These days in Durham it’s commonplace to hear someone tell you that they’re going to a new bar or restaurant. In a city undergoing constant growth, expansion and change that happens to have a profound love for all things food and beverage, this is the norm.
I had been meaning to kick it at Ponysaurus Brewing Company on Hood Street ever since I heard the name and that one of the proprietors was a Green Bay fan who made sure Packer games were shown in his establishment. With a name, proprietor and policy like that it made it easy to want to go and even easier to overlook the fact the establishment seems to offer the same respect for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hey, we can’t all be perfect, but the Bull City is as close as you can get. It’s also a city with a very diverse, eclectic and tolerant population.
The folks behind Dirty Durham Official had been on my “to-interview” list before I had a list. When I came to visit that fateful week in September 2015, I saw their iconic “Keep It Dirty Durham” t-shirt in a store window on 9th Street. I was struck by the openness, audacity and genuine good sense of humor of a city to be able to joke at its own reputation for being dirty. Within days of deciding to move to the Dirty D, a friend shipped me the very shirt I had seen in the window.
Fast forward to what may possibly have been exactly a year later and I got to meet Tamra Williams and Nicole Hensley the women behind Dirty Durham Official at Durham’s Annual Pride Parade and Festival. We’d been following each other for a bit on Instagram and it was finally nice to meet in person… and to pick up their other t-shirt design… and bumper stickers as well. I asked if they would be willing to interview for this project at some point and they agreed. We exchanged contact info before parting ways.
All this came together on my Durhamversary — my one year anniversary of moving to Durham and going forward my annual celebration of this. It was a particularly warm evening for it to be October 20th, but that’s the way things are these days. I had arrived to meet Nicole and Tamra. Early voting had opened that day in North Carolina and the duo was running late as they were standing in line at their local polling station.
In any other city, I wouldn’t feel overly comfortable, let alone at ease to be at a bar alone. However, when Nicole reached out to let me know they would be running late, I thanked them for their patriotism and moseyed up to the bar without a worry on my mind. In the Bull City a woman at the bar alone translates to learning more about the in house brewery and making a new friend who pipes in with her favorite beer selections. Before I knew it, I was outside enjoying the warm fall evening with an entire picnic table of friends.
Tamra and Nicole were a mere 10 or 15 minutes behind our arranged time and I’d already made 6 new friends and had 2 more interviews arranged for The Bulls of Durham project. This is Durham.
The more outspoken of the two, Nicole Hensley describes herself as a dog loving cupcake baker, who is half Mississippi, half Texas and all proud Durhamite. Quieter Tamra Williams describes herself as a food, beer and sports enthusiast who loves riding bikes on the American Tobacco Trail to find good food, beer, and sports in downtown Durham. Go Bulls!
This was my first interview with 2 individuals at the same time, but in true Durham spirit, we opted to roll with it and see how it went. Tamra volunteered Nicole to do most of the talking and she’d pop here and there. It’s clear the duo has a system all worked out. I began by asking how long have they’ve been in the Durham area.
Nicole: I moved here in February of 2010 from Austin, Texas. I lived in Austin for 20 years prior. My brother and sister-in-law had live here in Durham. My brother came up here for law school and went to UNC. He really loved it and every time I came to visit it would feel like a retreat. I came to a point in my life where I needed a big change and Durham was the place.
Tamra: I moved to Raleigh in 2007, but I was working in Durham. I transplanted from Raleigh to Durham about 3 years ago, so now I live and work in this great town.
Sheila: How long have you had Dirty Durham Official?
Nicole: We started talking to our friend Sean Sondej who was the founder of Dirty Durham. He founded it around September 2011. I always admired his work with it and what it stood for. He approached us at the end of last year and said he felt like it was winding down for him. He asked if we were interested in keeping up with it and taking it on. We were thrilled for the opportunity. It took us a few months to decide how we wanted to handle things and figure out the logistics of it. I would say that we’ve been active with it for 6 months.
Sheila: What all does Dirty Durham do?
Nicole: It started as a blog that Sean was writing to promote the growth of Durham. Durham has always kind of had the reputation of being the dirtier city (relative to Raleigh), and it was around the time the revitalization was really starting to happen. He started a blog about what was going on in Durham and the preservation side of that. Showing the pride in the city itself and not changing the character.
