The independent news organization of Duke University

Partners For Life

Luther Brooks has a calling.

The 13-year pastor of the St. James Baptist Church wants to save Walltown.

Earlier this spring, signs indicated that gang activity would pick up in Durham and perhaps even in Walltown, a small neighborhood tucked between Main Street and Club Street, a five-minute walk from Northgate Mall.

Brooks decided to take action. With a little help from a number of partners, he formed Street Reach. Every other Friday night, Brooks and community members gathered on a different, targeted corner of Walltown and threw a block party. Brooks says anywhere from 100 to 300 people show up to the events. There's a stage and even food, which is vital to a community in which the average annual income is $17,000.

Street Reach is only one of a number of projects on which Brooks and Walltown residents are working.

"We've had five Street Reach Fridays," he says. "Early in the spring, we saw what we thought was going to be a lot of gang violence. We had to decide whether or not we would be proactive or reactive, so we wanted to do something before the violence starts."

House by house, new people are taking over the neighborhood with the aid of Self Help, a credit union that offers loans to people struggling to break into the middle class--and nothing defines membership in the middle class like home ownership.

Brooks also started the Economic Empowerment Center earlier this year to take community members off the street, teach them how to interview and work to get them jobs. Northgate Mall partnered with him to provide clothing and retail training.

Thanks to Brooks, St. James now has a Family Life Center. Below the church is the Carter Community School, a charter school for all grades through ninth.

He's got his own business card, which is glossy with a color picture of himself and a crest of his church on the right side. "Saint James Baptist Church, Inc." is blazed across the top in purple against a gold background.

Ever enterprising, Brooks and his church joined five others and Duke's Divinity School to buy the old Knox Street Grocery Store, which was once a hub for drug dealers. Now, the building is the hub of Walltown Neighborhood Ministries.

Brooks calls all of these changes in Walltown revolutionary. "These children are our children," he says. "We have to show them that we love them."

Apparently, even drug dealers respect the power of church.

On a Saturday afternoon, Juanita McNeil is sweeping rain out of a groove in the parking lot behind the Juanita McNeil & Joseph Alston West End Community Center.

She's preparing for a funeral. A former teen from the center had died, and the community center was the site for the wake afterwards.

McNeil has lived in the West End for over 40 years. The median income here, $14,000, is even less than in Walltown, though more and more residents are owning their homes. She thinks the neighborhood is better than it was before the community center began, but, like every neighborhood, it still has its problems.

Those problems--drugs and violence--are what moved her to become involved. Now, she's virtually the patron saint of West End.

"When I was coming up, we always had a place to go and it didn't cost one thin dime," she says.

She's a teacher at the community center, which bears her name, along with Joseph Alston, another community activist. McNeil started the center in the 1980s, when she began inviting kids and tutors from the neighborhood to her house.

The tutoring expanded to even more houses until finally, two years ago, Duke purchased the center. Now, the center is a hub for teens to come by after school. McNeil, breezing through her schedule, noted two weeks worth of activities: a field trip to Teen Court Thursday and midnight basketball Friday night. Third- and fourth-graders are coming over Tuesday to learn about life skills; next Thursday, there will be a program about "Alternatives to Violence." They have a computer teacher and some of the kids even have their own websites.

McNeil, however, still worries about the long-term health of the center.

She laments the loss of $7,000 in funds, which she says were embezzled by a former director. The center never recovered those monies. And money has always been a problem. "It's very hard to get money, but we've never been as broke as we are now," said McNeil. "Sometimes, it's hard to buy a ream of paper."

She hopes to recruit more teens to come to the center over the next year. She also wants to buy some photography equipment, which she says the children are interested in. The kids like to rap, she adds, so she wishes she could buy a karaoke machine.

Far from a majority of the teens who go through the center graduate from high school, however, and even fewer go to college.

McNeil says that a lot of kids in the neighborhood have criminal records, making it difficult for them to make it into the work force.

"You get clean, you start all over, [but] who's going to give you a chance?" McNeil asks.

She says that employers, including Duke, would hire some of the residents from the West End, but after their records were checked out, they would be let go.

Things are improving in the West End and McNeil has played a major role in that improvement. The bare commons room in the community center, however, with only a few sofas, chairs and a small piano in the center, suggest the West End still has a long road ahead.

What Street Reach, the West End Teen Center and efforts throughout these two neighborhoods have in common is the aid they have received from Duke as part of the Neighborhood Partnership Initiative.

The University's Office of Community Affairs, run by Michael Palmer, a former county manager and a man respected by the community, coordinates NPI. The relationships between Palmer and neighborhood leaders, based on mutual respect, have been one of the key factors within the partnership and an impetus for most of its success.

"It's about empowerment," Palmer says. "The community articulates issues as concerns and needs. Once those needs are identified, we can begin to come up with a solution process."

In 1996, the University decided to fundamentally change the means of its involvement in Durham. Previously, haphazard efforts in different offices made an impact here and there, but never in any coordinated way. With the Neighborhood Partnership Initiative, Duke identified 12 close neighborhoods, and seven schools within them, to aid.

