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From Mill Village to student housing

How Central Campus came to be

<p>Erwin Mills is at the top right of this 1950s era aerial photograph of the area that became Central Campus. The land at the bottom right is now the 300 Swift Apartments and the land at the back of the shot is now Central Campus. Photo via Open Durham and Durham Herald-Sun.</p>

Erwin Mills is at the top right of this 1950s era aerial photograph of the area that became Central Campus. The land at the bottom right is now the 300 Swift Apartments and the land at the back of the shot is now Central Campus. Photo via Open Durham and Durham Herald-Sun.

Sometimes Duke’s gothic architecture tricks us into thinking it has existed since time immemorial. On Central Campus, it isn’t the grandeur of the architecture that triggers this feeling so much as its homely look. 

But the land does have a history, and in the case of Central Campus, a quite interesting one. In light of University plans to move all undergraduates off Central by summer 2019, The Chronicle is looking back at how Central came to be. 

In the mid-1960s, Duke was a much smaller place. Most buildings on Science Drive and Towerview did not yet exist. There was no Bryan Center or Keohane dormitory. 

It was a time of expansion for the University, and a necessary one at that. Several reports from prior administrators, which The Chronicle accessed through the Duke Archives, indicate that campus was quickly becoming overcrowded. Rooms on West Campus meant for one student accommodated two, and rooms for two housed three. There was also pent-up demand for off-campus accommodations and housing for married students. 

And as early as 1964, the University began to focus on expanding inward. 

“To provide for the basis for a unified campus within the next 20 years, efforts should be made to purchase land not now owned by the University between the East and West Campuses,” states a 1964 Campus Planning study commissioned by the Buildings and Grounds committee of the Board of Trustees. 

In a second round of study, a planning committee suggested a seemingly random scattering of buildings, which would include graduate student housing around a lake, the University Union and a performing arts space, according to the report. More buildings would link the site to West Campus along Campus Drive. 

The plan also called for the rerouting of most traffic to the perimeter of the University. Roads within campus would be serviced by University transit and a new corridor would be created along a “North Campus Drive” through present day Flowers Drive and Yearby Street, linking back to Swift and Campus Drives. 

The design of new buildings in the new Central Campus area must be “dignified and restrained,” the plan stated, calling for the use of Duke stone as the masonry material. 

“The introduction of brightly colored, highly reflective materials should be tempered,” the report continued. 

None of this was ever built of course, but it's interesting to note that at one point, Duke had a grand vision for what Central Campus would be. 

Damar Court 

It is hard to tell the story of how Duke built Central Campus without first discussing a project slightly further away. Facing a housing shortage, Duke moved in 1967 to purchase the Damar Court Apartments along Morreene Road. The University owned a group of apartments for married student housing across the street. 

At the time, Durham had been facing a shortage of affordable housing properties generally, and the Durham Housing Authority was seeking to expand its holdings away from other areas of concentrated poverty. Several of the Housing Authority's prior attempts at purchasing properties were defeated by wealthier, white residents angered that they would be near poorer, primarily black residents of public housing units. As it was farther away from other development and already built, the Damar Court apartments seemed like an ideal acquisition for the Housing Authority, which had already bid on the property by the time Duke indicated its interest. 

Meanwhile, racial tensions in Durham were running high as African American community members expressed their displeasure with the relegation of affordable housing units to certain sections of town. Several felt Duke trying to buy the apartments would maintain this status quo. 

In a confidential 1967 memo, Frank Ashmore, vice president for institutional advancement, described protests in downtown Durham and stated that the Duke Hospital had been put on disaster alert. Gradually, he said, members of the Durham Housing Authority who may have accepted Duke’s bid to buy the properties began to fall away in the midst of political pressure. In the face of turmoil, they did not want to appear to be supporting Duke’s plans for the site.

“At this point, it became obvious that we had no chance to acquire the Damar Court Apartments,” Ashmore indicated. 

