Durham in the Center


Today Durham may have a hard time living up to its reputation. The wild and crazy town of textile mills and tobacco factories has mellowed but not lost her charm.

The first post I did on the blog DurhamLuxRE.com was titled “The Fox” and recounts one of my first impressions of Downtown Durham. This was in 1985 shortly after I moved here from Richmond to become the Marketing Director of Central Carolina Bank.

CCB was then the hometown bank and was headquartered in the tallest building in downtown, a stately building vaguely reminiscent of the Empire State Building in New York on a much smaller scale.  As I was walking back to my office from one of the few sandwich shops still open, a red fox scooted down Chapel Hill Street near the post office. The fox came to be a symbol for me of nature reclaiming the run down area.

In contrast, my office in a new skyscraper in Richmond had had a commanding view of the beautiful Virginia State Capital designed by Thomas Jefferson. Durham’s downtown was a letdown.  And this wasn’t even the low point. In 1988 the American Tobacco plant shut its doors in downtown closing up a million square feet of factory and office space.

Several years later, Liggett Tobacco moved most of its operations out of town too. But the tide was starting to turn. Part of the Liggett operation was renovated and became Brightleaf Square which, then as now, housed a number of successful restaurants, boutiques and galleries on it’s main level and office space on the upper levels. A few blocks away, another Liggett warehouse was converted into condo living spaces. These are still highly coveted and sell well.

Downtown Revitalization

The development downtown did not take a smooth path. In fact Durham’s transformation from just an interesting place to live to a terrific and exciting place to live could often be characterized as taking one step backwards for each two steps forward.  Even many residents who lived through it have a hard time shaking Durham’s inferiority complex. When you tick off the development that has actually taken place in the last 20 years it’s easy to forget how difficult it was to get it started and the setbacks along the way.

One of the best decisions made when Durham’s downtown redevelopment got serious with the formation of Downtown Durham, Inc. was to go with one of the few strengths that it had as an emphasis, that is, arts and entertainment. There was some skepticism about this from the city fathers at first who wanted office, retail and residential development too.

But because the beautiful Arts Council facility had been dedicated and the Carolina Theater was being restored, this was a niche that could be built on. In addition Brightleaf Square, which was separated from the center of downtown by the Liggett Tobacco facilities, had already become a thriving restaurant district. The Durham Bulls were downtown too and the movie Bull Durham, filmed in and around the historic old ballpark, added some romance to the idea. It was argued that developing and promoting downtown as an arts and entertainment district would attract the other development too. This has proved to be a successful strategy.

One of the best sources for insightful information on the current development in Downtown Durham is a blog written by Kevin Davis at www.BullCityRising.com. Commenting at length about downtown development would be beyond the scope of this report, however, when considering Durham as a place to live, it’s important to know something about it. Rather than cover the history of how we got to this point, I will just list some of the attractions”.

  1. The DAP. The Durham Athletic Park is the old baseball park. Twenty years ago, the Bulls were the Class A farm club of the Atlanta Braves. The facility was run down and funky but, boy, was it fun. One of the all-time great baseball movies, Bull Durham was filmed there and released in 1988. Great plans are now in the works for the old facility that might include it becoming part of the headquarters of Minor League Baseball and a museum.
  2. DBAP. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park is the new facility for the Bulls who have moved up to the Triple A International League as a farm club of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. This is widely regarded as one of the best minor league facilities in the country. The Bulls regularly draw up to 10,000 fans from all over the region and is always one of the leaders in minor league attendance.  In 2009 the Bulls won the AAA World Series. Great tradition and great entertainment.
  3. The American Tobacco Campus. Right across the street from the DPAP are the totally renovated American Tobacco factory buildings with high end offices, residences, restaurants, entertainment venues and a man-made river running through the campus. New office space was also developed behind the right field wall of the DBAP and more is coming behind the left field wall.
  4. The Performing Arts Center or DPAC. Also visible from the DBAP is the new Performing Arts Center that has already surpassed ambitions projections of revenue and attendance. The Performing Arts Center is also the new home of the annual American Dance Festival which for over 30 years has been hosted by Duke.
  5. Durham Central Park. Just east of the old DAP a new central park has been created.
  6. The Durham Farmers Market. For years held in the parking lot adjoining the old DAP, it now has its own shelter in Central Park and during most of the year operates Saturday and Sunday offering local produce and arts and crafts.
  7. The Arts Council. In 1988 the Arts Council building, originally built in 1906, was renovated to support several arts organizations with 3 galleries, 2 Theaters and numerous work and meeting rooms. The Arts Council also sponsors the annual Centerfest celebration now being held in Central Park.
  8. The Carolina Theater. This historic space was renovated for live performances and connected to the Civic Center by additional cinemas that feature foreign and art films that multi-plexs won’t carry.  The Arts Council building and the Carolina Theater are also the primary venues for the nationally recognized annual early spring Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
  9. Downtown Streetscape. Just finished in 2007 this major project re-routed traffic and beautified the street scene in the part of downtown known as City Center. A life sized bronze bull in the main plaza leaves no doubt where you are.

