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Old habits dying in the New South

"Yeah, Duke is a blast," he said and then snorted. "But Durham--man, what a s---hole." I was visiting Duke and stayed with this guy from my high school. My pre-frosh experience confirmed his claim: a sloshy Homecoming night that spilled all over the quad, and the next day a hasty walk through 9th Street before dropping into Cosmic Cantina. On a Thursday night four years later, I sit on a West Campus bench and watch several freshmen, restless and emaciated like a pack of starving dogs, wander into what seems to be the only populated section. They emerge minutes later, forlorn, without beer, and one of them whimpers: "Man, what a s---thole."

It's an oft quoted statistic that the Research Triangle is one of the nation's forerunners in medicine and business what-have-you, but that doesn't seem to capture the imagination. How about this: Richard Florida's recent book about regional economic development, Rise of the Creative Class, ranks the Triangle area as 6th in the country for its diversity, tolerance, innovative industry, arts and, just as, importantly recreation. (New York City charts only at 9th.) This means that, after San Francisco, Austin, Boston, and a few others, we can't do much better.

This is not immediately evident. I bought into the s---hole myth myself for three years, but all it took was three off-campus summer months and a little curiosity to explode it. For little more than the cost of a meal at the Great Hall, there were more restaurants than I had time to try. If I was broke, I could picnic ten minutes away at the Eno Riverâ??it's one of the most beautiful nature preserves in this region, but I'd wager that not one in five Duke students know it exists. An avant-jazz turntablist show one night, modern dance at the nationally renowned American Dance Festival the next. I've found progressive community action organizations that are more driven in purpose and vision than anything on campus. Suddenly I felt like a Durham resident who happened to attend Duke. Now, Duke students, who fan out after graduation to all parts of the world, rarely fail to register surprise when I say I'm thinking of staying right here for a while.

Some students seem to wear this ugly insularity with pride: "I never go off campus, unless it's, like, to 9th Street or South Point." Congratulations--you're boring. It's tempting to simplify this disturbing blandness with the assumpton that the Duke "type" is interested only in grades and beer. But a pretty, self-contained campus can easily lull people out of their potential and into routine, and by now it seems to me that Duke somehow makes people boring and insular. The tiny, necessary kernel of curiosity is never encouraged to grow. Freshmen, on their way to two years of mandatory on-campus residence, aren't even given a tour of the area. Their only exposure to Durham is crime briefs. The message--in some cases made explicit by the administration--is "stay the hell out, if you know what's good for you."

Even ignoring crime for the moment, common wisdom still holds that Durham got the stumpy end of the Triangle. A once-vibrant downtown life has been gradually sapped by two decades of poor planning and commercial imbalance. Trying to find your way around is stressful at best, humiliating at worst. Racial and class tensions have weakened the community. For years, all nightlife has been in Chapel Hill.

But even in the last six months, that has begun to change. There are stirrings in the grassroots of a widely rumbled-about "Durham Renaissance." Suddenly, you can find something to do in town almost every night of the week. The young non-profit DADA, the Durham Association for Downtown Arts, is a prime factor in this momentum. Their Durham Band Showcase a few weeks ago drew a full crowd--young and old, professional and bohemian, black and white--to the undisclosed rain-date location of the Basement. The free event had eight bands play within walking distance of East Campus. There were approximately six Duke students in attendance. Even more exciting is this week's on-campus Hip Hop Film Festival--a fascinating event combining art, education, and entertainment. One would expect this kind of grassroots artistic and social activity to find both leaders and an audience at a University, but unfortunately the festival is a promising exception, not the rule.

Duke has largely neglected to create a significant relationship with Durham. This University boasts of Public Policy courses that teach "leadership and morality," but real commitment to community building comes in the most token form. It pledges tens of thousands of dollars to cultural groups that put on pretty dances and then discourages any interaction with the diverse and challenging population outside its walls. It paralyzes our social life yet neglects to provide information about alternatives--even WXDU lacks the capacity to broadcast on campus about local events.

But the students still choose to morosely chow down on this dish that Duke cooks up. It's rotten: If people leave after four years convinced that there is no community here worth their time and resources, then they go forth into a world of communities with little more to offer. And they, in turn, will have less to offer back--in which case this institution will have utterly failed them.

It's up to students, then, to find the education you can't get in a classroom. Many will be perfectly happy to keep fighting crowds in the sweaty s---holes on 9th Street, but others--and it doesn't take many to get started--will pick up an Independent, set up independent study projects with DADA, try to bring artists and audiences to the Coffeehouse and wander off campus more often. After all, there's nothing keeping them here.

Greg Bloom is a Trinity senior and senior editor of Recess. His column appears every third Tuesday.


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