It only takes about 10 minutes driving around Durham, North Carolina to figure out why the locals have taken a liking of late to calling the city ‘Crane City.’ It’s neither a term of endearment, nor a dis. It’s pointing out the obvious. Durham is undergoing a lot of changes. A LOT!
The 27 story One City Center is transforming before our eyes from a 2 story deep hole in the ground to adding what seems like a story per week and just 2 blocks over the courthouse building getting a complete overhaul. Mosey a quick stretch over towards Hood Street and not only have some buildings been torn down, a fence was built around the area, the ground leveled and now some new buildings are going up quick fast. Say that you opted to go the other direction and wonder on over to Durham Central Park. There you would see the Liberty Apartments going up, up, up.
With many more massive construction projects slated or well underway, the view of the city changes nearly daily, inclusive of the faces around town. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a city that is undergoing this much drastic change become weary of outsiders, but for the most part that’s not what you’ll find in the Bull City, regardless of the number of cranes, bulldozers and exposed buildings. There’s a reason for that — Durham refuses to give up its magic.
What Magic? If you have to ask… Well it’s hard to explain. You’ve got to be here to experience it.
Durham is a place where genuine Southern hospitality still exists. It’s real and it’s incrediBULL. Durhamights are genuinely good hearted, welcoming people. There is a strong, omnipresent sense of community here from store fronts, to the grocery store and on over to the ballpark. Coming into the city you’ll be hard pressed to find someone that doesn’t have the greater good of Durham in their heart.
That is not to say that the people of Durham are easily fooled or glancing over this changed. Consistently ranked as one of the most educated cities in America and boasting a diverse population, Bull City dwellers are keen to what is going on in their city. They know what makes it special. They know what “that’s so Durham” truly means. They know the magic of the pervading sense of community here and they’re far too bull headed to let that change.
One thing that hasn’t changed in over 15 years is the Durham Mayor. Mayor Bill Bell has been the city’s Mayor since 2001 and is currently serving his 8th 2 year term. That may have something to do with the entire city feeling that he’s approachable and “cool.” And after meeting with Bill in person, I can confirm the rumors are true. Bill Bell is in fact cool.
I met with Bill at his other office, that of UDI CDC — more on UDI CDC later. Having never met a Mayor, I didn’t rightly know what to expect, other than there was a good chance Bill was going to be cool.
Bill’s kind office manager seated me in the conference room and moments later Bill walked in with his cool demeanor and introduced himself. I explained The Bulls of Durham project in full detail before digging into the questions I’d prepared for him. Bill definitely seemed hip to the beat of the project and quickly picked up on why so many Bull City citizens refer to him as their friend.
The first thing that I found out is that Durham is Bill’s adoptive hometown, but he’s been here more than a quick minute. He and his family moved to Durham in 1968 when he accepted a job with IBM Corporation in Research Triangle Park as an electrical engineer. As I would later find out at the Durham History Museum, Bill actually moved to Durham the week of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination — a markedly turbulent time. It was the way the Durham community reacted compared to the rest of the country stuck with him. He stayed and retired from IBM Corporation 28 years later in 1996.
How does one go from being a Durham transplant, IBM Corporation electrical engineer to Mayor of the Bull City? Bill would explain that it was a gradual transition.
“Prior to being Mayor I was an elected Durham County Commissioner from in 1972 to 1994 and from 1996 to 2000. I chaired the Durham County Board of commissions from 1982 to 1994. I lost the election in 1994 and was reelected in 1996. County Commissioners, at that time were 2 year terms also, so I effectively served 13 terms as a Durham County Commissioner.
“I had retired from IBM in 1996. I decided not to run for reelection to County Commissioner in 2000. In 2001 some people I had known over the years socially, business, politically, etcetera came to me and asked if I would consider running for Mayor in 2001.
“I had a long discussion with my family and others, I decided to run. I was fortunate enough to get elected in 2001. It wasn’t a path that I chose. As a matter of fact, I really thought in 2000 after having served as a county commissioner, having retired from IBM and working here at UDI CDC in 1996. I thought that elected office was behind me.”
And that is how one goes from electrical engineer to Mayor, folks. Now to figure out how the connection with UDI CDC came about.
Bill explained, “UDI CDC is a 501 3c non-profit community development corporation. We were established in 1974 and I have served as President of the Board for approximately 10 years.
“Our focus over the years has encompassed many endeavors to include but not limited to, the development of a 90 acre industrial park with companies that employ over 300 persons; the development of affordable housing; job training and other economic development activities primarily in the low wealth communities of our city.
“The location of our office is in the UDI industrial park that we developed. The park originally was basically a pig farm located outside the city limits of Durham, but located in Durham County. The development of the park brought water and sewer infrastructure to the southern part of the county, which allowed for further development outside of the park by others. The park is now located in the city limits.
“We own this building (631 United Drive Durham, NC 27713) and a couple other buildings and vacant land here in the park, but the rest of the property has been sold to other companies who have developed businesses in the park. We have property in the city that we have also developed.
“We developed a super market site for a Food Lion super market down on Fayetteville Street close to North Carolina Central University, whose development basically contributed to a positive change for that part of the community. We are developing a Hydroponic Urban garden in a section of the industrial park. We will be growing in a couple of greenhouses lettuce, other leafy vegetables and tomatoes.”
Clearly Bill has seen a lot of changes in Durham since arriving 48 years ago and definitely since he began holding public offices 44 years ago. If anyone is going to be in the know about what makes Durham, Durham it would definitely be Bill Bell. It’s true that asking a Durham citizen what stands out to them the most about the city is basically fishing for happy Bull City feels, but I was particularly eager to hear Bill’s answer.
Without any hesitation Bill answered, “Probably its people. We’re a very diverse community that prides ourselves in our diversity. We’re now the 4th largest city in the state of North Carolina with over a quarter million people, behind Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro. We don’t have an ethnic majority of any race in the city of Durham. We do have a majority minority, comprising the African American and Hispanic races.”
In the next piece the Mayor answers some legit difficult questions about Durham’s most troubling problems and what’s next for the city. However, I would be remiss to have the Mayor’s time and ear and not ask him at least one really, really, really hard hitting question that would net maximum Bull City pride.
4 years from now, someone comes to visit you and it’s their first time coming to Durham. I don’t rightly know what took them so long to get here, but we’re not judging. They’re at your house and they notice you have an awesome, locally published and purchased copy of The Bulls of Durham sitting on your coffee table with a super cute bull bookmark peeking out. They open the book up to your page to read it. What is the one thing you want them to know about Durham?
Bill smiled and then answered, “That it’s a caring community. It sees challenges and works to try to meet those challenges. Challenges such as affordable housing, reduction of poverty.”
As for which bull in the city is our Mayor’s favorite, Bill said,“The bull that is probably the most notable — it stands in center of downtown Durham at CCB Plaza.”
The next Bulls of Durham installment will feature a continuation of Mayor Bill Bell’s interview. Bill shares what issues in Durham are closest to his heart, his vision for a bright future for the Bull City and what each Durhamight can do to get involved.
To follow The Bulls of Durham book project email TheBullsOfDurham at gmail.com and say, “Yo Sheila. Please put me on the mailing list.” Also follow the project on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Oh! And now that this website is a thing, you can check back here. Make it your homepage. Tell all your friends. Write home to your mom about it. :::Flashes Bull City hand sign.:::
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Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.