Joseph Bushfan makes a definite impression.
With an NFL lineman's size and a missionary's zeal, he blends the street smarts of a guy from the projects with the entrepreneurial instincts that warm a banker's heart.
In one life, he owns a personal-security company that works with A-listers like singer Clay Aiken and NBA star Yao Ming. In another, he sells one-pound hot dogs at Joe's Dogs on East Campus.
And in yet another, he's using tax credits, sweat equity and a lot of help from his friends to try to transform one of East Durham's roughest corners.
"I just jumped in the trenches," he said last week.
This spring, Bushfan plans to open a restaurant, Internet cafe and grocery store at the intersection of Angier Avenue and Driver Street. The once-thriving neighborhood is now characterized by covered-up windows, storefront churches and a reputation for drugs, prostitution, gangs and gunshots.
"It's ground zero for Durham's issues with regard to crime," said Dan Hill III, a former city councilman who has made relieving crime, poverty and despair in East Durham a personal passion.
"I kept looking at those boarded-up buildings and thinking, 'Oh, this is a shame,' but never could figure out who was the right person to make a difference," Hill said.
Then he met Bushfan.Losing the 'prison look'
Last September, Bushfan -- doing business as Superlative Fine Foods LLC -- bought three buildings and a vacant lot at the southeast corner of Angier and Driver. One morning there last week, the air was thick with renovation dust and the whirr of power tools.
In the former Crabtree Pharmacy, he showed off the pressed-metal ceiling his work crew had exposed and the original black and white floor tiles less than an inch across, laid one-by-one in the 1920s.
"It's been amazing, what we've uncovered," he said.
Next door, years' layers of paint had been sanded off an old hardwood floor. Outside, a metal facade is gone and window bars are coming off to make way for pulldown drapes.
"Get rid of that prison look," Bushfan said. "Put some life into the community and flow some vitality into it."'I'm no angel'
Bushfan's idea is that his establishment will catalyze economic activity in the neighborhood -- provide jobs, bring in business and open opportunity for people who now have little but what the streets offer.
That, he understands.
"I'm no angel," Bushfan said. "I've been out here." He said he grew up in the Orchard Park section of Boston, a neighborhood so tough "you had to fight to take out the trash."
Last year, he said, he stopped a man beating up a woman in the middle of Angier Avenue while "30 or 40" people looked on, and when he set up a sidewalk hot-dog cart and chess tables some of his regular patrons were "hard-core criminals."
Bushfan said he can offer the neighborhood something better.
"It just needs some economic value brought back into it to create jobs, and that's my biggest thing -- to be able to create jobs and get rid of the taboo that's been placed on this area."Helping hands
Making his businesses profitable is going to take time, he said. But he's not working alone.
Hill has put $138,000 of his own money into Bushfan's project, and guided Bushfan into and through Durham's business and political circles. Architect Pat Harris has handled the paperwork to qualify for historic-restoration state and federal tax credits worth more than $100,000.
"I didn't believe what was happening," Bushfan said.
Once Bushfan has invested $250,000 and secured an occupancy permit, he's due $200,000 from the city in a "neighborhood commercial revitalization" grant.
Durham developer Tom Niemann, investment adviser Barker French and City Councilman Farad Ali, who is also project director of the N.C. Minority Business Development Center, are among Bushfan's mentors. Retired grocer Billy Matthews is advising on that operation and TROSA has agreed to run it.
"It's all the right people, different people in different walks of life, white and black, who came together in the right spirit," Hill said.
Plus, Bushfan is married to Durham district court judge Elaine Bushfan.
"If you're stupid enough to confront Joseph," Hill said, "the next stop is Elaine."Company
The intersection is also one of the five areas targeted in the city's "Neighborhood Commercial Streetscape" project, due for a $6.6-million makeover if and when economics allow.
There is also Uplift East Durham, a group started in the neighborhood four years ago to make common cause in the area's revival.
"I'm really excited about Mr. Bushfan's project," said Vale Street homeowner Aidil Collins. "All the sheetrock that's going up, that's always a good sign."
East Durham has a bad image, but it also has a stock of varied, vintage housing available at good prices for buyers willing to be urban pioneers.
Preservation Durham has taken particular interest in promoting homeowner investment there, and sponsored two homes tours with Uplift East Durham in 2008. Another one is in the works, Preservation Durham director John Compton said last week.
For this year's tour, May 17, Collins said, the thinking is to both show off houses and showcase some history of East Durham -- an area developed starting in the 1880s around a cluster of cotton mills.
"I think if people know some more background about the cool people and cool things that have been in East Durham ... they'll feel more part of the big picture," Collins said.
"A lot of history here has been forgotten or overlooked. That is where I think the newer residents and older residents can get together."Traffic and scripture
"Everything could be self-sufficient right here," Bushfan said.
He gestured toward the intersection, through which, he said, 2,000 vehicles pass every day. Angier Avenue runs from downtown Durham to the Research Triangle Park; Main Street, Alston Avenue and the Durham Freeway are just blocks away.
"You're centrally located. There's a lot of traffic that comes through here, of every ethnic group you can imagine. ... It's like a melting pot."
That, he sees as an opportunity to serve the local area and bring outsiders in to eat, shop and pitch in -- like by teaching the men on the streets to look for jobs via the Internet cafe.
A couple of weeks ago, Bushfan invited about 60 people, including several ministers, to come see what he was up to. Some wrote scriptures on his walls:
"When the foundation is destroyed, what can the righteous do?" Psalm 11:3;
"Do nothing from selfishness or conceit." Philippians 2:3;
"Enlarge the site of your tent, and let your tent curtains be stretched out; do not hold back." Isaiah 54:2.
"It's been a blessing," Bushfan said. "It's been crazy. ...
"I've put a lot of blood and equity sweat in here. I'm over here like 16 hours a day. . .. I just want to succeed."