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Column: Durham's passions

I hopscotched through the U.S.-Pennsylvania, Texas, North Carolina-and back and forth to the Korean peninsula as an Army brat, but the unfortunate destination of my father's career was Northern Virginia. There, in the many car trips that the suburbs make inevitable, the concrete paradise rolled before me like the desert of a Jack Kerouac imagination, and I harbored a traitorous desire that it would all come crashing down in some apocalyptic disaster of grand proportions.

Thus, I open my ode to Durham with a contrast: Durham is no Northern Virginia.

If the road to suburban perfection is paved in strip malls, chain restaurants and upper-middle-class subdivisions, Northern Virginia has a mind-numbing abundance of both. Durham, thankfully, is far more creative. Here, you can get yourself a plate of the sweetest meat known to mortals-pulled pork in a vinegar-based sauce, made like God intended by the pied piper of North Carolina barbecue, Tommy Bullock. You can also get a whiff of Seoul's kimchee-burning redolence at the Smile Oriental Market... and buy fried bean curd and Chinese pickled radishes while you're at it.

You can watch the minor league club of baseball legends at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. You can learn to dance hip-hop at Ninth Street Dance or buy a beer from a guy with a real Irish accent at the James Joyce or listen to black poets at the Hayti Heritage Center.

I once wrote that Durham's farmer's market is homely, yet eclectic and charming. The same could be said of the city itself.

Durham has its problems. It has race problems and financial problems and crime problems. One Sunday morning during my summer as a Durham resident, I awoke to find shattered glass on the curb where my car had once been parked. I will never forget my jaw's attempts southward as the police officer who came by explained that it was the fifth car robbery he had seen to that morning.

But Durham also has history.

It was here long before cities began to spring fully grown from the womb of modern development, and it was here long before University architects decided to emulate the building style of dead Europeans.

Durham served as motherland for the South's tobacco industry, yes. But it was once known as something else-the center for black enterprise. Walter Weare, a former graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote of how the black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance company formed the hub of what the black press extolled as "Capital of the Black Middle Class" and "The Black Wall Street of America."

On Booker T. Washington's 1910 tour of North Carolina, his hosts repeated, "Wait until you get to Durham." At the end of the tour he did, and was impressed. W.E.B. DuBois did the same in 1912. In 1921, the black-owned Atlanta Independent conceded that, "Atlanta yielded only to Durham in economic and industrial process."

If the kids of Durham have good teachers, they will learn about the city's rich past, including its involvement with the civil rights movement. I'm pretty sure that the area where I spent my high schools years was soggy farmland 30 years ago.

But if Durham is no Northern Virginia, then it's no Duke, either.

If Duke were inhabited by Durhamites, the University would not have to bribe and beg for student input. It would get an earful every day of the week.

The other day, I passed by a discussion set up by Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Jim Clack to hear from students about alcohol policy-arguably the most continually controversial issue at Duke. Clack was surrounded by a handful of students uncomfortably eating their Great Hall meal.

At city council meetings, by contrast, any sort of contention will almost surely fill a room. I once witnessed over half an hour of impassioned oratory as a string of residents spoke about one proposal to allow two-way traffic on a residential road.

So, what of Durham's future? Some hope that the city will find its salvation and regain its pride with The Streets at Southpoint mall, a mega-development being built off Interstate 40. The mall's Chicago developers hope to model it off of Durham's downtown, using make-believe manhole covers and street signs; they may even build an ornamental smokestack in tribute to downtown's Lucky Strike fixture.

The thought of the mall and its parody of Durham's heritage torment me with ill visions. I remember the malls of Northern Virginia, with the upscale stores and the middle- to upper-class clientele. And they are utterly, utterly soulless.

May it not happen to Durham, ever.

Sarah McGill is a Trinity senior and city & state editor of The Chronicle.

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