Monday, January 16, 2012

Whose Park Is It?*

Some people say you should not live in the past, since it holds you back. There are extremes to every idea, and maybe we can meet in the middle: acknowledge the building blocks, then use them to jump to other things.

The past: Syba on the land that would become the 1st Downtown Durham dog park; Dec 2010

As a kid, I wasn’t always nice. At the slightest insult from neighbor kids, I’d retreat inside my yard, close the gates, and say, very unimaginatively, “Get out of my yard!” In my young defense, some of the neighbor kids were responsible for what we would now call crimes against humanity had they been adults. Regardless, boundaries were conceptualized and enforced. The importance of land and ones space is particularly present in my hometown of Seattle, where high hedges and fences barricade front yards, moat-puddles forming inside.

Rob + front yard in Seattle's Capitol Hill. Hedged yard in background, Dec 2011

Since I was so accustomed to these barriers, I was particularly taken with the historic Southern porches that awaited us with our move to Durham in October 2005, open and inviting. You yell from your porch, wave, drink with your neighbors, ask them how they’re doing, watch the action on the street. Your porch is an ecosystem.

Before moving to Durham, we were advised: “Why Durham? Move to Chapel Hill.” Set on Durham, we came here anyway and began exploring. I asked a few people if there was anywhere we should not move. “The East side,” was a frequent response, “It’s dangerous.”

Immediately interested, Rob and I decided to drive through the East side and find the scary. After being pulled over on Driver Street due to our Washington license plate (“There is a heroin problem in Seattle, Ma’am”) we made our way to what is now known as Cleveland Holloway. On Queen Street, a sign caught our attention: “Stop the War.” Agreeing with the sentiment, it might as well have said, “Welcome home.” As luck would have it, the sign owner was just walking up to her house.

We asked her about the neighborhood. In short, best decision she ever made, great neighbors, close to everything. The woman, who we now know as Natalie Spring, pointed us to a house two doors down that had been vacant for two years. One month later, November 2005, we bought our home. Our story might have been different had we listened to the advice of a man on Oakwood: “It’s a horrible place,” he told us. “I’m taking my family and moving out to the country.”

Realtors wouldn’t touch this place; we’d tried to enlist a few, but all said “You don’t want to live there,” or my favorite: “The places you’re sending me are scaring me.”

The abandoned homes just had colds, if homes had immune systems, and the streets had a few viruses, or business being conducted on them, but other than that, our conclusion was: What’s so scary about this area? Our guess was a mixture of (un)conscious racism, fear of poverty, and discomfort with the aforementioned business transactions.

We wanted some place walkable, bikeable, urban, vibrant with life of all socio-economic, ethnic/racial, gender, orientation, and age-stripes. Kind of like Title VII. Nothing too fancy and proud of itself either, but a healthy compost of individuals and history that makes for the most nutrient-dense of neighborhoods.

Our new home was a mess. A tree branch had fallen through the roof, and leaks splattered everywhere. The home inspector asked: “Have you ever seen ‘The Money Pit’?” and Rob’s face went grey.

Living room + Rob circa 2005

Shattered glass in the windows and doors, stains splashed on the walls and floors, faucets shooting out water when the water was turned on…most residents of this neighborhood know the language of this kind of project.

As a new resident, I took frequent walks with our dog Syba. These walks helped build relationships, made me aware of developments in the neighborhood, and informed my work in organizing. One time, a cop slowed down as I made my way down Mallard toward East End Park. “Ma’am?” he said politely, as if to a lost child, “This is a dangerous area you’re walking in. Do you know that?” I was a bit annoyed … would he caution or ‘protect’ non-white residents similarly? “This is my neighborhood, and I feel safe,” I shot back, and continued to the Park.

East End Park is one of my favorites. Technically just outside our neighborhood, it’s close by and sits below Mallard, in a sweeping mini-canyon of green trees and grass, bordered by the busy won’t-stop-for-you Alston.

It looks better in the Spring

And in the snow (2010):

Its home is our mini-industrial area, a hodgepodge of old brick warehouses and smokestacks; though much of it still remains abandoned at the moment. You never know what you will find in the park: sleepers, picnickers, b-ball players, or walker-throughers like me. Maybe you’ll even find a dog.

Osita, now with Mike & Jana. Came running up to Syba and I at East End Park. Here, Syba reluctantly sharing.

