There’s a saying among urban planners: You can’t really know a place until you walk it. On a recent afternoon, nearly 60 people gathered to do precisely that for Durham’s first Jane Walk, named after urban activist Jane Jacobs.
The walk celebrates Jacobs as well as two of Durham’s own urban visionaries, Curt Eshelman and Allen Wilcox, boyhood friends who grew up to be doctors and live in Trinity Park. In the early ’90s, they walked around downtown’s old tobacco district. They saw abandoned buildings, weedy lots, defunct gas stations; the only restaurant was a hot dog joint. Downtown was where people went to “meet a lawyer, go to court, or maybe pay a utility bill,” says Eshelman. “There was no vibrancy to it.”
A few years later, Eshelman donated money to build a public park in the heart of the area. He chose an ambitious name: Durham Central Park, in reference to New York’s Central Park. It was his nod to “the contrast between what was there and what could be.”
Now the park thrives as kids play, teenagers skate, and farmers peddle organic produce twice a week. It’s here, under the park’s pavilion, where longtime locals and relative newcomers convene for the walk—among them architects, urban planners, city council members and others curious about where the neighborhood has been and where it’s headed.
Our guides are Matt Gladdek, director of government affairs forDowntown Durham, Inc. and county commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who were independently inspired to start a local Jane’s Walk after reading Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City.
For the next two hours, the group meanders along a tour of Durham’s favorite touchstones, including Ellen Cassilly Architect, Cocoa Cinnamon, The Pit, Fullsteam, Organic Transit, and finally the Durham Central Park Co-Housing Community. Along the way, they pick up scraps of history and imagine how the area will look in the future. “The idea is that you want to create that same love of a place that you have, and show why it’s special to other people,” Gladdek says.
Each stop includes a mini-lesson on what Jacobs thought made for a healthy community: mixed-use development, buildings of different ages, structures built to human scale, and buildings that mingle with the sidewalks (via porches, plazas, windows and balconies) to help people keep “eyes on the street” and promote safety.
One of the first stops is the windowless structure marked 539 MUZE. Once a warehouse for printing military hat labels, the building will be torn down and replaced by a 100-unit condominium complex in the next year or so. We have a clear view of the construction site across the street, the old Liberty Warehouse spot, where ground is being cleared for a similar complex.
“This particular street is going to feel very different once these two projects are done,” says Lisa Miller, a senior planner for the Durham City-County Planning Department. She forecasts that this stretch of Foster Street will eventually feel like an “outdoor room.” The buildings will be stepped down at the street level, and the sidewalks will be widened to cater to pedestrians.
Jacobs thought sidewalks were a kind of litmus test for the health and safety of a community. “A lively sidewalk is like an intricate ballet,” says Reckhow. More than just walkways, sidewalks “need to be places where people are willing to linger. As we plan, we need to think about that intricate ballet and fostering a way for people to feel safe.”
One walker, Peter Katz, tries to focus on the landscape in front of him, but his mind keeps drifting to the future. A statistical programmer in the Duke economics department, he and his wife moved to Durham from Los Angeles eight years ago. Today he’s brought his 2-and-a-half-year-old son, Lucas. He tries to imagine what the Jane’s Walk will look like when Lucas turns 5, and even later when he turns 25.
“It’s definitely bittersweet to see all of this, because four or five years ago, the place was the surface of the moon,” Katz says. So far, the area has been colonized by community-minded business owners, but he wonders if Durham will retain that feeling of “local ambitiousness” he’s come to love so much. Or in the words of Cocoa Cinnamon’s Leon Grodski de Barrera, “Don’t let it be Anywhere, U.S.A.”
Durham “used to be this well-kept secret, and it’s not a secret anymore,” Katz adds. “It almost feels like we’re at this inflection point, and I don’t know if our political leadership is going to be quick enough to respond to it in time.”
How the city will adapt to massive growth seems to weigh on other minds, too. At the Liberty warehouse site, one woman asks who’s going to live in all the new units. Gladdek answers that according to projections, close to 100,000 people will move to Durham over the next 20 years. “They’re coming to work at Duke, they’re coming for the tech jobs, and they want to live in an urban environment, not the suburbs,” he says.
Gladdek, who has a street map of Buffalo, New York, tattooed on his right bicep, later offers a piece of wisdom from an old boss. “As a planner, it’s gonna rain; you know it’s going to rain. You can choose to put up the gutters and the storm drains, or you can let it just rain down and wash you away.”
For Gladdek and Reckhow, the point of the walk was to stir conversations about how Durham can grow gracefully, and to convince residents that their opinions can translate into reality, just as Eshelman and Wilcox’s did. “I hope that people know that they can have a voice in planning stuff,” says Gladdek, “but they have to take it.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Don’t let it be Anywhere U.S.A.”