Turning left off Duke’s East Campus, Durham’s Main Street is a straight shot for a stretch. Try it—go as far as you remember. There’s Brightleaf, bustling on the right, Shooters tucked behind other bars, the Federal, James Joyce. This is well-worn pavement for students at the University, each inch a faded memory.
Keep going. Pass a pair of complexes: West Village and Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company’s Chesterfield, old cigarette factories, one recycled, one forsaken. Farther. Past Five Points, bricks on the street now, the frozen bull twisting somewhere. Past the cupcake shop, the nightclubs, the art-spaces and eateries.
Find St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on a surprisingly lush East Main block, an oasis. You haven’t seen tree trunks so thick since you left campus.
The skyscrapers, squat as they were, are all gone now. One block ahead, another tall building rises in their place, beige balconies with metal railing. Sometimes, especially in the evenings, you can see eyes in the gaps, blinking back through the golden wash. This is Oldham Towers, not yet two miles from Duke’s campus. The poverty rate in this census tract is 37.6 percent.
You do not look like you live in public housing, so you move quickly.
Alston Avenue soon interrupts. Main then bends a slight left, and East Durham tumbles forward. The bricks have fallen away, replaced by worn vinyl slats and suburban shrubbery. By East Durham Park, about four miles from East Campus, you’ve arrived at 44 percent poverty.
If time-pressed, visit Lakewood instead. A mile and a half south of the Nasher Museum of Art’s duck breast medallions (available on food points), find 85 percent of a neighborhood officially impoverished, what Olive Joyner of the Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network calls “‘I don’t get any money all month, and I switch out my food stamps to buy personal hygiene items’ poverty.”
These are faraway neighborhoods, though they are nearby, and they are Durham.
They are a , one with nearly four times as many black people in poverty as whites, the highest racial disparity among North Carolina’s 100 counties. Here, motorists stopped and searched and are 82 percent black, though the county itself is mostly white. can be shot dead in a cop car here, a Honduran migrant yelled instructions in English, by police on his front lawn.
The typical Duke student—cloistered a mandatory three years behind the gray barriers of East and West Campuses, the hedges and black metal of Central—does not know this Durham, though this Durham knows the typical Duke student.
I was in a cab this spring, stopped at CCB Plaza, when the driver, an Iraqi man named Akil, turned and said: “right here.” He told me how the student was drunk and hadn’t paid, hitting him on the head and leaving instead. I could say nothing.
“But mostly,” he added, “they are nice people.”
Akil is, of course, right. The students of Duke University are mostly nice people. They arrive as kids, so often from suburban high schools, and are minted into promising adults, with stamped certificates as proof. There are glass-encased dining halls, star lecturers and summer programs in between. Older people drudge over every detail.
The first three years, when they are required to live on campus, is a package, an experience. It is also a fantasy and a tyranny. It is eyes wide and mouth agape when I inform outsiders that this, my final year, is the first one I do not live where I study and work. Unsimulated, these have been the best of my times here.
Because Duke students (nice as they are) behave as all other humans do: within their constraints. And the Duke University campus (nice as it is) is one magnificent, dignified, Gothic-and-Georgian constraint.
The three years yawn before a first-year dumped fresh at a dormitory like a sentence. They are told—for most like never before and never again—that these, no one else, are their people. Kept safe from the jagged edges of a city so sharply divided along race and class lines, former children find themselves vulnerable to new dangers.
Some remain uprooted, haunting a handful of designated areas where appointments are kept. Others embrace the condition, delving headlong into greek tribalism inscrutable outside the stone walls. The price of in the fictive realm may be steep, beginning at formalized exclusion, semester dues and , including a 38 percent chance of sexual assault.
There are important externalities, like the “probably hundreds of thousands of dollars” it took to manage Duke’s I will never forget the Saturday evening when I stepped onto Craven Quad that I and some other unaffiliated students shared with two fraternities. The grass was hidden under a carpet of stinking cans. An elderly housekeeper stood picking them up one by one, listening, with me, to distant whooping.
I could say nothing.
We can be more than the distant whoop, a multinational enterprise expanding into China as children miles away grow hungry and drop out. A community built on the exclusion and exploitation of its periphery draws the odium of an empire.
Abolish the three-year mandate. Then, maybe, we will look around and see ourselves.
Prashanth Kamalakanthan is a Trinity senior. This is his final column of the semester. Send Prashanth a message on Twitter @pkinbrief.