The story today is much different than it was when real wild animals roamed the street. Developers both local and national compete for the remaining available renovation opportunities downtown. New construction projects are coming out of the ground on a regular basis including a lot of residential space. In the meantime good things in other parts of Durham were happening too. Probably the most dramatic was the development of a major regional mall on the south end of the county near I-40.


Many people reacted to the announcement of a new mall with skepticism as in “the last thing the world needs is another mall.” We had two, one north and one south of the city’s core.  As malls go, Southpoint has certainly exceeded the expectations of many. In fact, it quickly became a regional attraction. For the upscale customer it included, among other things, the first Nordstrom’s in North Carolina. Someone who probably knows better than I told me that our Nordstrom’s only carries their “B” lines here in North Carolina but, as a big man, I sure like the idea of being able to buy a 18 ½ – 38 dress shirt without having to special order or sacrifice quality. And then there are the shoes…

As Southpoint became a shopping destination for the whole region it attracted other retail developments and residential neighborhoods. This included “firsts” in terms of national chain restaurants such as PF Changs, the Cheesecake Factory and Ted’s Montana Grill. But it also had the impact of drawing the better tenants and customers of South Square, one of the original malls. Eventually, SouthSquare closed and citizens watched in fascination, if not despair, as huge machines tore the mall down and hauled it away.

At first the demise of South Square seemed like one of those steps backward in the march of economic development. Before Downtown development took off, South Square was often referred to as the “new downtown.” In 1986 a Dallas developer with a son a Duke tried to bring a little bit of Texas to Durham and built a 17 story skyscraper across Chapel Hill Blvd from South Square.

Incongruous as it was towering over everything in the area, it quickly picked up all sorts of nicknames including the Green Pickle. Still, it is actually quite a lovely building especially at dawn or dusk when the sunlight is at the right angle. As the tallest building in the city it is the primary landmark for the area. From the University Club on its top floor, where once you could see the roof of the mall now you can see the roofs of a Sam’s Club and a Super Target.  You also see several new office buildings and there will soon be a mixed use development that will include luxury apartments and boutique retail.

The other regional mall in Durham is called Northgate. Northgate is locally owned and even though it is older it has been upgraded several times over the years. Northgate serves the north side of town, as well as Trinity Park and other neighborhoods around Duke’s East Campus. Since it is right on I-85 it is also the most convenient mall to areas just west of Durham including Hillsborough, Mebane, and Efland. Northgate has over 160 stores and is anchored by Macy’s and Sears.

Shopping in Durham may never be the same experience it is in New York or other metropolitan areas, but, hey, half the pleasure of shopping in New York is making the trip. Right?

Cross the floor to the other side of the University Club and the view to the northeast consists of a green canopy of trees and the spire of Duke Chapel at the heart of the Duke University campus. Part of that canopy is literally a forest known as Duke Forest that is owned by the University. The neighborhood named Duke Forest is also under that canopy, but before we describe that let’s talk a little bit about the roles of Duke and NCCU in the community.

