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.
In the late eighties when Distinctive Properties was formed, the city, while a pleasant place to live, had a downtown in rapid decline, two highly segregated school systems of so-so qual was then ity and a reputation for crime.
The hometown bank, CCB, 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. There were many empty storefronts, no residential options and an occasional fox scooting down Chapel Street, gave one the impression that nature was reclaiming the area.
For anyone moving to Durham the 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.
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 factory, 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.
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, here is a list some of the attractions.
- 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. The old ballpark has now been restored and is used as the home field of North Carolina Central University. Surrounding it are both new and restored buildings that contain thriving restaurants, micro-breweries, and music venues.
- 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.
- The American Tobacco Campus. Right across the street from the DBAP 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 both the right and left field walls of the DBAP.
- The Performing Arts Center or DPAC. Also visible from the DBAP is the wonderful Performing Arts Center that has already surpassed ambitions projections of revenue and attendance. For several years now it has been ranked as one of the top performance venues in the country based on attendance at performances. 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.
- Durham Central Park. Just east of the old DAP a new central park has been created which includes a skate park and other attractions.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 and the LGBTG Film Festival.
- 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.
- Two additional major festivals now have made a mark on Downtown Durham, the Art of Cool Jazz Festival and Moogfest.