A stream, or mud shaped like a stream, borders the North end of the park. A bridge over the muck leads you through to the back end of the railroad tracks, past garbage, and into the edge of our neighborhood. Crossing East at Alston, the park continues as a jungle gym and three tennis courts, where Rob has suffered not only embarrassing losses at my hand, but a tennis net injury that left a scar suggesting he tangled with a shark.

Around this park, I’ve found dogs running loose with chains dragging behind them, slides transformed into beds with legs jetting out the end tunnel, and a water-works sprinkler that turns on with a hand sensor to cool you in the summertime and scare Syba.

I use the monkey bars to pull myself up with arm exercises, and apparently I’m not alone. I ran into a man doing similarly recently. The same man bounces a basketball around the tennis court, door closed, around and around the edge of the court. I’m not clear why he doesn’t do this at the basketball court, since it is often empty at the time, but there must be a reason.

In the evening, the park is full of tennis players. A woman told me she keeps watch, which is why it is so clean. It’s a great space to go and study your Greek on one of the picnic benches, and let your dog sniff around, hopefully not to find a #2 sliding down the wall of the facilities, as I did one day.

On our way home we pass Oakwood Park, at Oakwood (or Dillard) and Holloway, more central to our neighborhood. Once a sad little place where slides and benches were beds, the park has received a lot of love this past year.

Neighborhood volunteers (not me!) painted its trash bins bright red, added pedestal tubs to host small porcelain-encased gardens, and welcomed new swings to the space. A fancy neighborhood bulletin board sits outside the park, thanks to the teamwork of neighbors Dylan and Harris.

Neighbor Maureen lugged water to the park all summer to keep the transplanted bushes alive. New paint coated the fence and surfaces of the park, and though it still hosts a few sleepers and non-kid “meetings” in the gazebo, I can’t tell you how happy I am when I walk by the park and see actual kids playing on its bright equipment and enjoying this space. This Spring, Maureen and Natalie plan to plant the garden.

Circling around down Holloway to Roxboro, passerby are now greeted to a Syba-on-steroids art cutout mounted on the fence of our third park, the Downtown Durham Dog Park, along with several other neighbor dog representations dotting the fence, crafted by our own Lena and David.

More on this park in a moment.

This park, together with the lot catty-corner from Oakwood Park, were the two places that changed the course of history for this neighborhood that would become Cleveland-Holloway in name (the actual and living neighborhood predates me and our organization by decades, with a rich history and experience -- and poor history and experience -- shared by many).

View of the lot from Oakwood Park that would change our history.

When I think of the Occupy movement, I think of our beginnings as an organized body in the neighborhood.

Around 2006, I began email correspondence with Donna of Durham’s Real Estate Division to find out the status of the long strip of land behind the back yards of Queen Street between Elliott and Holloway. She wrote back that they were surplus City properties, and she would notify me as soon as she knew more or they went for sale. I followed up and inquired further, but still no word.

In 2007 we stood out in our back wooded yard with Gary Kueber and Keelee MacPhee – two of our first friends in Durham. We were telling them how this back yard would be like a private retreat. Gary was silent. It was then we learned that the City had plans to donate the land behind us, as well as the land across from Oakwood Park, to two non-profits.

On the surface this sounds great, like the sort of thing we’d support. One of the non-profits would be a transitional home for the chronically homeless. The other, across from Oakwood Park, would have been a lockdown facility for youth who had a history of sexual assault…right next to the Durham Rape Crisis Center. But the latter’s poor choice of location and lock-down nature was not the only concern, and Eleni asking both to “Get out of my yard!” were not simply a matter of proximity. There were a few problems with the projects.

At that time, the vacancy rate of homes in our neighborhood was astounding. Practically every other house was boarded up, or an illegal group home, a slumlord rental, or on the verge of being torn down. Though the neighborhood had some wonderful residents, it was sinking under the weight of all that had been put into it, or taken from it.

Natalie characterized the moment: One of the things that I find so interesting about that time is that we were all just surviving. I used to live behind Sheldon when he was on Elliott but had no idea he was on Holloway. We were all there and nice but had never come together. It's funny to think of now how small the space is, but then, every street was like walking to the moon.”

To address the first non-profit, Natalie and I met with Housing for New Hope, suggesting they buy and repurpose some of the existing vacant homes, rather than building a separate industrial structure. Weave the individuals into the neighborhood, rather than isolate them.

Secondly, we felt that our neighborhood was already host to quite a number of social services. We firmly believed that the people of the neighborhood deserved to have something positive built in the neighborhood for a change: how about a small grocery store, a park, a community center? Why not spread around social services for the good of all communities – what better way to rebound then to be surrounded by a healthy, well-balanced neighborhood. In short, we don’t want to kick out these good and needed services – just not only be composed of them. Compounding this issue was the recent talk that our library, the main positive service in the neighborhood, would be moved away from our neighborhood to the center of downtown.