At the time, Duke was rapidly gaining a reputation akin to another top ten university, Yale, whose relationship with New Haven had become a nightmare. Everything from admissions to student life is affected by Yale's surrounding community, which like Durham, has its share of problems.

When Duke took on this new initiative, it quickly found that the 12 neighborhoods varied in the severity and natures of their problems. Trinity Park is mostly rental property for students off East Campus, while the Crest Avenue Neighborhood is mainly home to those in the middle working class. The West End and Walltown, however, are more complicated. Poverty reigns supreme in these two neighborhoods that lurk in Duke's shadow. With that poverty come drugs, gangs and violence.

"Duke is a big fish in the Durham pond," Palmer says, adding that the challenge for Duke has been to, "solve all problems versus concentrating and focusing on the two areas around the campus."

Five years later, leaders in both communities have some progress to show for their work. Church pastors, homeowners, teachers and parents are reclaiming their neighborhoods, street by street, from drug dealers and gang members.

At first glance, it appears that the University is simply window-dressing--making the neighborhoods closest to Duke safer for faculty and students and ignoring the larger problems in Durham as a whole. However, the $10 million goal for the NPI in Duke's capital campaign suggests the University plans to support this approach for the long-haul.

Plus, as Duke stepped further and further into local neighborhood politics, it found that there are no "larger problems" a broad net of support can tackle. Durham residents have not always welcomed the University with open arms; suspicion runs deep in a city left behind as neighboring cities like Raleigh and Chapel Hill burst forth with new technology and commerce. The University, which does not pay taxes to Durham and has only recently agreed to pay for the city's fire services, is not a shining knight on a white horse to some residents, but instead acts as the looming oppressor.

Part of that reputation came from the University's role as landlord in the 1970s and 1980s. Throughout the years, Duke had accumulated property in case it planned to expand in later years. By the 1990s, however, it became clear that the property would not be needed and Duke began to sell them to the community.

Indeed, part of the success in the neighborhoods has resulted from the University selling those houses to the neighborhoods or to individual homeowners.

Duke is no longer in the landlord role, but it is in the home-building role. Trinity Heights, another neighborhood across from East Campus, is an eclectic community. Graduate students live there, as do undergraduates and faculty, staff and an assorted combination of socioeconomic residents.

Designated a historic district, the neighborhood's problems pale in comparison to Walltown's or the West End's. Duke, however, has begun a massive building project, constructing rows and rows of houses, all according to historic guidelines.

It's nearly impossible to tell old homes apart from the new ones, with wide-columned porches and brick-laden architecture from the turn of the century.

"It's pretty ambitious what they've done," says Wendy Goldstein, a Trinity Heights resident. "When I bought this house, I never thought 30 neighbors were going to move into the neighborhood."

The homes are available to Duke staff and faculty. Goldstein says the revitalization has been great and she expects it to spur more construction in Durham's downtown.

"Just because Duke has a waist-high brick wall doesn't mean bad things aren't going to happen on campus," Goldstein says. "Nobody wants a University surrounded by a slum."

Some of the University's most stunning successes have come when departments come together.

For example, in the fall of 1998, Duke administrators worked together to bring the Duke Surplus Store to The Shoppes at Lakewood, a shopping center on the outskirts of the 12 neighborhoods on Chapel Hill Road. Jim Wilkerson, director of Duke Stores, worked with Executive Vice President Tallman Trask and the Office of Community Affairs to move the store to "anchor" the shopping center.

Today, the shopping center is healthy and commerce has augmented in the past three years.

"Everything makes a difference," says Eric Johnson, president of the Tuscaloosa Lakewood Community Association. "I know that the Salvation Army store moved out and that was a pretty big store. I know a lot of businesses moved in."

But the wide scope of activity among University divisions has also led to some embarrassing moments for Duke.

One of those moments came after Duke officials had spent a year renovating properties it owned for sale to the Burch Avenue neighborhood. The Office of Information Technology had different ideas, however, and promptly placed its new tower in the neighborhood, prompting residents to cry foul.

Nevertheless, the University has sold 39 houses to date and, with Habitat for Humanity, built another 11.

The Community Outreach Partnership Center, which never gained the trust or excitement of the community, is in danger. Established with a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Duke joined with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to form the center. Money from the original $400,000 is running out, some programs have been scaled back and soon, COPC might have to shut its doors entirely.

The general rule has been that initiatives that come from too far within Duke fail. Initiatives that come from the community, either funded or facilitated by the University, succeed. "What works best are programs that come from the community," Palmer says.

Indeed, the University has hired local Durham leaders like Sandra Ogburn--a former city council member--and now, Palmer, to serve as liasons to the community.

Five years after starting the NPI, there are obvious success stories, such as in Walltown. There are also communties still struggling, like the West End.

In every street, in every church, in every community center, however, there is a Luther Brooks or a Juanita McNeil and hundreds nameless faces lurking, toiling and sturggling each day. As each community struggles to find its way, Duke is constantly struggling to strike a balance and become a true partner.


Share and discuss “Partners For Life” on social media.