For just under three decades, Purvis was a janitor on East Campus. As do many of Duke’s service employees, Purvis lived in the Walltown neighborhood—a little neighborhood sandwiched between East Campus and Northgate Mall. Purvis, like many Walltown residents, rented his home—every month for nearly 30 years, he wrote a check for $275 and sent it off to his landlord. It wasn’t ideal—with his salary, he would’ve preferred to be paying less per month—but it was tenable. This monthly dance with his landlord continued until early 2013, when Purvis’ landlord asked him to vacate so he could make a few minor renovations on his home. Months later, when Purvis asked to move back in, his landlord agree—at a 190 percent rent hike of $800/month. After living in Walltown for nearly 30 years, Purvis had no choice: he packed his things and moved out. Soon afterwards, he suffered a fatal heart attack; today, Purvis is buried in a humble cemetery nestled at the edge of Walltown.
I heard about Purvis one night at Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s little home near Broad Street. Coined “the Rutba House,” Jonathan and his wife often host Walltown community members for potluck dinner—on this particular night, a Duke employee had just finished telling us the story of Purvis. “Damn,” he sighed resignedly. “It just…happened. And he was working for the plantation all his life.”
I froze. The plantation? My gut squeezed; I knew what he was referring to, but it took a few more mentions of “the plantation” from across the table before I reluctantly acceded to my suspicion: Duke was the plantation. I realized that nobody in the room had batted an eye at what felt like, to me, a searing indictment of my school—that’s when the normalcy of the nickname dawned on me.
I left my reams of political philosophy on the floor that night; I needed to know what was going on in Walltown. After a frenzied bout of googling, I began to form a conception of the environment—Duke’s heavy-handed “revitalization” of neighborhoods near East Campus was the catalyst of local gentrification. Just before East Campus became the designated home of Duke first-years in 1995, the university was worried about the safety of the neighborhoods surrounding East—Walltown in particular.
So, in a widely lauded partnership, Duke began partnering with Self Help, an organization dedicated to purchasing and revitalizing old properties to sell to low-income residents of Walltown. Things began to go wrong, though, when Self Help “flipped” Walltown homes without rent control—rent soon skyrocketed. In just 10 years, from 2005-2015, home prices rose an average of 400 percent. Cue an influx of wealthier, whiter neighbors in Walltown—many are Duke graduate students, attracted to its proximity to Duke—and continually raising rent. The Duke-Self Help partnership tried to do things right, but when push comes to shove, the institution is out for itself. If guaranteeing the safety of its students comes at the expense of pushing neighbors out of the historically African American Walltown, there isn’t much love lost on the university’s end. Duke and Durham aren’t as harmonious as Ninth Street or Brightleaf would have us believe.
For all of this dismaying reality, though, I was left wondering something: do we have a responsibility to help fix this situation? We didn’t make this mess, right? It’s almost impulse to exonerate ourselves from the decisions of our administration—we’re here to learn, not to mend Duke-Durham relations or legislate the community. But there’s one part of the tired bullying lectures of middle school that’s always stuck with me: being a bystander is complicit consent. When we delegate away our responsibility for the tension between Duke and Durham, we entrust our image as students in the city to the decisions of Duke’s administration—of course, our leadership is filled with smart, thoughtful people, but they are people just the same. They make mistakes. And just like a political organization, everything is better when we hold people accountable. Gentrification, modernization, town-gown tension…Durham is a microcosm for our country, and in that way, paying attention to Durham is paying attention to America.
We didn’t create these situations in our city, but we’re lucky enough to be in a place where we can do something about them. The best way to start, I think, is simply to care.
Cameron Beach is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.