Carolyn Holloway looks down Angier Avenue and remembers the bank, the post office and drug store where she used to get a grilled cheese and milkshake.
Holloway – Tootie to family and friends – remembers when East Durham was “a prosperous area,” before the neighborhood became better known for hard times.
But she never gave up on East Durham, a few minutes down Main Street but a world away from downtown’s revival and the glitz of the American Tobacco District with its performing arts center and office buildings.
Three years ago Holloway returned to Angier Avenue, opening a commissary for her family’s mobile food business. This year she opened a restaurant two doors down, Tootie’s Cafe and Grill, in the old Andrews Kountry Kitchen building.
Last weekend she stood outside the restaurant – the old Kountry Kitchen name faded behind her – as a small group hammered and painted and sawed.
If their effort pays off, Holloway may soon have more neighbors and more customers. The city is calling the project “Build a Better Block with Tootie,” a local version of a national campaign that has helped bring business to blighted areas across the country.
The idea is simple: Spruce up an area, offer businesses free temporary space and hope they stay and attract others to move in.
All in 30 days. ‘Who is this lady?”
Holloway saw the young woman walking down the street last summer, looking at the storefronts.
“I got kind of inquisitive,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Who is this lady walking the area on a Sunday?”
Wanona Satcher, a neighborhood development specialist with the city was videotaping neighborhoods and asking residents what they’d like to see. The two women got to talking. They started holding weekly meetings, with Holloway feeding anyone who showed up.
They spoke to property owners and got five to donate space or, if their buildings were in disrepair, let volunteers paint murals on their empty storefronts. They planted a small vegetable garden in three raised beds behind the restaurant.
And Saturday, the official kickoff, they built a bamboo-covered bus shelter, turned donated wooden pallets into benches and spray painted metal garbage cans bright colors to get the block ready for six businesses moving in later in the week.
It was just a bus stop, a few places to sit and some collards. But to Holloway and Satcher, it was a big step.
“When we first started, there were some businesses that said we don’t want to be a part, we’re tired of being disappointed,” Satcher said. “Tootie said, ‘If you don’t start somewhere. ...’”Rapid-fire revitalization
It was the part of town that was always in the news for another shooting.
But where others saw only grit and grime in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood, Andrew Howard and Jason Roberts saw possibility.
They and some friends got approval to temporarily close two lanes of a four-lane street in April 2010. They opened a “pop-up” cafe, art studio, flower shop and added lighting.
The idea grew. Since then, dozens of cities across the country have take the rapid fire revitalization approach, hoping to lure long-term investment with short-term makeovers.
Howard, a planner who’d helped write a national manual on urban street design but had never painted a bike lane, estimates Better Block projects have raised their communities’ sales tax revenue 30 percent and added millions to the property tax rolls.
It’s the speed that appeals to people, many suffering “pretty picture fatigue” from renderings of how neglected areas might look if investment dollars ever materialized.
“We were waiting, waiting,” Howard said of Oak Cliff. “We (decided we) weren’t waiting any longer. We were going to do it together. That’s why it’s a different approach.”
That’s precisely what appealed to Satcher, who had been reading about The Better Block, the nonprofit that Howard and Roberts formed to spread their message.
“A lot of times people associate revitalization with a large, drawn-out project, because it usually is,” said Satcher, project manager for the city’s Durham Urban Initiative Center. “The fact that it is so basic is what’s unique about the project.”
East Durham has seen some recent public and private investment: the Holton Career and Resource Center and the renovation of the old Y.E. Smith School under way on Driver and Joseph Bushfan’s diner on the corner with Angier.
But three years after opening, Joe’s Diner still sits across the street from padlocked storefronts and boarded-up windows.
Build a Better Block with Tootie is a pilot. If it works, Satcher said, the city may copy it throughout Northeast Central Durham. The bigger goal is to someday attract not just businesses but homeowners, once the groceries, dry cleaners and other services they need are just down the street.
Vivian McCoy would welcome that.
McCoy, who is a coleader of the District 1 Partnership Against Crime community group, said East Durham doesn’t deserve its reputation.
“The media’s portrayed this community so bad,” she said. “I can walk any street over here and ain’t never been afraid. I’ve been here 37 years.”
Like Holloway, McCoy remembers a once-thriving business district.
‘Oh man, the orangeade,” she said of the old pharmacy. “He was the only pharmacy that that kept pure cocoa butter in the refrigerator. I got burned – healed in a couple of days.”Piece of the puzzle
Tivi Jones, 27, grew up in Rocky Mount, but she’ll soon work out of the former TROSA grocery on Angier Avenue under the free temporary space the Better Block program is providing.
As she rolled white paint over a wooden pallet Saturday, the marketing consultant said it’s time East Durham saw some of the investment that’s come and coming to Main and Ninth streets.
“I feel like this is one piece of the puzzle,” she said. The bus shelter, benches and plantings will make the street more inviting. “In order to have a walkable district you have to have businesses, you have to have community.”
Having a storefront address will also help her virtual company, which specializes in social media and email marketing, gain exposure, she said.
And after her free rent is up?
“We’ll see,” Jones said. “I think we can do a lot, even if it’s just getting people excited about having businesses (back in the neighborhood). That type of excitement will last longer than 30 days.”