Wise: Old makes way for – what, now?

November 11, 2013 

Old makes room for new – ain’t that the truth, friends and neighbors?

Nothing in this world, not even death and taxes, is as sure as things do change. What makes room for what – now, that might depend on your point of view.

Take the county’s Social Services Building, that monument to Modernist blah rearing over the intersection where Main Street encounters the five-lane jumble of Roxboro Street plus Downtown Loop. The county means to tear it down.

Now that social services have moved down the street to the sleek, new Human Services Building (“human services” is so much more sensitive than “social services,” isn’t it?), Social Services stands empty and obsolete to boot. So off with its head! so to speak, and let the old make room for new, sorta.

Why “old makes room for new” is a motif here is, those demolition plans brought that phrase to mind as it appeared in City Hall’s report to the public for 1967. “Old Makes Way For New” was the headline over a two-page tabloid-format photo spread documenting how the local march of time was looking.

It might have been the Summer of Love in 1967, but Durham was still Cigarette City, and in the throes of downtown revitalization, which back then was called “urban renewal.”

The photos show the Downtowner Motel – later Heart of Durham – going up. It was the first actual building project in downtown’s urban renewal scheme, taking out, among other institutions, the 1887 mansion Southgate Jones Sr. had proposed giving the city for a museum of Durham history.

It was a great point of pride at the time, one which in less than 40 years became a monument to downtown decay. Downtown Durham Inc. CEO Bill Kalkhof took great delight in swinging the first sledgehammer in its demolition to make way for the new bus station.

There are the Fayette Place apartments under construction off Fayetteville Street, a public housing complex built to replace a slum that in turn became a slum itself and of which nothing now remains but foundations. There’s the Italianate Renaissance tower on our 1905 Union Station, which was about to be demolished for a parking deck and the Loop.

This was all about the same time as the Social Services Building was going up, and now it’s going down in favor of open space, a civic plaza to afford a better view of the Durham County Government Administrative Complex – the Neoclassical landmark built in 1916 and commonly known as the “Old Courthouse.”

Perhaps fittingly enough, open space is just what was there before the now-obsolete and always ugly Social Services building went up and blocked the view of the ornate former courthouse, which actually looks like a courthouse ought to, from the Loop + Roxboro thoroughfare of urban-renewal vintage.

Sometimes old makes room for new, but in the hip, urban-edgy Durham of the 21st century, it turns out that new makes way for old or, as our sainted relatives liked to say, what goes around comes around. Sort of like the Loop itself.

To be fair, though, the hip and edgy ’60s did make their occasional nods to the past. Some of the paving blocks from the old Union Station driveway were recycled into the miniature park at Five Points, and the Downtowner Motel not only took over the Jones mansion property but also, legend has it, the one-time site of the Golden Stairs – a name the motel retained for its bar, in memory of what had been Durham’s poshed brothel.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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