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The Creek Running Blue

Ellerbe Creek is a body of water that runs through downtown Durham. Meaning: it runs through our city and contains our muck. “Think of all the medicines people take and then flush down the toilet,” the tour guide implores. “I wouldn’t let my kids swim in here. Fecal coliform.”

The water looks mucky indeed: clay-colored, churning fast, loopy with oily bubbles. It feeds into Falls Lake, which is not a natural lake. Its non-naturalness frustrated, and continues to frustrate, nearby residents; their land was taken and dug and filled with water, yes, but also mosquitoes and pollution. photo-1

The tour of the Glennstone Nature Preserve turns out to be as much about the surrounding forest—its canopies, its rose-hips and big-bodied black snakes, its spray-painted neon orange, marking where public land stops and Army Corps land begins—as about the water itself. (Where did my body end and the crystal and white world begin?). It is also, perhaps equally, about the history of Durham development, filtered through two Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association tour guides. They’ve lived in Durham long enough to have conversations with people who worked in Erwin Mill when it was an actual mill. Blue jean indigo used to run into the creek.

I scribbled that in my notebook the other day—the creek running blue—because I liked the image (forget the pollution!). But my assignment, assigned on the creekbank, was to write about something I’d noticed on the trail, and to describe it in formal, third-person detail. This was—is—hard for me. I wanted to write about the two women tour guides, how they gave our group a collaborative map of Ellerbe Creek by finishing each other’s sentences. How their excitement about stump sprouts excited me. How the leaves looked next to the mushroom fairy rings. I wanted to understand the forest, the creek, and the developed land holistically: one thing, albeit nuanced, but one thing. I wanna be cohesive!, as the fictional Hushpuppy moans in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

In other words, I wanted to position myself at the center of the ecosystem: me, writing about my surroundings. Which is funny, because I’d just dropped in on this trail on this day through a writing class I’m taking. And as I told one of the guides, I’d lived here my whole life, but never traversed the banks of Ellerbe. 23 years is a lot of time for a city to transform: livelihoods can revert, invert, take different shape. So can creekbeds and the creeks they carry.

It’s a lot to ask to understand the before, during, and after—of a place, a person, a story. On this day, September 11, I read a Facebook remembrance post by a friend. She wrote about those of us who have little memory of what came “before” that date. I was in fifth-grade; I’ve recounted “my” story a million times (it was sunny out; I was confused about how something bad could be happening in the world if it was sunny out). But it was vaguely kid-stuff before, and adolescence after.

photo-2I start to wonder: is that before memory within my control? What about the during, and after? I asked one of the tour guides if an investigative article had ever been written about Ellerbe, considering the creek exists within plain sight of Durham’s residents. “No,” she said, after asking her tour partner. “Maybe you should write it!” I fantasized my potential agency: I write a luxurious, sprawling journalistic account of the creek’s history, and suddenly more people care. It’s the same fantasy that flickers sometimes about my project in Dublin this summer: if I write a good piece about the multiple dimensions of The Exchange’s suspension, maybe more people will care that it happened at all, or at least want to understand the situation more deeply. Maybe they’ll want to understand each other more deeply.

In this current, there’s an ethics of control, and there’s an ethics of empathy, and I want to be able to cite enough philosophers and enough theorists to cover every inch of nuance of both. I’m not sure that project is within my control, nor am I sure it should be. Inevitably, it will revert, invert, take different shape.

This morning, feeling weight from the day and from the idea of writing, I walked outside our building and sat at a picnic table and watched a ball of fluff float until my eyes strained or the ball became indistinguishable from the color of the sky or both. I sat there for a few minutes and then walked back. My legs lately feel taut and Tinman-like. (I just started dancing again after a few months’ break. “I’m a little rickety,” I keep telling people. I also walked about 1.6 miles through the woods yesterday).

I came inside and opened The Chronicle; there was a 9/11 Remembrance advertisement on one page, and a giant Miró painting on the other. I came back to my desk, and Ikea USA had tweeted, “Save time for reflection this Patriot Day morning.” (The account has since deleted the tweet). I felt strange about that (who decided it was called “Patriot Day,” anyway?), so I started writing my way into and out of it—that current, that stream—controlling only as much as the words ahead of me.

