DURHAM — Statistics say Durham’s Census Tract 10.01 is a district of distress, a place of deep poverty and all the social ills that come with it.
People who live there have some things to add.
“I love being around here,” said Elijah Pryor, who will point out his childhood home on Cherry Grove Street. He moved back to the neighborhood about six months ago and said he works as a chef at Shepherd’s House, a church that serves as a neighborhood center.
Pryor knows the neighborhood has needs. “We need more business owners to start and take a hand and say, ‘Well, yeah, let me lend a helping hand to somebody that’s less fortunate than I am,” he said.
“I’ve talked, I’ve shook hands, I’ve walked,” Pryor said. “I’ve seen the baby crying that needs Pablum and the man ain’t got no money. I see these things. I see the kids dropping out of school.”
But a moment later he will tell you about a neighborhood where, when a recent storm knocked out the power, “Everybody came out.
“We look out. Lights go out, there’s everybody out with flashlights. ‘You OK?’ ‘All right?’ ... This is my neighbor.”
‘I don’t live in poverty’
Shepherd’s House United Methodist Church stands at the corner of Main and Driver streets east of downtown. Behind the church, on Cherry Grove Street, there is a park with a playground for neighborhood children. On a vacant lot up the street, there is a community orchard. Old oak trees canopy the sidewalks.
This block is in Block Group 3 of Tract 10.01, a particularly poor section of one of Durham’s poorest U.S. Census divisions, and the first target neighborhood in Mayor Bill Bell’s Poverty Reduction Initiative.
Block Group 3 covers roughly from Hart Street south to the railroad and from Plum Street east to Hoover Road. The Driver-Main-Cherry Grove stretch is just one of more than 30 blocks within it, but a walk around it and meeting some of its people opens a view that doesn’t figure in the statistics.
“I don’t feel like I’m in poverty. I don’t feel like my neighborhood is a poverty place,” said Anita Morris, sitting on her front porch on a summer afternoon. She said she’s lived in her home since 1988.
“I don’t live in poverty,” Morris said. “That’s not our neighborhood. We’ve got ministers here and everything, we’ve got people working and paying their own bills and everything. That’s not poverty. I might be in a low-income area, but that’s not poverty. ... Poverty is people that can’t even eat, don’t have food.”
Morris hadn’t heard about any Poverty Reduction Initiative, but after hearing it explained she had some suggestions.
“(Put) money in the budget for people (who) have low-income houses (so) they can maybe fix the house up,” she said. And money for existing programs that offer aid. And, “the main thing,” something to keep the youth out of the streets.
“We’ve got so many young people turning to the street, and they’ve got nothing to do,” Morris said. “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”
Pools and police
K.J. Brewer, 16, was with two friends, eating takeout lunches as they walked down Driver Street.
“We need some more public pools over here,” he said. “It’s hot.”
The only public pool on the east side of town, in Long Meadow Park, is closed for repairs this summer. Brewer and his friends, Devon Williams and Deron Weaver, both 15, have summer sports – baseball and basketball leagues – but they’d like to have jobs. Young people in the neighborhood could use jobs.
“They should have a lawnmower giveaway for the teenagers that need jobs and stuff,” he said. He knew the city had a summer-job program, but it held only one signup session in the neighborhood and he couldn’t make it that day. He didn’t know he could have gone downtown to City Hall to apply; or what kind of jobs there were.
Williams had another view of what the neighborhood needs.
“There’s too much police out here. If you’re walking up the street, the police will just pull you over for no reason, and all that, just because you’re in the road,” he said.
“I just want (the mayor) to do something for the young black men in this community here,” said Pryor, who had listened as the teenagers had their say. “One thing I know, regardless of what we say, the mayor’s going to do what he wants to do because this is not set up – the government is not set up to be for the people.”
Bobby Horton Sr. knew there was an anti-poverty campaign in the works and had a different opinion.
“I think it’s a good program,” he said, sitting on his front porch. “This was the first I’ve seen in a long time. And since I’ve been back home from (Viet) Nam there’s a lot of great changes. This mayor seems to be spearheading the ... way.”
Horton said he has lived on Cherry Grove Street about 20 years. It’s a pleasant place to live, he said.
“Quiet. Very quiet. Exceptional park, you know, for the kids. No problems on this street.”
A visitor asked Horton if there was any help he could use from the mayor’s initiative.
