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With shirts, store sets out to foster Durham pride

Durham-love yourself.

Four years ago, two vintage store owners realized that many potential customers were hesitant to venture into Durham.

In response, former business partners Jennifer Donner and Michelle Lee decided to sell T-shirts bearing the slogan, "Durham, Love Yourself," to improve the city's public image.

"Durham had gotten the rap of being a really blue-collar town and dangerous," said Donner, who has sold more than 1,000 T-shirts at Dolly's, her vintage boutique in Brightleaf Square. "We wanted to do something to show that we loved our town. With each T-shirt I sell, somebody has a story-of moving to Durham and how much they love it."

Donner, a Durham resident for 20 years, said the intended message behind the shirts is to encourage people to work toward improving the community for posterity's sake.

"It's not going to change the world, it's not rocket science, it's just a T-shirt, but it really does bring people together," she said. "People tend to get behind movements like this, and it does change things a little bit."

The city has acquired a reputation for having urban problems and racial politics because the population is almost equally divided between whites and blacks, said author Tim Tyson, a senior scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies and a visiting professor in the Divinity School.

Outsiders sometimes think of Durham as dangerous, threatening or problematic, but it is doing better than most post-industrial American cities, Tyson said.

Rather than sounding like a Chamber of Commerce promotional brochure or an infomercial, residents address the city's problems, he added.

"I see other communities that sweep everything under the rug and pretend they're just a shining city on a hill," Tyson said. "But Durham deals with it. That's why Durham is a great city."

Tyson added that he thinks of the city as self-critical, ambitious and always striving to improve.

"Rest assured, beyond the tidy, gated communities of the mind, where nervous people tend to think their tidy, gated, little thoughts, Durham does love itself," he said. "But the real, big-hearted city of Durham loves itself in the way your sister loves you-she loves you unconditionally, with all her heart, but she knows you're not perfect."

Cordelia Biddle, a sophomore from Philadelphia with family ties to Durham, said the Bull City has a worse reputation than other urban areas with similar crime rates.

"It's more the perception that Durham seems to be one big, bad neighborhood,'' said Biddle, who is a advertising representative for The Chronicle. "Whereas other cities have good neighborhoods to balance the bad ones, crime and poverty seem to run rampant throughout all of Durham."

John Schelp, a 14-year Durham resident and president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association, said outsiders perceive Durham as a place where activists in local neighborhoods can effect city-wide change, such as preventing a cement plant from going into a poor neighborhood or gaining concessions from Duke about plans to reconstruct Central Campus.

"I'd go back to the, 'Durham, Love Yourself'-it's one part melancholy, one part urging, one part activism and several parts pride," Schelp said. "That's what the message captures. how [people] feel about their town."

Carol Anderson, a 30-year Durham resident and the owner of Vaguely Reminiscent, a vintage store on Ninth Street, attributed many misconceptions about the city to the media attention surrounding the Duke lacrosse case.

"The dirty laundry is all out for everybody to see," she said. "People around the country and around the world have a questioning and curious view of Durham.. We know that we've got something real special here, but there lingers, because of the manufacturing history in Durham, the image of blue collar."

Donner said she hopes to donate bumper stickers bearing the motto to the city to give to new Durham residents. She added that the slogan, which also appears on sweatshirts, has opened up a community dialogue by connecting people in a new way.

"That's exactly what the T-shirts mean to me-if our community can get together and work together with all of the resources we have and all the awesome people we have. Durham will be one of the best places ever," Donner said. "We really have to like our city before anyone else is going to."

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