”

According to Burness, Duke did what it set out to do. “The neighbors identified wanting to have more affordable housing; they have more affordable housing. The neighbors wanted better schools for their kids; they got better schools for their kids. The neighbors wanted a safer community; it is a safer community. For me, the biggest piece is when I drive down those streets and I see little kids playing in the front yard; that means we did it right.”

Still, some age-old attitudes are not as easily reshaped as eaves and moldings. “The reason that Duke is doing what it’s doing, they feel guilty,” theorizes Hill. “We don’t think they’re doing it out of the kindness of their heart. It’s they look back and they say, ‘We shouldn’t have treated them this way...so let’s throw a couple of dollars at them, and maybe we can pacify them.’”

Hill admits that such suspicions might be more common among older generations. “My children, they don’t have the same feeling that I have toward Duke,” he says. “They think Duke is peaches and cream.”

Duke has “made a lot of progress, and they have reached out,” he adds. “But the scars are deep. Some will never heal. What it would take is time, and time, well, for this generation to die out, because you can’t really just erase something that was done.... It’s okay to forgive, but when you start forgetting, then you’re allowing the situation to go back to the way it was, see, so you’d be doing yourself a great disservice.”

The voices of Duke, Walltown, and those in between tell a fraught yet shared story of integration, changing identity, mistrust, negotiation, and loyalty. Just as some Walltown residents continue to question the sincerity of Duke’s community- service projects, some Duke students are still scared to stray too far past the East Campus wall. While Duke alumni claim to be “Forever Duke,” Walltowners also are drawn perpetually back to their home place.

“Anybody that talks about Walltown and grew up in Walltown, you would hear the pride in their voices and would see it on their faces,” says Mitchell. “It’s the people that grew up here and who we call Walltownans that have always been connected. And we still feel connected; whether we move away or what, we are still connected. It’s not about geography anymore. I don’t care where you are, you’re a Walltown.”

 

  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.