Most universities are located where they were founded: Harvard is in Cambridge, Stanford is in Palo Alto, UNC is in Chapel Hill. But one of Duke’s peculiarities is that it chose to be in Durham. Trinity College was founded in rural Randolph County—and in 1892, the college packed up its bell and its library, loaded them onto a boxcar, and moved to Durham. It was a smart business deal for both: The ambitious little college wanted to be situated in a New South city, with access to its wealth and opportunities, and the ambitious little city wanted the educational resources and prestige of a liberal-arts college.
For many years, Duke must have appeared to be an alien visitor. Early twentieth-century Durham, with its tobacco factories and mills, as well as the vibrant center of black culture and commerce known as the “Black Wall Street,” had a limited connection to the university culture of that time. When the tobacco and textile economies collapsed in Durham, Duke’s lack of urban connectivity became paradoxically a kind of asset. In the 1970s and ’80s, as cities became focal points for social pathologies, universities that were more visibly urban paid a public-relations price for their dangerous, depressed locales. When Duke hit the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 1984 as the new “hot college,” people were drawn to the image of the Gothic wonderland, standing apparently clear of its urban surround.
But as urban decline abruptly reversed course in the U.S. in the last twenty years, Durham’s missing downtown became a serious negative for this university. And so a century after moving here, during Nan Keohane’s presidency, Duke began investing in Durham. These investments came first in twelve proximate neighborhoods through the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, then in rehabilitation projects downtown. Duke’s commitment to lease one-fourth of the 1 million square feet of the abandoned American Tobacco site led to the securing of the rest of the financing for the project—a move that reignited Durham as a commercial attraction.
From this start, with a brief timeout for the economic downturn, Durham has become a veritable boomtown for investment and activity. In the past three years, four hotels and 2,300 residential units have been built within two miles of downtown. Durham’s locavore food scene, the subject of national acclaim, continues to recruit new restaurants virtually by the week.
Today, more than 2,500 Duke employees work in downtown Durham, and Durham’s old tobacco warehouses are coming to new life as part of Duke. The Carmichael Building in West Village has been converted into high-end lab space to co-locate faculty doing research on metabolomics, physiology, and human genetics, while adjacent private-sector companies can share research projects and commercial development of discoveries. The old Chesterfield Building, under construction now, will soon form part of a new archipelago of biomedical research and development spaces mixing academic and industry participants. Start-ups, which spring up most luxuriantly in high-density collision spaces with highly educated, innovative neighbors, will have a natural new home in the Durham Innovation District. Duke’s own Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative will open such a space of connectivity in downturn Durham within the year.
Duke has an important role to play in every aspect of the development of this city and this region. The Durham public schools struggle with many challenges; Duke’s initiatives in early education, our summer and after-school academies, and our many shared research and literacy programs are crucial contributors to a better civic future. With health disparities having emerged as one of the most devastating and intractable forms of social inequality in America, Duke Medicine also must provide support for building a healthy community. If we want to benefit from our home, we must be active to make it the community it can be.
As Duke helps bring these new realities to life, we can glimpse a Durham that never was but that will benefit us immensely: a center of economic and cultural vitality that draws smart people from around this country and the world and gives their creative ideas a place to develop. When Duke chose Durham, our fates became entwined. Today, through a vision of constructive partnership, Duke and Durham can see the newly positive prospects of our shared future.