—MD

“Surfacing”

The following two articles were published (by different newspapers) in quick succession: the first on August 8, the second on August 13. Both are about Durham.

I’ve supplied the lede sentences, and article links, for each below.

  • “Public school teachers, low-level city workers, even journalists can’t afford many, if not most, of the 2,400 new apartments and condos being built in central Durham.”

From “Durham development: What’s being built where and who can afford it?”, Lisa Sorg, Indy Week.

  • “Like firecrackers exploding around downtown Durham, clusters of small businesses are popping up and enlivening one desolate block after another.”

From “Surfacing: A Corner of Durham, N.C., Comes to Life”, Ingrid K. Williams, The New York Times.

Throughout the week of Project Change, it’s odd (and hard), pedagogically, to balance discussion about real-time events, trends, and articles with real-time personal immersion—in Durham, and within the group of 21 PChange students. After all, the students don’t have access to social media or personal technology (they could, hypothetically, pick up a newspaper somewhere). I found this particularly challenging, this past week, with the unfolding events in Ferguson, MO. These are events that touch on a multitude of interconnected issues—including race, justice, and the organization of public space—that continually and intentionally surface during Project Change, often in connection with students’ personal experiences.

That said, the above pairing of articles came up during a conversation about the types of things students noticed throughout the week (things like gentrification) while working on a community garden with Reinvestment Partners. RP is a multi-pronged organization that advocates for economic justice and empowerment in Durham. Right now, they’re creating a food hub and food corridor along East Geer St., which forms part of a traditionally low-income, majority-minority neighborhood.

It’s no coincidence that Geer St. runs into the cultural district Ingrid Williams, with the weight of a New York Times pronouncement, describes as “surfacing.” If she walked up Geer, toward Reinvestment Partners’ office near N. Roxboro, she might call that segment “neglected.” After all, where are the NYT-approved signs of urban progress—the string-lit beer gardens, the runners’ clubs, the warehouse-chic? During a Durham scavenger hunt last week, we had the Project Change students look for (and interpret) “old things” and “new things,” and how they related to “art spaces,” “places to eat,” and “gathering places,” in Durham. How often they coexisted, how often they overlapped—pseudo-rustic signage, new construction abutting abandoned shops, murals on old buildings with new site plans.

Williams’s article is in the travel section; it’s geared toward tourism; it aims to generate a conversation, for outsiders, around desire, around an assumed familiar metric of “cool” and “good.” I want to go there! But I think about how the NYT article, bound by its genre, fails to mention the ~$50mil luxury condo and retail development that’s begun to displace the historic Liberty Warehouse at the corner of Rigsbee and W. Corporation. As Sorg points out in the Indy piece, many locals—all of whom presumably hold the right to access Durham’s cultural center—won’t be able to afford living there. I can’t afford living there. I think of a recent CityLab article about how high-rise apartment dwellers typically feel safe and “cozy” in their respective fortresses, but unsafe in the surrounding neighborhoods. I drive around downtown Durham and see umpteen simultaneous apartment developments. All seem to have a suspiciously similar drab aesthetic, far from Durham’s historic architectural styles; sore thumbs in their respective neighborhoods. I wonder if these new residents will converse with neighbors beyond their building.

Between articles about Ferguson and Durham, and between eight days of Project Change, I’m thinking a lot about framing conversation. Which voices, and which stories, cast the net and create the frame? Is said frame equitable? Who gets easy access? Who doesn’t? How can conversation be framed in unique and unexpected ways, and how does this framing influence “the information” itself? I like to think that the pairing of these two articles about Durham—one from a major national newspaper, one from a local alt-weekly—casts a wide net for several conversations that need to happen. The thematic content and tone of each piece speak to the mere existence of a conversational spectrum. I’ve been similarly inspired following Marcia Chatelain’s #FergusonSyllabus project—a means to expand the net by crowdsourcing articles and resources, both for students and the general public, related to the events in Ferguson. It provides tangible products, but also says, more broadly, this is complicated; let’s err on the side of conversation, and move with it in turn.