“We all need help sometime,” he said. “There’s a lot of things personally that I need help with. ... I’ve got a furnace that’s been out for three winters. Three winters.
“And on a fixed income, it’s difficult to make the initiative ... to get people to come out and help. Especially if you’re low-income, you don’t get – what do you say? – quality service. If we lived in Hope Valley it would be a snap.”
Besides that, he said, he did not know the way.
“I don’t know the resources,” he said. “ Don’t know the right people to go to, the right people to contact.”
Change has arrived
Block Group 3 of Census Tract 10.01 lies in “Northeast Central Durham” – an 84-block area from Roxboro Street east to Miami Boulevard and from Geer Street south to the Durham Freeway. Some of those who have been there for a while may identify with “Northeast Central Durham,” such as neighborhood organizer Steve Hopkins, who has lived all around the area in the past 20-plus years and is sometimes referred to “Mayor of Northeast.”
More, though, think of where they live in terms of established neighborhoods with identities and names of their own: Old Five Points, Y.E. Smith, Golden Belt, Sherwood Park, Old East Durham.
Cherry Grove and Driver streets are in Old East Durham, and that, for one, is a Northeast neighborhood where things are already changing.
“It’s got a great history as a neighborhood,” said Benjamin Filippo. He and his wife, Ali Rudel, bought a house on Chester Street, the other side of Main from Cherry Grove, two months ago.
They moved to North Carolina three years ago from Brooklyn. She manages the Chapel Hill farmers’ market. He works in Durham for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.
“I mean, people look out for each other, they know each other, support – that’s my experience.” The day they saw the For Sale sign and stopped, a future neighbor came out and said, “Welcome. And we’ve had the same experience since then.”
A neighbor saw their 21/2-year-old daughter, Esme, slip out of her car seat and run out in the yard. He came quickly to let Filippo know where she was.
“We’ve got to have that,” he said. He and Rudel plan to have another child, and the neighborhood appeals to them.
“Having a park, and there’s a new school (Maureen Joy) right there and we’ve got some friends who live on Cherry Grove,” he said. “These neighborhoods, they have so much to offer.”
‘A lot of life’
Young adults are buying into Old East Durham and other Northeast neighborhoods, attracted by historic houses with good prices and a neighborhood vibe. Many of the newcomers are white, most of the longer-term residents are black. There are increasing numbers of Latinos. Some old-timers worry about displacement and gentrification; some newcomers like the neighborhood as it is.
Jessee Crossen moved onto Cherry Grove Street early in 2013, buying what had been a rooming house. He said he and his wife plan to turn it into a housing cooperative.
“This street, it has a nice feel,” he said, and pointed across the street to the Good Shepherd park. “It’s a community-maintained park, it’s not a city park. People pitch in to keep it up.
“We planted an orchard right over there, and that’s fruit for everybody. ... A lot of people on the street, a lot of life, people outside. There are a lot of things I like about this neighborhood.”
There are issues, too.
“There was some gunfire a couple of weeks ago that actually almost hit the kids, some sleeping kids of a guy that lives up on Driver Street. They may be moving out because of that.
“It was just a random incident,” Crossen said. “Things like that happen, but we’ve never had anything except for right when we moved in we had all the wire stolen from under the house. ... I feel safe.”
‘Tell Mayor Bell ... ’
Good jobs for his neighbors, encouragement from downtown for neighborhood entrepreneurs – that would make things better, he said.
“Legal entrepreneurship,” he added. “If people don’t have good jobs they’re going to turn to alternative industries like the drug trade. ... If that’s a source of money, that’s where people are going to go.”
Crossen didn’t know much about the Reducing Poverty Initiative, but he had some advice.
“A lot of times people can come into a neighborhood and think they know what people need and it can be really misguided. ... If you don’t know what people really need, then what’s the point? You’re wasting your time.”
From her front porch up the street, Anita Morris had some words for the mayor, too.
“I see a lot of people at the food banks because yeah, I go to the food banks, too to save on my grocery bill ... so I can buy my medicine and stuff. But I don’t consider them living in poverty, I don’t consider none of us living in poverty. Poverty is really poor, stricken ...
“You just go back and tell Mayor Bell that I don’t live in poverty. Poverty is really, really poor. Maybe he doesn’t know the (meaning of) the word of ‘poverty.’”