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Off the rails: Duke and Durham’s disconnect

<p>The proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail would have stops near Duke University Medical Center and on Ninth Street.</p>

The proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail would have stops near Duke University Medical Center and on Ninth Street.

Last Wednesday, Duke notified GoTriangle that it refused to sign on to one of Durham’s largest-ever mass transit infrastructure projects, the Durham-Orange light rail. Citing patient safety and research concerns due to potential construction vibrations, electromagnetic interference, power and utility disruptions, and the high cost of liability insurance, Duke declined to sign a cooperative agreement necessary to secure a land donation from the University. The agreement would also bind the University to further negotiations in order to make the project eligible for federal and state funding. The announcement immediately sparked community outrage—North Carolina Congressional representatives, city council members, county commissioners, and groups like the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit condemned Duke for turning its back on the community. Duke’s decision not to support the light rail jeopardizes a decades-in-the-making, $2 billion project designed to create equitable mass transit and affordable housing. 

Community members have reason to be upset. Despite Duke’s claims that it has long maintained concerns regarding the light rail, a report from GoTriangle released Feb. 26 detailed years of meeting notes with Duke officials revealing the University’s baffling inconsistency. For example, as described in a thorough article from Indy Week, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask specifically asked for a light rail station near the hospital and for elevated tracks. Now, however, both of Trask’s requests are among Duke’s stated reasons for pulling out of the project. 

From elevated tracks to tree protection and last-minute public announcements of Duke’s concerns, it appears that Duke has only been consistent in its lack of transparency. At best, Duke acted incompetently, and at worst, dishonestly. If it’s the latter, Duke has abused its influence and power by stringing the community along and failing to attempt to resolve its concerns or to withdraw from the project before GoTriangle, the city and the county spent $130 million in taxpayer funds. 

While Duke’s withdrawal from the light rail project is startling, it’s not unprecedented. As city councilmember Charlie Reece wrote on Twitter, “Duke’s decision to kill the light rail project sadly reinforces the worst fears of many Durham residents—that Duke University is an arrogant and elitist enclave with little interest in being the kind of partner this city needs.” 

He touches on a crucial point. The light rail fiasco is nothing new, but rather the latest example in Duke’s long record of prioritizing its self-interest at the expense of the community, and leaving Durham residents to bear the consequences of the University’s poor decisions. 

For instance: in the 1960s, the city of Durham embarked on the construction of the East-West Freeway (popularly known as the Durham Freeway) which destroyed the historically black Hayti community. In a later phase of the project, Duke president Terry Sanford played a significant role negotiating with the city to leave university property (Duke Gardens and Erwin Mills properties) untouched by the new highway. By the late 1970s, the highway’s path wound north from Hayti in order to connect to 15-501. The project threatened to cut in half another African-American community at Crest Street, just off Duke’s campus. The Crest Street neighborhood had long ties to the university—its earliest residents helped build Duke and many in the late ‘70s still worked at The Plantation. 

Duke, however, stayed silent on the potential destruction of Crest Street—at least publicly. The University asserted it did not have influence to affect the route with Durham’s elected officials although it had already manipulated the freeway project to the university’s benefit in preserving the Gardens and other University property. Privately, Duke exerted its influence. In letters to Durham’s mayor and the state Board of Transportation, President Sanford shared his unequivocal support for the East-West Freeway’s proposed route through Crest Street, likely because the freeway would ease access to hospital parking. At the same time, Duke told Crest Street representatives that it wouldn’t support any project that destroyed the neighborhood. President Sanford and the University were blatantly deceptive, demonstrating little regard for Crest Street’s fate when it conflicted with the school’s interests. A few years later, Crest Street would be saved by persistent community activists despite total lack of support from its closest neighbor and one of the most powerful institutions in Durham—Duke University. 

Crest Street is only one example of where the University has failed in its responsibility to its community. Beyond major infrastructure projects, Duke has repeatedly mistreated and exploited its low-wage employees who largely came from neighborhoods like Crest Street and Walltown, just off East Campus. From 1974 to 1978, hospital workers led by the legendary Oliver Harvey attempted to unionize in two separate efforts. Although these workers simply asserted their fundamental rights to collectively bargain, attain living wages and improve workplace conditions, Duke responded aggressively. The University fired and intimidated workers accused of union sympathies and paid $500 a day to hire anti-union consultants. Duke won while workers suffered—by 1978, it had stifled the major hospital unionization drives and ensured the University would treat workers as it saw fit.  

While it would be unfair to characterize all of Duke’s actions as wholly detrimental to Durham, it is clear that Durham only benefits as a byproduct of Duke first fulfilling its own interests. The present-day light rail project fits neatly into a larger historical pattern, from Crest Street to hospital unionization to present-day real estate acquisitions driving displacement and gentrification. President Price’s recent announcement that he is “greatly” pained by those questioning Duke’s commitment to Durham demonstrates that he and the University at-large still fail to fully understand its history or think beyond its own narrow priorities. During the negotiations, Tallman Trask even suggested the light rail route should go through the Crest Street community instead of along Erwin Road, oblivious to any sense of historical irony. It’s possible the University withdrew from the light rail project for substantive and legitimate reasons. However, last week made clear that the University has not fully figured out how to engage fairly and productively with Durham. 

Duke officials are accustomed to acting with impunity—senior administrative officials can fire workers for playing rap songs or allegedly hit parking attendants with their car without consequence. This, however, must end. Duke must be held accountable for every decision and action that impacts the community, for better or worse. We must demand that Duke engage substantively with the public in providing more information on its seemingly last-second light rail concerns and in all future decisions that impact Durham. If our worst fears are true—that Duke abused its power and influence and acted in bad faith when it pulled out of the light rail project—we must be prepared to petition, pressure and protest. 

More, addressing the fallout from Duke’s withdrawal is urgent. The success or failure of this project goes beyond vibrations or the back-and-forth between GoTriangle and Duke; this project impacts Durham’s development for decades to come and the ever-evolving relationship between Duke and Durham. In the words of city councilmember Mark-Anthony Middleton, “[Duke] should not, however, determine our future. If light rail dies, it won’t be because Duke killed it. It will be because Duke was allowed to kill it.” Ultimately, we can’t rely on Duke administration, or GoTriangle, or our local governments. We—students, workers, professors, community members —must assert our stake in building a better Durham and Duke.

So, here’s my ask to President Price and Executive Vice President Trask: there are two ways you can take seriously this history and the community’s outrage. Reverse yesterday’s decision and agree to the mediated negotiations offered by GoTriangle on March 4th and find a solution. Agree to take part in an open community forum—take the democratic step and show us you genuinely care about the future of Duke and Durham. 

Gino Nuzzolillo is a Trinity junior. His column with Trey Walk normally appears on alternate Tuesdays. Gino would like to thank Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi for his archival project titled “Neighbors: A Narrative and Visual History of Duke's Influence on Durham's Low-Income Housing” which provided the background on Duke’s relationship to Crest Street.

Correction: This column was updated Saturday afternoon to clarify that Terry Sanford's presidency did not begin until after the construction of the freeway had already begun.

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