Duke, NCCU and Durham

One of the unfortunate side effects of the lacrosse nightmare that landed on the community and drew worldwide attention was the widely conveyed impression that Duke and Durham shared an uneasy co-existence.  This is hardly the case. The University and the Medical Center combined employ almost 30,000 people, most of whom live, work and vote in Durham or nearby. This is a much greater number than the students who are here at any one time and who come here for four years or so and then leave. Actually, a lot of them don’t leave when they’re done and adopt Durham as their own.

The impact of Duke goes way beyond all those salaries. Besides the two campuses Duke leases over 2 million square feet of office space in the community. Through early commitments to lease space, Duke insured the feasibility of a number of the major projects that have been part of the city’s revival including the American Tobacco Campus, Brightleaf Square and Erwin Plaza. Duke has worked closely with others in the community to provide affordable housing and annually contributes millions to indigent health care through the medical center. Faculty and staff are active in civic clubs and one of our current city councilmen is an executive at Duke.

Early during the lacrosse troubles, many outside the community jumped to the conclusion that all Duke students and especially the athletes were binge drinkers with no respect for property or the rights of others.  Of course, boorish behavior is not limited to Duke athletes or even students in general but some does surface around every college campus I’ve ever been near. Often unheralded are the students that volunteer in the community in many ways including tutoring disadvantaged kids.

I recently participated in an event where hundreds of students from both Duke and North Carolina Central University joined with Rotary and a local organization called Stop Hunger Now to prepare and package thousands of emergency meals for shipment to underdeveloped countries like Haiti. These were all great kids, mature, aware and comfortable in their own skins…regardless of color.

Duke’s contribution to the cultural life of the community is also remarkable. One of the catalysts for the new Performing Arts Center in Downtown Durham has been the desire to have a permanent home for the annual American Dance Festival sponsored by Duke. The brand new Nasher Art Museum on the southern edge of the campus in deeply involved in the community. The Duke Gardens are also highly used by the community. The Duke Chapel not only serves the Divinity School and the campus but has a congregation that attracts members from all over the region.

Duke sports are followed as closely by the community as they are by the students. Basketball tickets are impossible but most games are televised. The women’s basketball team is also competitive nationally and also getting to be a tough ticket. I graduated from Notre Dame, a football mecca, but I’d rather attend a Duke football game in person.  You seldom need a coat, never have snow in the stands, can easily get to the concession areas or a restroom and sometimes you see some good football teams. Lately that hasn’t been Duke but that is changing. The rivalries among the three ACC universities in the Triangle are very entertaining to follow.

North Carolina Central University is our historically black university. It is part of the University of North Carolina system and also a vibrant part of the community. It provides good undergraduate programs to students of all races and a number of excellent graduate programs including one of the best law schools in the state that includes among its graduates our governor, Mike Easley. It has strong leadership, is growing rapidly and is carving an academic niche out for itself in biotechnology.

Chancellor Charlie Nelms has also made commitments to reach out to the school systems and work cooperatively to improve local education. He has also identified 8 community colleges in the region for another outreach program to graduates to continue their education and get Bachelors and Masters degrees.  NCCU also has made a commitment to community and economic development in Durham especially around its campus south of downtown.

It has been interesting to me over the last 25 years to see a succession of strong leaders at NCCU grow the role of the University from its roots as education oasis for black students to a much fuller role both in the community and the North Carolina University system.  In 2009, NCCU’s athletic program moved up to Division A and has challenged Carolina on the basketball court and Duke on both the basketball court and the football field.  No wins yet, but who knows what the next decade might bring in the rich stew of Triangle collegiate rivalries.


Twenty years ago Durham had two public school systems.  After many attempts to start a merger process, one finally got traction. The total history is not worth repeating here but Durham has operated one public school system for over ten years, and it is one the entire community can be proud of. There are still challenges but strong leadership from the County Commission and several top notch Superintendents have brought it to the point that Forbes Magazine could rank it as the 20th best system in the country. The system has an excellent website. That and ncreportcard.com, the state site that reports test scores by school are good sources of additional information. Durham also has several private schools with excellent programs including Durham Academy. Durham is also the home of the North Carolina School of Math and Science, a two year residential high school for exceptional math and science students from around the state.

