The pejorative language that has characterized student conversation about Durham for most of Duke’s history has changed—and it has changed in a big way.
In recent years, it has become abundantly clear that Duke students’ age-old justifications for making fun of our home town simply do not align with Durham’s reality. Disrespecting Durham no longer makes for a good joke. It never should have, of course, but that isn’t the point.
It doesn’t take much googling to discover why the student perception of Durham has changed so dramatically. In recent years, a financial windfall and cultural boon have made Durham’s explosive growth and revitalization difficult to overstate. This year, US News & World Report named Durham the 4th-Overall Best Place to Live in the United States. Durham is Duke’s most undersold asset, and the reason is that the transformation has literally been quicker and more significant than Duke’s public relations savvy knows how to harness.
But for students to pick up on Durham’s hype is also to miss the point. For most students, Durham feels distant—like an adopted town that, even with its new restaurants and downtown buzz, still isn’t quite home.
In spite of our better angels, we students tend to treat Durham as a stepping stone. But even first-rate stepping stones get second-rate treatment. When we treat our town—however trendy—like a transient part of our lives, we miss out on lessons, experience and perspective that make us better citizens and fuller people by the time we leave Duke.
Advertising Durham’s meteoric ascent of the USNWR cities ranking and solidifying its place as Duke’s newest accessory isn’t the type of transformative change that turns newfound student interest into the tug of hometown pride.
When we spend time in a place intentionally, we develop a sense that our story overlaps with the story of that place—that our identity is somehow tied up in a location. That’s what makes home feel like home.
If you take a look, the story of Durham is probably a lot like your own. We should treat Durham like home not because it literally is, but because you probably have more in common with it than you think.
Think about your own history--about the big moments in your life that your orientation-week friends never learned. Durham, too, has a storied history, and it's one that many students never discover.
In 1865, the largest surrender of confederate soldiers—ending the Civil War—occurred a few miles from East Campus. In the late 1880s, Durham was the home of the world’s biggest tobacco empire, and by the 1900s the Bull City was known nationwide as the home of “Black Wall Street.”
If cities had feelings, I imagine that Duke students would evoke in Durham a longing—for its history to be known and its heritage to be studied. Walk over to Hayti or Trinity Park on a fall afternoon, and I bet you would find that long-time Durhamites share the same impulse to offer their stories that you felt while making small-talk with strangers during your first week of class.
Reading history, much like asking a friend where they’re from, makes our personal narratives sound cohesive—almost deterministic. But Durham’s story certainly wasn’t linear.
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Redlining in the 1930s decimated Durham’s black neighborhoods—threatening communities that, for generations, were the lifeblood of its bustling streets and the backbone of its cultural heritage. Later, civil rights protests originating in Durham and Greensboro would spark the sit-in movement that swept the American south.
Earlier, in 1890, Durham wasn’t even sure that Trinity College, now Duke University, would choose the Bull City as its new home.
When you enrolled as an undergraduate, you chose Duke in much the same way that Duke chose Durham; and Duke will alter your life in much the same way it altered the life of its host city. It is difficult to overstate how deeply Duke has affected Durham’s development: it employs 35,000 of its residents and transformed a tobacco town into the City of Medicine. Duke has afforded Durham wealth and stature, and it may do the same to you.
But with those resources come immense challenges. Durham is undergoing a massive period of gentrification, driven largely by the University, that has uprooted low-income communities and threatened the cultural makeup that has characterized the city since its infancy.
If for no other reason than it is best situated to do so, Duke must take the lead on creating affordable housing, protecting longstanding communities, and preserving the city’s cultural heritage. It must exhibit a reverence for the city’s roots that will secure the preservation of the town whose residents welcomed it long ago.
Managing the risks that periods of growth pose to our identities is something that all Duke students can relate to. Duke and its students are gentrifying Durham, but Duke also gentrifies its students.
Think critically about how your institution has impacted your person. Ask yourself whether you have been affected by the same allure of wealth and gentility that has characterized Duke’s slow-working effect on its host city. You may have that in common with Durham as well.
My relationship with Durham is likely different from yours—Durham has always been my home. I was born in Duke hospital and attended public school a couple miles south of East Campus. But if home really is just a place we identify with through shared experience, then Durham is your home for reasons that extend beyond mere coincidence.
Let’s treat Durham with the respect and familiarity of a friend—not merely the intrigue of trendy stranger. Durham has something in common with each of us, and when we realize that, it doesn’t take long for it to begin to feel like home.
Tanner Lockhead is a Trinity senior. His column, "not straight talk," runs on alternate Mondays.