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The Duke 'Bubble?' More like the Duke Wall.

overcaffeinated convictions

Whether it manifests in the hate-filled rhetoric around the border crisis or the too-loud chatter of a neighboring dorm room or the emotional boundaries we all hide behind sometimes, we’re all pretty well-acquainted with walls. 

It makes sense, then, that we’d be well-acquainted with the Wall lurking on the periphery of our own campus. And indeed it lurks. It’s an annoyance when we’re attempting to cross East Campus and approach Broad Street or Markham Avenue. It’s absolutely unsightly (and I mean this strictly hypothetically) when one places a foot on the top of the wall with the goal of gracefully hurling oneself over—and the too-tight jeans finally decide to rip. 

But beyond these particular inconveniences, the Wall is relatively unnoticed. First-years are the main inhabitants of East Campus—yet we hardly venture past its boundaries—and West Campus is a community within itself. The Wall fits the theme of our siloed lives; we often forget there is a world outside this Institution. 

Sometimes this forgetting is unintentional. Like when our idea of adventure is the harrowing, shoe-muddying trek to Cloche Coffee or Mad Hatter’s. But sometimes the forgetting is a Facebook comment about the “rural wasteland” of Durham. Sometimes it’s more purposeful. 

The Wall has historically been a physical manifestation of the divide between Duke and Durham. However, in 2012, Duke added two access points for pedestrians to venture into Duke without a jean-ripping attempt to hurl oneself over the East Campus periphery. In Duke Today, Mark Hough, campus architect, wrote that the access points “will make the Bull City Connector stop at Broad and Main more accessible for students and employees." Moreover, Duke students could travel beyond the once-completely enclosed boundaries of their institution. Nonetheless, the decision to add two access points was negated by other administrative decisions. Last year, Duke pulled funding from the aforementioned Bull City Connector, one of the only two buses servicing the Durham public that stopped on Duke’s campus. This decision showed Duke’s disregard for those passengers—the majority of whom were working class and Black. In many ways, the 2012 addition of access points to the Wall is representative of the well-intentioned but meager attempt to bridge the Duke-Durham divide. 

I interviewed my friend Bethlehem Ferede, a Durham resident and now a first-year at Duke, about her perception of the Wall as a Duke student. She told me that “even before the idea of physical barriers determining borders were in public discourse the way it has been lately, the wall around East Campus was still a conflicting presence. Growing up and driving past that wall with my family made the university seem like this magical but inaccessible place, and there were definitely other reasons for that as well (such as who I would see within the confines of the wall and who I’d  see living on the outside... and which group looked more like me), but the wall was this physical manifestation of what was already institutionally true.” 

Alternatively, growing up as a white girl in Raleigh, I was aware of the language used to describe Durham. It was “sketchy,” “unsafe,” and “crime-ridden”—especially in comparison to the racially homogenous land of suburbia, which infiltrated many aspects of my childhood. A white woman recently inquired if my parents were afraid to send me to Duke given the lack of safety in Durham. I said no, and she responded with, “Well, at least the campus is safe.” 

Duke was and continues to be an entirely different institution than the city in which it resides. The Wall distances us from Durham by seemingly protecting ‘us’—us being white Duke students. 

In order to investigate the consistency of the messaging behind the Wall (and whether or not it was always meant to “protect”), I emailed my professor, Dean LB Bergene, to ask some questions about its history. She wrote, “The wall was built back in 1916 and was co-funded by the Duke family and the city of Durham... My guess is that the wall was probably in part to mark the boundary of campus since it [wasn’t] as clear as it is today.” 

The creation of clear boundaries makes sense. Students want to know when they are setting foot off campus. The purpose, while meant to necessitate separation, was not overtly malicious. And today, the Wall distinguishes the periphery of the running trail, used by countless members of the community, even beyond Duke students, faculty and staff. 

Dean LB comments: “What I like about the wall is that it marks the location of the walking trail around East Campus… probably one of the spaces where Duke and Durham intertwine in a visible way. At any given moment, you see a cross-section of Durham on the trail.”

So how is it possible that this Wall can be both inviting and exclusionary? How can it be both a  physical manifestation of the Duke-Durham divide and the Duke-Durham convergence? The answer, I believe, lies in the spaces it cultivates—the individuals welcomed within its boundaries and those kept outside of its periphery. The Wall operates within the cultural context of our community. Bethlehem said, “I do think [the Wall] symbolizes and represents so much more about this school than people think.”

When we pull funding from the Bull City Connector or use classist and racist terms to describe Durham residents—especially following the Gilbert-Addoms robbery—we are communicating the type of people kept out. But when we expand the entrances or jog alongside the fellow members of our new hometown or act as citizens of Duke and Durham, we’re chipping away at the Wall. We’re allowing people inside. 

Dean LB wrote: “Each year on the bus tour, Dr. Malone always asks if the wall is meant to keep people in or keep people out. I think both are true.” 

I think both are true as well. We, as Duke students, have a decision to make. Will we continue to operate within the marked boundaries, afraid to muddy our shoes and rip our jeans? Or will we walk out of our dorms,  embrace the gravelled path, and, with care, climb over the artificially-placed stone? 

Lily Levin is a Trinity first-year. Her column, “overcaffeinated convictions,” runs on alternate Fridays.


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