“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”–Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
June 23rd, 1957, Durham NC–It’s a hot day, nearly 90 degrees, but Reverand Douglas Moore is too focused on the task at hand to complain about it. He needs to be strong for the small group of young adults who surround him. Anxious, maybe a little bit excited, but firm in resolve, they are about to drive to The Royal Ice Cream Company for what will become one of the country’s earliest sit-ins. Mary Elizabeth Clyburn, Claude Glynn, Jesse Gray, Vivian Jones, Melvin Willis and Virginia Lee Williams must have experienced great trepidation as they approached the two entrances; one marked “Whites Only”, the other marked “Blacks Only”. Jaws set, eyes straight ahead, they stepped over the “Whites Only” threshold and began taking up booths. Not long after, they were taken into custody by police and found guilty of trespassing. So much for after-church ice cream on a summer day.In 2011, as the 1957 sit-in approaches its 51st anniversary, segration and racist acts of violence are no longer accepted by society, thanks to the courage and tenacity of folks such as these and many others that followed in the civil rights movement. Yet the site of such legacy is gone; The Royal Ice Cream Parlor was bulldozed to rubble in August of 2006. In its place sits the Union Independent School; a new red brick construction, built in 2009, with architectural features such as angled metal beams and roof, clean modern lines, and large glass windows that let in the light. Short of the easy-to-miss historical marker, there is nothing about the building that speaks to the past.
For Gary Kueber, author of Endangered Durham, the blog that has become the people’s choice for conversation about the city’s historical buildings and houses (and their demolition), this is a real problem. Kueber is concerned that once a historical structure is gone, the memories it holds aren’t far behind: Out of sight, out of mind as the old adage goes.
”I feel really strongly that these structures are places that collect memories–good, bad whatever it was. It’s much easier to get a sense of that and convey that if it’s tangible. People can see for themselves: ‘This was a bank building, this was a restaurant…I can picture people dining there or depositing their checks at the end of the week’. But if you’re just sort of pointing to a vacant lot or a car dealership, it sort of seems like a story,” Kueber says.
.A New Orleans native, Kueber experienced this first-hand growing up in the deep South. In a 2008 blog post, he writes:
“I will never forget drinking from a water fountain in Charity Hospital in New Orleans as a 24 year-old medical student; the walls were marble, the fountain one of those old porcelain fountains with chrome fixtures mounted straight to the wall. I’d drunk from this fountain perhaps a dozen times before. For some reason, on this occasion, I lifted my eyes while stooped over the fountain, and saw the wall directly in front of me. There, on the marble, so faint that you couldn’t see it from a distance, was the outline of the word “Colored”, once painted on the wall, but then long removed. I’ll never forget the feeling that I had upon seeing that–akin to ‘Oh my God, this really happened–here’. Of course I knew that it happened; I learned it in school. But seeing it was a different thing altogether. It happened in a world that I inhabit–and by implication, could happen again.”
Kueber suspects the choice to completely demolish the civil rights site and put a modern structure in its place was a choice (conscious or unconscious) to look towards the future and forget about the past. It’s no secret he feels it was a poor choice. When critics implore of him “What do you have against education anyway?” his ready response is:
“Can you imagine these students going to a history class in this building? I mean what happened here is amazing. You can’t recreate that. Imagine kids sitting in this same spot and thinking about these young people who sat here and withstood this abuse. This is what the kids in this school could have seen and felt–and interpreted for themselves.”
Durham’s apparent indifference towards its own history, reflected in the buildings it continues to demolish, disturbs Kueber. On January 2008, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, he wrote a post outlining the six different locations that Dr. King visited over a period of 8 years in Durham, complete with stunning photographs, and asks his readers the question:
“What common thread links 4 out of the 6 locations I’ve mentioned? With the exception of Duke’s Page Auditorium and St. Marks AME Church, they’ve all been demolished.”
In the same post, he admonishes citizens:
“Do we really find all this so unimportant? This history doesn’t exist in the abstract–it happened here. Would it not be of value to someone growing up in Durham to know that he/she is standing in the same spot that Dr. King stood? Are parking lots and apartments and vacant lots and highways really that much more valuable?”
Endangered Durham, a blog/archive that profiles over 1400 of Durham’s historical buildings and houses, was created with the impetus to provide community members with a sense of pride in place, along with the urgent hope that people will begin to care about these buildings and actively participate in preventing their demolition.
“The context when I first started it was very much this sense of ‘We’re losing all these buildings. I have to show people what we’re losing,‘” says Kueber.
It soon became apparent that many people didn’t understand exactly how dire the situation was.
“People would occasionally say to me ‘Well Durham has such an abundance of historic architecture’, the implication being that we can afford to lose a few. I wanted to reset that framing to “No, this is the last 20%. This building is the last of its kind. We used to have 50 of these buildings, but now we only have one,’” he says.
“Kueber estimates that nearly 90% of historical Durham–large swaths of entire neighborhoods, including Hayti–have been destroyed, making the remaining 10% even more vital. ‘You’re looking at a very small subset of what was once here’,” Kueber says.
Born in New Orleans, a place rich in history and architecture, Kueber grew up with a solid sense of place. Many New Orleans natives share this trait. They learned the good old-fashioned way: Through grandma.
“I don’t know that I would have felt the impetus to start an Endangered New Orleans simply because it was so palpable,” Kueber says. “Whereas in Durham, partly because so many of us are not natives, we don’t have the grandma that tells us the story of this or that place that we might have rolled our eyes at. There’s that passing down, that direct linkage to history. New Orleans may be one of the most historically grounded places simply because so many of the people that live there are people who stay there.”
Endangered Durham serves as a sort of surrogate grandmother for Durhamites, providing readers with a snapshot of what Durham once was, and a chance to offer up their own stories and memories.
“The comments are probably my favorite thing about the blog,” says Kueber, “Most of the time they’re more interesting than what I write”.
Readers swap stories, creating a lively narrative thread. Comments range from the ‘I remember when my grandpa took me to that store for a soda’ variety, while others spark heated debate. Like the time a dilapidated graveyard was bulldozed to make room for a high-end house in the Trinity Park neighborhood. Every possible angle was covered–from outraged folks in the neighborhood, to city officials, to businessmen who owned the construction company, to those who thought it was no big deal.These interactions, along with their concrete details, give place a pulse. As the song goes, a house is not a home if there’s nobody there, and Kueber finds as much value in people’s experiences as the structures themselves. Almost childlike in his enthusiasm, Kueber recalls asking his friend Ralph Rogers about his experiences in Durham’s first Asian restaurent, The Oriental. Located on Parrish St. in the 1940′s, Kueber was fascinated by its existence.
“This was post World-War II. How did it come into being? How was the restaurant perceived?” he wondered.
When Rogers told him he used to walk home every night with two cartons of their 75 cent lo mein, Kueber was delighted.
“Just that little snippet makes it like a real place. When this person I’m talking to actually went in and out of there and ate the food,” he says.Since its inception in 2005, Endangered Durham gradually became one of the community’s most popular blogs, getting 1400 hits a day, and as vital to some locals as their morning coffee. Kueber is as surprised as anyone that it caught on so well.
“I never expected people would read it daily. It still baffles me, in a very nice way,” he says.
Readership ranges from 10 year-old kids doing school projects on Durham to professors and professionals who use it as a resource to older conservative folks, to fire inspectors, to left leaning liberals, to grass roots organizers. Kueber finds the commonality between these disparate groups highly rewarding.
“They may not agree on national politics, but they are all invested in Durham. They all want to see the corner store alive again,” he says.