Ceding the apartments to the Housing Authority led Duke administrators to conclude that maintaining the University’s own married student property across the street, acquired only several years prior, was untenable. Ashmore added that the property would have been downgraded in value and would have needed a fence. He noted that the property was far from campus and did not suit the needs of students. 

“Next, it became clear that the best opportunity we had to recover our investment was to sell this to the Durham Housing Authority before it became downgraded,” he concluded. 

The added benefit would be that proceeds from the sale would help pay off land purchase debts for what became Central Campus and would finance the construction of replacement married student housing. 

All this had the advantage, Ashmore said, of making Duke look like a good presence in the community. And it certainly worked, according to a 2004 dissertation by Eric Moyen at the University of Kentucky. 

After the University announced that it would sell its married student housing to the Housing Authority, Duke received local and national acclaim in the media. Moyen's dissertation cites favorable commentary from newspapers across North Carolina. President Douglas Knight, who was given credit for the idea, received letters praising the decision from Duke alumni and even UNC President Bill Friday. 

Not everyone on campus thought it was a good plan though, the dissertation notes. 

Sociology Professor Emeritus Jack Preiss, who also served on the Durham City Council, pointed out that the apartments the University was selling were primarily single bedrooms or studios—not the size needed for low-income residents with families. And some of the residents of the married student housing petitioned against the plan, arguing that moving students from the complex would prevent cross-racial communication. 

The sale went through, yet it would be several years before construction of replacement married student housing began. Meanwhile, the University housed married students in several off-campus blocks of apartments it leased. 

Organizing the residents

In 1965, Duke purchased much of the land between East and West Campuses from Burlington Industries for approximately $900,000. The land had been the site of mill houses rented by workers at the nearby Erwin Mills.  

But before Erwin Mills opened, the land was known as the Pinhook, and it provided services to travelers along the Raleigh-Hillsborough Road. Some of those "services" included gambling, fighting and prostitution.

"There is a place called Pinhook in this county and it is remarkable for a race that was run there many years ago by a man and a woman. They wore no clothes and ran for a quart of liquor," stated one story in a local newspaper with no additional context.

Erwin Mills was founded with funds from the Duke family in the late 19th Century and became one of the largest denim producers in the country. And as was typical for Southern mills, the company owned and constructed much of the nearby housing where its workers lived. 

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Not all property in the area belonged to the Mills though. Duke students looking for off campus housing would occasionally rent nearby. Incidentally, the area along Yearby Street had several units popular with Asian international students. According to a 1967 letter between two administrators discussing international student housing difficulties, Chinese students referred to the area as “Chinatown.”

On the other side of what became Central Campus between Oregon Street and Swift Avenue was the “Monkey Bottom” area. Due to its low-lying land, it was an undesirable place to live with shacks as dwellings. In her book on Durham History, Historian Jean Anderson notes that it was a place of “human outcasts or hangers-on of the mill society.” Although people living in mill villages were poor, they knew they were above those residents of Monkey Bottom. 

Reed Kramer, Trinity ’69, noted that during his time at Duke, it was known as a “hippie place” and that several houses were occupied by graduate and undergraduate students.

Eventually, it too would fall under Duke’s domain as the University expanded its landholdings. 

For a while, tenants in many of the approximately 150 houses Duke had gotten in the land purchase were allowed to stay, according to a senior thesis by Reed Kramer, Trinity '69. In 1968, the University gave six-month eviction notices to some residents on Central Campus so that it could begin work on its Married Student Housing development, according to Kramer's thesis. 

Financing for that project fell through, but 29 houses were nonetheless destroyed. 

Administrators said at the time that they helped evicted residents find alternative housing arrangements. But Harry Boyte, Trinity ’67 and a community organizer who worked with residents in the mill community, told The Chronicle that he questioned this claim and said some families were forced to move into trailers. 

Boyte had long been involved in civil rights work. His father was appointed special assistant to Martin Luther King, Jr. and was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's first white employee. Boyte told The Chronicle in a recent interview that King had assigned him to do community organizing among poor white people during the mid-to-late 1960s. 

