A short drive through downtown Durham

March 9, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 9, 2017

Author’s note: The day after this blog post was original published, I adjusted one paragraph after realizing that I’d driven through the Brightleaf District closer to 7:40 p.m. than 8 p.m. As usual, additions are marked with boldface text; deletions, with a strikethrough line. MEM

I inserted myself into the wake of a car crash on Saturday night. This is the story of how I maneuvered myself into falling just short of actually witnessing the collision.

I’d spent much of the afternoon participating in World Tavern Poker’s North Carolina Central East Regional Championships at a hotel in Southeast Durham County. I’d played decently for much of the tournament, but I was never able to recover after I misplayed a hand during the 4,000–8,000 level.

The event had started with around 225 players, of whom the top 10 percent, or 23 players, would qualify to play in the National Championship Finals this spring. When I was eliminated, there were four tables of players; they weren’t keeping track of the exact number, but I went out around 35th or 40th — not bad, but not as good as the finish I’d had in the previous regionals.

Anyway, I was feeling somewhat morose and contemplative as I drove home that evening. When I left the hotel, I headed north on North Carolina 55 until I reached North Carolina Central University. I haven’t written at all about NCCU on my blog, but it has the distinction of being the nation’s first public supported liberal arts institution for African-Americans. I don’t pass by Central much — it’s on Durham’s east side, as opposed to Duke University, which has its main campus on the west side of the city and is much closer to where I live.

Most of N.C. Central is contained between four roads: Fayetteville Street to the west, Cecil Street to the south, South Alston Avenue a.k.a. N.C. 55 to the east and East Lawson Street to the north. On Friday night, I’d taken Alston as far north as I could, and this evening I wanted to see some different sights, so I hung a left on Lawson and drove over to Fayetteville. There I turned north again and crossed over the Durham Freeway, a.k.a. N.C. 147, and the railroad line that cuts through the center of town. At East Main Street, I turned left and headed west through the heart of the city.

When I first moved to North Carolina, in 2004, I occasionally visited downtown Durham on weekend evenings and found the place to be almost completely dead. Aside from a shady-looking nightclub called Ringside, everything else was either closed or seemingly abandoned. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that, at the time, the Bull City’s downtown was a confusing tangle of one-way streets, some of which were closed by construction.

The construction eventually made the street situation much more friendly — one-way thoroughfares were converted to two-way roads, which made driving and parking downtown a lot easier to do. Gradually over the years that followed, offices, shops, bars, restaurants and even hotels began repopulating the city center. You’d go there on a Saturday night and not just encounter darkness; there would be lights on and even people strolling along the sidewalks.

I’m not much of a nightlife person, and I’m definitely not a foodie, but I’m fascinated by the way that downtown Durham has evolved over the years. There’s a bar in the space that used to be a club called Talk of the Town. Across the street from it are two narrow bars side by the side.

What people used to call the new county courthouse was replaced about four years ago by the Durham County Justice Center. Now the building that is — well, no longer the new county courthouse; call it the former county courthouse — is in the process of being stripped down to its structural components. (If memory serves, this awful example of soulless 1970s architecture is being modernized in order to house county offices, much like its predecessor directly across the street, which for years has been home to top Durham County officials.)

There’s other construction along Main Street, including a new skyscraper that’s taking shape in the dead center of town. Normally when I’m in downtown Durham and headed home, I’ll turn north on Corcoran Street and make my way north and west toward North Duke Street. That’s not possible at the moment; because of the skyscraper construction, a short stretch of Corcoran is only open to southbound traffic. Instead of hanging a right on Market so I could connect with Corcoran, I decided to keep on cruising along Main.

I looked for the old location of Beyu Caffé, one of downtown’s pioneers, and Beyu’s new site, which opened last year, but I had to keep an eye on the road and didn’t get much of an eyeful of either spot. I briefly considered parking and watching the Duke–UNC game at Bull McCabe’s (the game was just about to begin), but again I decided just to keep on heading toward home.

I drove through West Village, a sprawling complex that was once a shuttered cigarette factory (one of several) that over the past decade has been redeveloped into housing, offices and restaurants and hit the Brightleaf District, which actually was one of the first parts of the Bull City to be brought back to life. This stretch of Main Street is both lively and perilous — drunk or careless patrons of Alivia, Devine’s or Satisfaction are all to liable to wander into the roadway. As it was about 20 minutes until right around 8 p.m., when with one of the most anticipated basketball games of the year was going about to start, things were quiet.

A little farther to the west I came to the Residence Inn, which opened in mid-2015. It occupies the site where McPherson Hospital, the city’s first medical facility, once stood. Only a small part of the old hospital was preserved, as years of neglect had rendered much of the aging structure useless.

The Residence Inn’s western edge is bounded by North Buchanan Boulevard; across Buchanan is Duke’s original Durham location, now known as East Campus.

I turned right off of Main and went long the eastern side of East Campus. It yielded to a residential neighborhood at Markham Avenue. After pausing at the Markham/Buchanan stoplight, I keep on driving north.

The crash happened just a block or so beyond that. But I’ll describe it — or rather, its aftermath — on another day…

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