—MD

We Are Where?

By Michaela Dwyer

There is a book in my office with the words “You are here” on the cover. It was bought in Boston, then an unfamiliar city. I gravitated toward it in the basement of the Harvard Book Store not for the globular shapes and colors on its cover, nor for the title’s reassurance of stability. At the time, the book was actually displayed backwards. “Where am I?” I was thinking. “Where are you?” the back cover answered—answers—back. Between a grid of small, colorful maps are these three words, one falling after the other, like a more wistful Tic-Tac-Toe.

And now I am sitting at my desk, in my office, and to the right of me is this book. I flipped the cover over, so I’m still reading the words “Where are you?” I brought the book to work because Project Change begins in two weeks, and—without giving too much away, as mystery and messiness are hallmarks of the program—we’ve been strategizing how 21 incoming Duke students can document Durham’s geography over the course of the week. Many of these students have never visited the city. We want them to be able to stand at the corner of Corcoran and Parrish and know they’re at the corner of Corcoran and Parrish—literally, physically, as per street signage. But we also want them to take stock of how they got there, what types of places they noticed on the way, the attitudes of the people they encountered. If the students ask a stranger where are you?, what does she say in return? How does she describe her place in the city? Can she describe the city without placing herself in it? What are the contours of the city’s history, as she tells it?

Can we literally, physically, map these tellings, these retellings?

I think about Katie Davis’s “Memory Map,” one of the few written pieces included in You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination. Davis, a writer and former Washington, D.C.-based NPR reporter, began producing the original radio series Neighborhood Stories in 1999. She did something simple, but radical at the time: reported stories from Adams Morgan, on the street and around the neighborhood where she’d lived for most of her life. You can hear one, called “Wide Shot,” here.

In “Memory Map,” she talks about being a reporter in Nicaragua after the Revolution. She was looking for the office of the censor. “A Sandinista official pointed north. ‘Go a few blocks and take a left where the big tree used to be before the earthquake.’” Davis got lost and missed the interview because, of course, she wasn’t there before, or during, the earthquake. She “began to use the story as an example of how different it is down south.”

Until her story of difference didn’t hold up. Davis realized her own tendency to “[use] memory as a map.” Back in D.C., years later, she tells friends looking for an Ethiopian restaurant to check out the one “where the post office used to be”—the post office with brass boxes and huge windows. “Yes, but is the food good?” her friends would ask.

I think about whether I do this. I’ve received messages in the past two weeks from a few people, one I’ve never met, who are about to move (back) to Durham. They ask me what my job is like. They ask me to describe the city. I cast myself as narrator. I say, Durham is different than it was in 2008. I can say, the food is good, and list my favorite restaurants. Of course, there is a lot I don’t say.

12 months ago I moved “back” to Durham*. 12 months ago I started working here, and rambled around Durham with 21 incoming Duke students for a week. Each night I went to bed with a head bobbing between threads of a city I’d known for four years in specific and poignant ways—ways that suddenly, in the context of others’ stories, felt severely limited. One month ago I returned to Durham from one month in Ireland and pointed out new construction around the city to my family. There’s the lot on Main St. that will soon house a Marriott. The architects are preserving the brick façade from what used to be McPherson Hospital. For several years prior, more than just the façade still stood. Anyone passing through downtown could see the sky through the abandoned brick building’s negative space, vines blowing in the wind.

But right now it is right now. I am planning an activity that requires students to document a city they’ve never spent time in: to create a map that incorporates, by necessity, histories and memories outside themselves. I’m hoping it’ll both alienate and somehow ground them. I’m hoping it will help them to straddle, in equal part, questions and answers: where are we? and we are here. To point neither to X nor Y, neither Corcoran nor Parrish, exactly, but to the idea of documenting space itself. To point, even with shaky fingers, at how difficult it is, and how unjust it can be, to pin down a common orientation in the first place. What information do we privilege? What, and who, do we leave out? How do we know? Do we know?