The third problem was, wait a minute, I had inquired about the land and had emails to prove it (which later were used to help overturn the deal). Why weren’t the residents, particularly those who inquired directly, consulted at all about these plans for the land in their neighborhood? The larger issue was: we were not even considered or asked.

What struck me when we first had a need to organize was, holy crap, we’re here, but we do not have a voice. The importance of being an entity had never been so clear to me. A few people advised us to move out while we still could. Natalie recalls, “Harris and I were told we needed to sell our Queen Street home before the deal went through.” Yet, with characteristic pluck, then invested more in the neighborhood: “We bought our house on Oakwood instead.”

Gary, continually helpful and critical in our getting organized (including through his blog Endangered Durham, now Open Durham) recommended about ten people to connect with over email, suggesting we start a listserv. We already knew Keelee on Dillard. Then, immediately, we met Faye, the wonderful current and former owner of many houses on Holloway that she saved through her purchases; Frank and Dolly, the fun and eccentric Bed and Breakfast owners who had been here for 15 years or more already; and Sheldon, the awesome landscaper on Holloway. We also met Chris, who had been in the neighborhood for years with his family, but as a City employee was less involved in our organizing for obvious reasons.

One day I called Gary to ask him what an appropriate name would be for our neighborhood, since he had the historic background to advise us, and we needed an identity. “Cleveland-Holloway would make sense historically,” he explained, and gave details.

Our core group was formed, and we met and began to strategize about how to stop the land transfers. More people became involved. Emails flew back between us and the City Council members. Natalie and I flyered the entire neighborhood in the warm July sunshine to invite people to join us. I was struck when Mrs. Bell on Mallard not only invited us up for ice water, but brought out a bowl of ice water for Syba. Neighbors were upset: they wanted people to fill the vacant houses, I heard again and again: we don’t need another facility.

The City Manager at the time, Patrick Baker, showed up to our meeting and was astounded by the anger in the room. We weren’t even on the map. No one knew we were here. This was just the place and space that no one went to unless necessary. Soon, I created and we all circulated an online petition throughout Durham. We had the support of other neighborhoods, and John Schelp was particularly helpful in advising us in the early stages. We also created a printed version of the petition, and Natalie and I went around and got signatures from our neighbors. “I need a grocery store,” many said. “Or a nice park.”

“We had hundreds of signers to our petition from all over Durham,” Natalie recalled. “We also had almost 100 neighbors sign the petition we took door to door. We spent hours talking to neighbors to explain all that had happened and everything that could happen. Even Mr. Arthur walked up to City Hall to speak and stand with us.” Mr. Arthur was over 80 at the time, and has since died -- he was profiled in our blog post here.

Natalie conducted extensive and integral research that led to the questioning of the organization hoping to open the lock-down youth-offender site on Dillard, Dominion Ministries (subsequently sued by Durham County).

We began our blog, this one. Natalie and I interviewed residents, to show that real people inhabited this feared space. I started doing walking tours, and even walked a news team through our streets, to show people it was not scary.

I toured City Councilwoman Diane Catotti through our neighborhood, and Mike Woodard showed up at several events. Natalie toured around others, fielded questions about the neighborhood. Basically, we wanted people to care. To know that there are good people here deserving consideration. In the meantime, Frank, Dolly, Faye, Keelee, Sheldon, and our core group continued to fight to keep homes on Holloway from being demolished and many other actions.

We began getting media attention. Several articles were published about our efforts. This was becoming a full-time job. I cannot recall how many meetings we went to, emails we sent, and discussions we had, but the initial fight that led to our neighborhood formation was all encompassing. We ate, drank, and slept all things neighborhood. Natalie and Harris began hosting weekly Monday potlucks on Queen Street for neighbors. Natalie recalls, “We took over our weekly dinner to strategize. More people across Durham heard about Cleveland Holloway than I think anyone wanted to hear!”

We realized that it would be important to show people that we’re not just an area to be a dumping ground without thought; we needed careful planning, revitalization, and consideration.

Neighbor Catherine wrote this wonderful piece to summarize the situation: Things You Can Buy for a Dollar.

The land transfers were rescinded by August 2007, and a few months later, Dominion had officially pulled out of the neighborhood.

