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Putting Durham first

Now that the primaries have concluded, candidates Steve Schewel and Farad Ali are set to face off in the 2017 Durham mayoral election on November 8th. Even if the race has not been as hot a topic on campus as it has been in the rest of Bull City, this election represents an important turning point for the future direction of Durham. Consequently, Duke students should be motivated to exercise their civic duty as Durham residents. Unfortunately, student turnout for local elections has been low in recent years, with the local precinct encompassing Duke reporting the lowest voter turnout in the city. Even if our stay is temporary, we are obligated to critically examine the ways in which Duke as an influential institution with deep historical ties to Durham will continue to affect the community landscape and vote accordingly.

During the Sanford era, an age of national expansion for Duke, the University’s role in Durham increased with administrators even influencing important urban policies for the economically depressed city. Duke’s influence, in conjunction with urban renewal policies, resulted in the gentrification of local neighborhoods, especially those in the eastern and southern parts of Durham like the Hayti district. The construction of the Durham Freeway, a section of North Carolina’s Highway 147, proved detrimental to the predominantly black residents of Hayti who no longer had a place to call home. Additionally, the economic ability of the residents was drastically reduced as developers replaced local businesses for the sake of urban development. Although many parts of Durham have been negatively affected by Duke’s role, the university has since made great strides to strengthen its relationship with locals, albeit with some growing pains.

The creation of the Duke-Durham neighborhood in 1996 brought forth serious gains for Durham. The creation of two community health centers, a local after-school program for at-risk children and assistance in affordable housing are just some of the examples in which Duke has made a commitment to build up the local community. Notably, the recent construction of forty-five homes in the southside district for Duke employees represented a major step in the right direction. Community trust, however, has been damaged somewhat by reports of disorderly conduct by Duke students in Durham. Most notably, the lacrosse scandal of 2006 noticeably strained town-gown relations in the fallout of the national scandal. Compounding these issues are the continuing effects of gentrification. Revitalization efforts have caused property values in Durham to skyrocket at the expense of local residents who often are forced to leave their homes in search of more affordable local housing.

If Duke truly wants to make a commitment to improve the lives of Durhamites, there are multiple ways the University can truly harness its institutional power for the benefit of the local community. For example, the University can start by implementing policies that will guarantee Duke employees a livable wage along with other employee benefits. Moreover, it can financially back grassroots initiatives to create more affordable housing. While it is true that Duke students are largely transient members of Durham, we still possess the ability to generate long-term change for the better. Ultimately, Duke students should strive to care more about Durham: our temporary home and the permanent home to thousands of residents who will be here after us. It is on us as a voting block to make choices and back programs that will benefit the community at large. 

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