*Note: I adopted this retelling style from a piece posted by Adrienne Mathiowetz on Public Radio Exchange (PRX) a few weeks ago.

From Cafeteria Food to Community Empowerment: Do[ing] Lunch with Peter Skillern

By Michaela Dwyer

Yesterday a group of 25 or so Duke undergrads (and a postgrad fellow interloper) sat around a long table in West Duke Room 107 and ate sandwiches while Peter Skillern talked to us about community organizing for better elementary school cafeteria food.

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Peter Skillern doing lunch with Duke undergraduates this week.

Skillern had taken a moment early into his talk as part of Team Kenan’s “Do Lunch” series to solicit questions from the students. One asked if there was a particular moment or book or influence Skillern could remember, something that shaped his path toward becoming “one of Durham’s most creative nonprofit leaders,” as the Do Lunch flyer described him. Skillern explained that he was in elementary school in the South during the early 1960s’ push toward racial integration. Martin Luther King, Jr. was on his mind when he rallied his lunchroom peers around—and with an intention to reverse— their perceived injustice: low-quality cafeteria offerings. Decades later, Skillern runs Reinvestment Partners out of an old art deco apartment building on East Geer Street, in the Old North Durham neighborhood. It is here, in this local community, where their work starts, and here where their larger-scale policy efforts—on the state and national level—aim to align.

Throughout his talk, Skillern often repeated Reinvestment Partners’ unofficial mantra: “We do what we can, where we can, with whom we can, with what we have to make a difference.” For Skillern, social change happens through a radical orientation toward what already exists—“what already exists” ranging from overlooked unsafe sidewalks in Old North Durham to Skillern’s professional repertoire in economic justice advocacy, policy work, community organizing, and street theater and soap opera. For him, and for Reinvestment Partners, this combinatory approach just makes sense. Connective thought and action is a given: what better way to disseminate information about “zombie foreclosures” than a short video of Skillern and community residents dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”? (In May of this year, Skillern and co. organized a live “Zombie Dance” protest in downtown Charlotte, aimed at the bank walkaways regularly practiced by major institutions like Bank of America. An at-large security force, confused by the participants’ zombie make-up, was poised to take charge; Skillern and others danced peacefully, enjoyed refreshments, and ended up in various news images the day after.)

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A still from RP’s “Zombie Foreclosure Shake.

The “Zombie Foreclosure Shake” is a paragon of Skillern’s and RP’s creative approach to policy change. At the lunch, Skillern often spoke from a place of personal and professional alignment: the Quaker ideal of the “social witness” as a model for community organizing; the ability to “lean in” to conflict or discomfort, whether in a close relationship or in an economically struggling neighborhood, in order to identify points of contention and leverage those points for positive and widely accessible social change. His philosophies, and thus those of the organization he leads, are grounded in an honesty with the communities in which they, and by extension we, live. He talked about how in honing our attention on multiple levels to our day-to-day, we both empower the richness of our own experience and empower ourselves to speak on our own terms about that experience, and about what could be changed, by powers beyond our immediate control, for the common good. It’s typical for Skillern to run through social change models like this one without pretension, condescension, or presumption—as if it’s common sense to connect in these ways.

The talk ended with Skillern answering a student’s question about how to capitalize on the skills and experiences of university students working within a campus organization to fight homelessness. Skillern recalled a conversation with a student activist group at Duke in the 1990s. A handful of students phoned him, eager to get out into the Durham community and “make change happen” (heard that one before, Dukies?). He told them, frankly, no. “You all are students, and Duke is your community,” Skillern said, to the students both past and current. He advised the activist group to turn inward, not outward, and focus on what power they already had access to within the institution of Duke, power to affect change in the community that houses this university. The project ended with then-president Nan Keohane touring neighborhoods in Durham with RP and attracting sizeable media attention. Doing “what we can, where we can, with whom we can, with what we have to make a difference,” indeed.