“We did a lot of work around housing,” Boyte said. “We were seeing if we could find ways to connect the working class mill community around Erwin Mills, which was mainly white, with the black community.”

Boyte said that many students at the time opposed the University’s plans to build Central Campus in the Erwin Mills area. It was a time of activism and energy, he noted, making it fairly easy to get students to oppose the displacement of low-income communities. Employees of the mills would have been competing with Duke students for housing.

Boyte went door-to-door through the neighborhoods in an effort to engage residents. In community organizing you look to find ways for people to act collectively and score early victories—that increases confidence, Boyte explained. You have to overcome internalized feelings of powerlessness. 

It was such organizing tactics that led to the formation of the Erwin Council, a neighborhood organization representing the interests of the residents of the homes purchased by Duke. According to a Chronicle article in 1969, the group demanded that the University bring the houses up to Durham Housing Code standards, cease demolishing houses and replace houses already demolished. 

Charles Huestis, Duke’s vice president for business and finance at the time, rejected most of the demands but did concede to adding some protections into the rental contracts and asked tenants to list the needed repairs. The organizers had scored a victory. 

Construction begins

Nonetheless, the tenants’ days were numbered. Although financing difficulties slowed Duke’s construction, its housing needs did not decrease. 

“I think the University felt the need to serve students but also to attract students,” Kramer recently told The Chronicle. 

Plus, administrators at the time stated that continuing maintenance and upkeep of the houses was a money-losing operation. 

Being closer to West Campus was preferable to being in some of the other off-campus apartment locations with transport difficulties, Kramer said. According to Chronicle articles at the time, development of the property began in stages in the early 1970s, with plans for the apartment complexes to house a mixture of 1,100 graduate students and undergraduates and a connection to the University’s bus transport system. 

The Board of Trustees approved the project in 1972 and the University took out a $7 million loan and secured grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to assist in the building of one-, two- and three-bedroom units. In one Chronicle article, Huestis told the Board that Duke "will do everything it can" for the renters who would be displaced by the construction.

Still, some continued to criticize the University for not doing enough to help the renters. A 1974 Chronicle article documented the bitterness several of the remaining residents felt as apartment buildings sprung up around them.

“I know I’ll never get a house to myself again if I have to move out of here,” said Annie Blue, a resident of a house on Anderson Street at the time. “If they’d just let me stay here, I wouldn’t care how many apartments they build.” 

The apartments opened to the first students in the Fall of 1974. 

Records from the vice president for business and finance indicate that the University undertook a survey of which remaining houses in the area to demolish in late 1974. The land would be incorporated into Central Campus, and Duke would no longer need to maintain the aging properties or pay local taxes on them. 

"Should some of the tenants not be able to find other suitable housing in this period, we will work with them to ensure they are treated humanely," wrote Larry Smith, director of housing management, in a memo. 

What’s left

If you want to see what the area that became Central Campus might have been like before Duke developed it, several vestiges remain. Along Alexander Avenue there is a series of white houses near the intersection of Pace Street that date to the early 20th Century. Duke uses them as space for its facilities and maintenance personnel. Slightly further down Alexander, another white house dates to approximately 1920 and remains in private hands, according to Durham property tax records seen by The Chronicle. 

Across the street, the red building that is now the International House was once owned by Richard D. Blacknall, a local pharmacist. Built around 1889, the house was originally located several blocks away near the intersection of Erwin Road and Anderson Street but was moved to its current location in 1985 in advance of the widening of Erwin Road. 

And that open field that separates Central Campus from Duke’s new apartments at 300 Swift? That used to be the site of a park for workers at Erwin Mills and was later a city park before Duke purchased the parcel in 2009. 

However, even all the buildings currently on Central may soon be objects of history as Duke prepares to determine what’s next for the land. If one thing is certain, it’s that this won’t be the first time the area has been changed dramatically. 

Editor's Note: The Chronicle thanks Amy McDonald of the Duke University Archives and the Duke History Revisited program for her research support. 

Adam Beyer | Digital Content Director

Adam Beyer is a senior public policy major and is The Chronicle's Digital Strategy Team director.


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