Durham also has a fine community college in Durham Technical Community College. Durham Tech has grown in both stature and service to the community by working closely with employers, especially in RTP, to provide the kind of career education so necessary for continued economic development.


Restaurants in Durham have always attracted patrons from all over the Triangle and several have received national recognition. Among the most enduring is The Magnolia Grill which is on 9th Street just north of the funky shopping area between Duke’s East Campus and a handsome office Tower at Erwin Plaza. Also in the area are Vin Rouge, Blu, George’s Garage and several small ethnic eateries heavily patronized by students. Parizade, one of my personal favorites, operates on the ground floor of Erwin Plaza. My favorite breakfast place, Elmo’s Diner, is also on 9th St. Don’t worry about dressing up at Elmo’s but get there before 8:00 on Sunday morning if you don’t want to wait.

The Brightleaf Square area continues of have an interesting collection of about a dozen good eateries, most casual. They include Anotherthyme, Pop’s Trattoria , Chamas (a Brazilian steakhouse where it is possible to eat way too much), and Taverna Nikos. A casually elegant Italian restaurant, Tosca is a relatively recent addition to the fine dining options in the area. The conversion of all the Liggett tobacco buildings into residential apartments between Brightleaf and City Center Downtown has sparked more restaurant activity in the city center. The most highly regarded are Rue Clair and the Piedmont. My all time favorite local spot is Nana’s which is west of the Forest Hills neighborhood on University Drive. Great service, great food, great atmosphere and great wine but one of the reasons I like it is that even on a Saturday night you can usually walk in and be seated immediately in the bar area with no reservations and enjoy dinner there. Like a lot of other great restaurants it has attracted others. Right across the street is a new Thai restaurant and one of the two best barbeque places in town…The Q-Shack (no napkins…just paper towels.) Around the corner is another very good Asian bistro incongruously housed in a failed McDonalds which was undoubtedly the worst McDonalds on the planet. A few blocks down Chapel Hill Blvd is Foster’s Market, a popular quick stop for great sandwiches, carry out entrees and salads, coffee and expresso. In the warmer months (most of the time) a lot of the food and drink is carried out to the porches, patios and lawn. Only true natives remember that the building used to house a lawn mower repair shop. Sara Foster the owner is a protégé of Martha Stewart.

A few doors down is Guglhupf Bakery and Patisserie for wonderful baked goods and lunches.  This list of great places to eat is difficult to keep up with but a good place to try is www.durhamfoodie.blogspot.com. Gone are the days where there were only two or three places that were special enough for birthday and anniversary celebrations. The problem now is making a choice but it’s a nice problem for a community to have. I love good food but I confess a few of these places I know only by reputation…and I’m sure I’ve missed some…but I’m trying to catch up.

The City of Medicine

Durham has a mixed history of calling itself this or that including The Bull City. This is the one that has stuck but it has not always been appreciated by boosters who wanted something, maybe…well, a little more dignified. For a good while the Chamber of Commerce promoted the moniker The City of Medicine, and it worked pretty well in spite of itself. Isn’t medicine what you take when you are sick?  Of course, those in medicine look at it as a profession. The primary basis for the claim came from the stature of the Duke Medical Center which by all accounts is richly deserved. The City of Medicine moniker was pretty good branding for the city for a while but eventually it lost steam. Paradoxically, the influence of the Duke Medical Center in the community and around the world has continued to grow while biotech also continued to become a bigger part of what was happening in RTP. A closely related moniker of Durham’s was “The Diet Capital of the World.” Many people afflicted with extreme obesity came…and still come…for the programs offered here and many have stayed in the community. Among the spinoffs from the obesity programs at Duke are the Rice Diet and Structure House. Like “City of Medicine” you don’t hear “Diet Capital” much anymore but the reasons for those names still remain. Although I like to refer to Durham as feminine, I predict The Bull City will continue to endure as a moniker.