Durham Leaders Have Ambitious Plan for Federal Funds

Durham Leaders Have Ambitious Plan for Federal Funds

One can’t say it enough: it took the Europeans less time to rebuild an entire continent after World War II than it has taken the city of Durham to rebuild the Hayti District after urban renewal more than a half century ago. But with a blueprint for a local Marshall Plan in hand, Durham leaders say they’re trying.

Earlier this month, Mark-Anthony Middleton, the city’s mayor pro tem, foreshadowed a federally funded multimillion-dollar plan that will usher in substantive revitalization efforts along the Fayetteville Street corridor where Hayti is located, and other historically Black underserved “legacy” neighborhoods.

The funding for the proposed projects will come from the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) that provides direct aid to American citizens in an effort to reduce the pandemic threat and help with the nation’s economic recovery.

On January 6, Durham received about $51 million in ARPA funding. The city council allocated $7.2 million in hazard pay to city employees, and in May allocated about $20 million to more than 34 nonprofits across the city to address housing stability, economic equity, health and wellness, along with community resilience.

Middleton hopes about $22 million remaining in ARPA funding will be used to implement a municipal plan inspired by the Marshall Plan that the United States enacted in 1948 to rebuild western Europe after World War II.

Hayti was once the site of hundreds of businesses and thousands of homes. The historically Black community was destroyed by an ill-titled urban renewal program that began in the early 1960s.

In his biography of famed Durham journalist Louis Austin titled Louis Austin And the Carolina Times, NC Central University historian Jerry Gershenhorn noted that, from the outset, Durham’s Black community widely accepted the controversial concept of urban renewal when it was first introduced to Durham voters in 1962 as an $8.6 million bond referendum to finance water, street, and sewer improvements in Hayti. In the following two years, some Black residents expressed “satisfaction with their move to better homes.”

“Despite its promising beginnings, urban renewal proved to be a disaster for Hayti,” Gershenhorn wrote. “After urban renewal and the building of the East-West Expressway [NC Highway 147], Hayti was virtually unrecognizable. Where hundreds of homes and businesses once stood, an expressway and weeded lots stood. Many Hayti residents bitterly declared that ‘urban removal’ was a more apt name for what had happened to their community.”

Middleton is mindful of this history.

“Folks have been talking about this for a long time,” Middleton says. “I’m basically channeling what people have been talking about since Highway 147 jacked us up.”

Middleton says the rebuilding of Hayti is a goal the entire city should coalesce around because the entire city will benefit from the venture.

“The Fayetteville Street Corridor where Hayti is located should be another Sweet Auburn in Atlanta, or Sugar Hill in Harlem,” he says, referencing two of the nation’s foremost and historic Black American districts, which are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hayti, too, Middleton says, should be among the city’s destinations “that attract people from all over the world,” and that its historic sister neighborhoods like Merrick-Moore and Bragtown “should be lifted up, as calling cards for the city, just like the American Tobacco District, Research Triangle Park, and even the ghost of Black Wall Street.”

Council member Leonardo Williams, who co-owns a Zimbabwean restaurant with his wife Zweli, says part of the funding should be used to support start-ups and existing businesses. He points to funding given to nonprofits like the one renovating and retrofitting the commercial kitchen at the former Pearson School, now known as Student U in Hayti, that will serve as an incubator for Black-owned food businesses, or Provident1898’s “Black Wall Street Hub” that wants to connect the city’s small business owners for mutual support and sustainability.

In addition to support for small businesses and start-ups, Williams says the federal funding should be used to address the causes of housing instability in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, creating access to jobs that pay a living wage, and building public-private partnerships that relieves residents of medical debt.

“We can’t give people money,” Williams explains, “but we can remove the financial pressure, and position them to live better.”

The federal funds from President Biden’s rescue plan is a different animal from what is typically awarded to municipalities. This time around, the funding allows Durham’s elected leaders to consider a Bull City reparative justice model to address the devastation of Hayti, along with the systemic underinvestment of similar communities across the city.

Middleton says that typically when cities and towns receive federal funding, the money has already been earmarked toward specific projects—roads and policing, for instance—or for initiatives like the Durham Housing Authority’s proposal demolishing the 50-year-old Liberty Street apartment complex to rebuild affordable housing east of downtown. The DHA received $40 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhoods program, an initiative aimed at redeveloping distressed public housing and improving surrounding neighborhoods.

“The ARPA funding offers an off-ramp to do something creative and out of the ordinary,” Middleton says.

Municipal leaders and city staffers are trying to figure out how to best deploy the federal dollars in a manner that creates healthy, life-affirming options for community members. The city council has reviewed 80 community proposals and considered input from more than 300 city residents through a series of meetings and surveys.

Among the community members’ top priorities are safe and healthy affordable housing, access to healthy food and mental health services, an increase in teachers’ pay and affordable child care, a living wage and more support for businesses that reflect the city’s diversity.

“The mayor and I have talked about this from time to time, and we both think this is an opportunity to do something transformational,” Middleton says.

Four months after her historic election in November 2021 as Durham’s first Black woman mayor, Elaine O’Neal, during her first State of the City address, lamented what she called the city’s two Main Streets.

“On one end of Main Street, you see the high-rises, shops, and amenities that illustrate the leaps toward prosperity that many have experienced over the last few years. On the other end, you see a community that has not kept up with the prosperity,” O’Neal said, while promising the city would rebuild Hayti.

O’Neal echoed Middleton’s sentiments last week when she told the INDY that the goal for the remaining funds is “to do something transformational” for the city’s legacy communities that she and the mayor pro tem agree have endured decades of devastation as a consequence of redlining, urban renewal, underinvestment, and over-policing.

“I want to make sure that the local folk are included,” O’Neal says. “I’m more concerned with the neighborhoods that have been left out of the city’s growth.”

The mayor later added that one of the things council members and city staffers learned through surveys was that “a lot of our elderly residents have no access to the Internet,” and that “justice-involved community members are facing barriers for housing, or even applying for housing.”

“There are lots of people in our city who have paid their debt to society but can’t find housing,” O’Neal adds. She notes that many Durham residents, even middle-class residents, are “struggling with housing.”

“It all starts with a stable living condition,” she says. “We have to figure out how to best access homeownership, and how to help people who already own their homes stay there.”

She points to families who face the prospect of losing public housing if a child in the home has a criminal record, and parents who have to decide if they should leave or hide their child.

“This has gone on for an entire generation,” she says. “There are people in this city who have never had access to stable housing. African Americans as a whole never had housing stability from the time we got off the slave ships.”

O’Neal says Black military veterans were barred from government-backed mortgages that led to a post-World War II housing boom that has contributed to the racial wealth gap.

“We did not benefit. We were never a part of that,” she says. “We weren’t able to have that and have been unable to build upon that.”

O’Neal says the issues are systemic challenges that have long bedeviled the city’s legacy communities. She thinks part of the federal funding should be used to create a multifaceted community wellness hub.

She also envisions smaller hubs—“a one-stop shop for folks”—in different communities all over the city that can respond to residents’ needs more effectively by “engaging in an ongoing dialogue with specific neighborhoods.”

“Government is burdened with being reactive. We need to become proactive and get into responding quicker,” the mayor says. “We are going to have to get into the weeds. This is not sexy work. This is hard work.”

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.  

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