On a rainy Monday at Bean Traders Coffee, four board members of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association talked animatedly about owls. The creatures had been attacking neighborhood walkers and joggers in the hours around sunrise and sunset, creating a stir in the community and on the board.
“The point is,” concluded John Schelp, president of the association, “It made it to the listserv, then spread to other listservs, then suddenly there was a front-page article in the newspaper.”
The same efficient mobilization that raised awareness about swooping birds — listserv emails, phone calls, word of mouth — has made Old West Durham residents a force for advocacy and change in Durham ever since the neighborhood association was founded to mobilize against a hate crime in 1995.
The neighborhood, a member of the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, has fought to maintain the historic integrity of its streets and homes, to keep industrial plants from establishing a harmful presence in Durham’s less affluent neighborhoods, and to support the local businesses of Ninth Street, which is part of Old West Durham. City Councilman Howard Clement once told Schelp that when the city’s Ninth Street plan was in the works, Council members received more letters from Old West Durham residents than they had seen on any other issue for at least 25 years.
But the political efficacy of Old West Durham is just one piece of what makes residents stay and non-residents look for available real estate.
“It’s not just about the politics and the influence. At neighborhood meetings we hang out beforehand, and we stick around after for a beer or something,” said board member Catherine Hart. “It’s the relationships that develop in the community that are important; it’s the connection from being involved, and from getting others to become involved as well.”
Beyond its block parties, holiday events and service projects — including canned food drives, the Weekend Backpack program, and raising scholarship funds — Old West Durham reaches out to neighbors and to the rest of Durham by offering historic tours, led by Schelp. The fall’s Old West Durham Home Tour shares the storied pasts of local residences, and the spring’s Urban Hike covers ground in several Durham neighborhoods and explores local folklore.
Schelp said he started leading the Urban Hike a few years ago when he heard from a Duke senior that her biggest regret facing graduation was not getting to know Durham. That’s also a reason why Schelp and other Old West Durham residents have lobbied for the DukeCard to work at off-campus establishments: They would love to see more students in the neighborhood, on Ninth Street, and at other downtown establishments.
For now Schelp said he’s enjoyed the productive relationship with Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, under the leadership of Phail Wynn, Jr., and he looks forward to building on that relationship and others with the Duke community.
“It’s about providing more opportunities for postive interaction between the university and the town.”