Soon we were sitting around the table with the City working on a neighborhood plan for Cleveland-Holloway. The plan became less relevant, as more and more people became curious about this funky little neighborhood that fought for its interests and won. Vacant homes began to be occupied, people were moving in. Rob gave an eager young realtor his first tour of the neighborhood by bike – Ken – though this was way after we won the land transfers and had momentum.

Protecting homes from being knocked down was a continuing struggle. One day in March 2008 I came home sick from work, and noticed a bulldozer on Ottawa.

I went up there and called everyone I could think of – Natalie, Gary, Faye, the Independent Weekly, Jim Wise – the reporters came out, neighbors came out. The bulldozing crew said the house had to go.

Too close!

I stalled them by talking and asking them to wait. Hours passed and photos snapped, a small crowd gathered. Finally, due to a call from Faye, another neighbor Eric Westrom came and spoke with the men. “How much will it take for you to leave?” he asked. “$900.” And by some act of coincidence, he just happened to have this in cash. He forked it over to the men, and they pulled away the bulldozer, which had been inches from the home. I cannot describe how good it felt to see that bulldozer back up, but I'll try: It felt like a mountain stepped aside. (But a really, really, bad mountain!)

Years later, we are happy to have worked collaboratively with the City on several projects, including Oakwood Park and the Downtown Durham Dog Park. Natalie spearheaded the discussions, and we invited new and awesome City Manager Tom Bonfield to a tour. We showed him some of our continuing challenges, and proposed a dog park for the land that still remained vacant after all these years and the battle over it. We were tired of seeing it strewn with trash, right at one of the gateways into our neighborhood.

Working with the excellent Senior City Planner Rosetta Radtke, and a committee of caring neighbors including Rafe, Mike, Jana, Dragana, Rob, Dave, Lena, and Maureen, Natalie and I were able to help take the space that was a trash-filled lot, and the source of our upstart, and make it into the first Downtown Durham Dog Park. Neighborhood volunteers worked all day to prepare the park for opening -- James, Doug, Harris, Natalie, Dave, Lena, Jennifer, Matt, Mike, Jana, Alex, Rafe – and our friend Bonnie. Jennifer took the footage here. The park remains City space, and its future began and continues to be uncertain.

Such is life. But there is one thing for certain: a few of us came together and fought for our shared space. More of us have come into the neighborhood and brought diversity of character and spirit, and continue to work hard on making this a good space for all. If I have left anyone out of this process, do let me know! It was not intentional.

I can’t say how nice it is to have so many people watching out for the neighborhood now -- gardens, events, projects, community homes. Sharing space means work beyond a Kumbaya circle: Synthesizing contrasting visions of what the space should become. (A little arguing keeps relationships alive and honest, after all.)

Speaking of honesty, I just visited my grandmother, Nana, in Seattle. She’s in the late stages of Alzheimer’s where she knows who she is, but little else such as time, place, or person. The past is truly lost and she lives only in each moment.


Despite her loss of language (“Boom, boom, boom!” is frequently used to describe speed), she said something to me that I won’t forget -- unless I too get Alzheimer’s: “I never say something that isn’t true. And when I say the truth, I cry.”

She then grabbed her glass of watered-down pink wine, looked at it intently, and said, “Come to Mama!”

Back to the present. What’s next?

* Title inspired by “Whose Art Is it?” by Jane Kramer: -- excellent book


Anonymous said...

Um...Wicked Awesome? Yeahhhhhh.


Natalie said...

I remember now that we legal loopholed them into not coming back and tearing the houses down the next day. They were owned by an estate and by law all offers to purchase must be presented to the heirs or something for rejection/consideration. Faye made an offer to purchase them both for $10k and the executor had to present the offer to the estate!

Eleni Binge said...

Aha! Thanks for that update, and the other re: Catherine's great piece -- I updated a link with the Letter to the Editor "Things You Can Buy for a Dollar."

hilltopmansion said...

This is a great article! Thanks for sharing this story. When we were living in Fayetteville and were thinking of moving up to this area, we too were told to stay out of Durham! We were advised to live elsewhere. I also remember a fellow employee tell me specifically "Stay Away From Holloway!" Did we listen? NO! And we are glad we didn't - this is like no other neighborhood that I have ever lived in, for good reasons and sometimes bad (but more good!) Thanks again for sharing this with all of us. Leslie

coco said...

EV, You made me cry! Thank you so much for writing this and making this neighborhood wonderful! Keelee

ladybuglemonade said...

el. you are awesome. love you. and this neighborhood.what dg said too. wicked awesome.

ladybuglemonade said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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