Last week I was sitting at Pitchforks when I overheard some students talking about Durham. “There’s just nothing to do in Durham,” one said. “It’s so boring.”
I had heard these sentiments countless times before, but I immediately felt a wave of anger in my chest. I wanted to say something, call them out for their contempt, set them straight. But that’s not what I did. Instead, I thought about why I cared so much about someone else’s opinion about a city that I’m not even from. Why did I feel so strongly about Durham? Why do I hate it when Duke students speak poorly about it and what has made me want to defend it like it’s my own?
A few months ago, a Duke graduate student’s tweet rose to infamy within the niche Durham Twitter world. The tweet read, “might've found my tribe: well-dressed city kids and Marxists (NYC, Shanghai, L.A., Bogotá, Rio, London, etc.) and bonding over about how underwhelming and small Durham is/how bougie the Duke undergrads are…grad school's not that bad!” With over 520,000 views, 277 quote tweets, and hundreds of comments, the tweet generated heated discourse. One user responded, “duke students complaining about Durham’s lack of culture.. The call is coming from inside the ivory tower.” Beyond the cognitive dissonance of his tweet (bragging about nice clothes and disparaging the locals is not the most coherent “Marxist” take), it seemed to generate so much antipathy because he exemplified the Duke student archetype present since the birth of this university: a Yankee transplant, privileged and entitled, thinking themselves above the city that has welcomed them.
Throughout my first two years at Duke, I rarely ventured farther than Ninth Street. COVID during my freshman year kept me securely behind our three-foot stone walls. And my lack of a car during my sophomore year complicated any journey that wasn’t walkable. I didn’t know much about the GoDurham public transit system and didn’t try to find out. Anyway, why would I want to leave this place, so designed to fulfill our every need, so safe and sublime?
The summer after sophomore year, I stayed in Durham to work for an affordable housing non-profit. I stayed in an apartment complex just off East Campus. But those few blocks of distance changed everything. It felt like I no longer lived at Duke. I lived in Durham.
During my first weekend, I hadn’t set up the Wi-Fi in my place yet, but I desperately wanted to watch the NBA playoffs. It was 10:30 p.m. I realized that Durham’s Central Park was a 35-minute walk away, and surely there would be fast LTE there. So I walked — I had nothing better to do. Sure, this might not have been the smartest idea as a young woman walking after dark (sorry Mom and Dad!). But the walk was pleasant and I became lost in thought as I walked past the remnants of tobacco refineries, the old Durham Athletic Park, and the Pauli Murray mural. I arrived at Durham Central Park for the first time after 2.5 years in Durham. I laid down on a park bench and watched the game on my phone, but I was soon distracted by the stars.
I spent the rest of the summer exploring Durham. I fell in love with Taqueria La Vaquita on Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., The Dankery on Fayetteville, the Flea Market on Pettigew, Country Night at the Pinhook and Trivia Night at James Joyce. I went to the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice and learned about Durham’s legacy of civil rights and Black activism. I went to EnoFest and discovered that the environmental justice movement originated just a few miles from here.
That summer, I also worked as a tour guide for Duke Undergraduate Admissions. On each tour, without fail, a parent would either raise their hand or quietly come up to me and ask, “What’s the crime like in Durham?” An innocent enough sentiment; though when paired with a suggestive look and follow-up questions about the “bad parts” of the city communicated much more. I was never asked about the arts scene or even the burgeoning tech scene, never about fun things to do on the weekend or good places to eat. It left me nauseated because I knew what they really wanted to ask: Is it safe for my child to walk outside Duke’s gothic walls, or will they stumble upon the wrong place, the wrong people?
Of course, there is crime in Durham. There is crime in every American city, largely due to economic and educational disadvantages. Coming from Chicago, I know well that a city is much more than its worst qualities, just as a person is more than their worst qualities. How can you say that Durham is “dangerous” or “boring” or “small” if your preconceived notions make you too fearful to explore it?
When we Duke students leave our big cities and subdivisions behind and then complain about Durham, we reek of the entitlement and prejudice that has soured our relationship with this city and earned Duke names such as New Jersey University. Durham isn’t New York City, and it’s not trying to be. It only needs to be Durham: full of art, full of generous and kind people, full of beautiful parks and restaurants and history. This city has given everything to us, and we have taken even more. To sit behind these stone walls and disparage it is cowardly, and our disdain is palpable.
There’s a world beyond Ninth Street. And if you’re brave enough, there’s even a world beyond Brightleaf Square. You should check it out someday; until then, beware of the cloaked prejudices behind your remarks. Beware of the narratives your complaints reveal.
Pilar Kelly is a Trinity junior. Her column typically runs on alternating Tuesdays.
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Pilar Kelly is a Trinity junior and an opinion columnist for The Chronicle's 118th volume.