We are both big proponents of that. T-shirts and stickers (Sean and his wife Bronwen Dickey designed them) came along later, and it’s nice because they have a great following. When we took it over we really wanted to be true to his idea of promoting pride in Durham and promoting pride in keeping the character of Durham. Hopefully having people understand that the reason they love Durham is because of its unique character and supporting local businesses and not wanting that character to change so much that it’s unrecognizable and looks like every other city in the triangle.
Tamra: We’d also like to pick-up where Sean left off and have small events around town that get people out to a local business. My wife’s event planning wheels are turning.
Sheila: Was the inspiration for Dirty Durham based off the city being known as The Dirty D?
Nicole: Yeah. Sean didn’t come up with the idea of Durham being called The Dirty D. I’m not sure where that originated other than the grit of the city. That’s just kind of how everyone refers to it.
There is one question that makes me misty eyed even to ask, because the answer is nearly the same from everyone I ask and it’s beautiful. Trying to reign in my expressive face and Bull City feels, I asked the ladies what stands out to them the most about Durham.
Nicole: I love the diversity of the people here. I love that I live in a town where not everyone looks like me and not everyone has the same background as I do. And that we all can be in this same place and still love it for our own reasons and get along and celebrate it. I think living in Austin for so long, it’s a similar population there and there’s a real sense of community about it that I can appreciate.
Tamra: Yeah. She stole mine. The reason diversity is so important to me is people bring different things to the table. I enjoy looking at things from multiple points of views. For me, there’s a lot of growth in that. I feel like there is so much character here — the people you meet and the different businesses around. That’s what I really like about Durham.
This deep, genuine appreciation for the people of Durham was evident in their next answer as well. When asked what changes they would like to see for the city of Durham, both Nicole and Tamra voiced concerns that are the minds of many right now in the Bull City.
Nicole: I’m very cautious about this. Part of what appeals to me about, “Keep it dirty, Durham,” is that I am a little afraid of change. That’s my own personality and my own experience in living in Austin and seeing it go from a really small hippie college town to when high-tech moved in and it exploded. It’s a great city, but it didn’t quite keep up with the growth and now they have a lot of issues with infrastructure, traffic, overcrowding, and not being affordable anymore. The only thing I want to change about Durham is I want people to be really mindful of that.
I hope people will be mindful of the fact that growth is great and development can be great, but it has to be smart growth and smart development. It’s not just about bringing more money in. It’s about looking at, can the city really handle this? Are we prepared for growth? Are we planning for affordable housing for all our citizens? Are we gentrifying so quickly that there aren’t places for people who have been in Durham all their lives? I hope that we remain aware of these issues and don’t grow too quickly.
Tamra: I agree with that, especially keeping it a place that’s affordable. I’m concerned it’s going to become a city where there’s not a place for everyone that wants to be here.
Sheila: A couple years from now, you have a visitor who has never been to Durham before staying with you and you have The Bulls of Durham book on your coffee table. They open up to your page, of course, to read your interview. What is the one thing that you want them to know about Durham?
Nicole: That we’re not like anywhere else. That we have our own character and spirit and we’re proud of it. We don’t apologize for being dirty, and we don’t apologize for being gritty. There is another t-shirt out that is one of my favorites. I got it when I first came here and it says, “Durham is not for everyone,” and I agree with it because we’re not for everyone and that’s okay. I think that you find your place here or you don’t and you go to Chapel Hill or Raleigh or Cary.
That’s the great thing about The Triangle; there is enough space for all of us here. What I find so interesting, is the people who end up here and love Durham, all share the love same kind of love of the different, of the gritty, of the eccentric. We want to celebrate it. We don’t want to be ashamed of it and we don’t want to change it. That is what I would like Dirty Durham to be thought of as a celebration of Durham and its character.
Tamra: You’ll never be bored in Durham. There is always something to do. Whatever food you want to eat, you can find (and really good food at that). Whether you want to go to a sporting event, theatre, live music concert, or whatever, you’re not going to be bored. There’s always something going on. That is what I would like my friend to know. The beer selection here is amazing as well.
Both spot on answers for sure and would be amazing first introductions to the city to anyone. The next question is one for those who have stuck around and as the local expression goes, “drank the Durham Koolaide” meaning fallen in love with the city and its bulls. I asked which bull in the city is each of their favorite, because let’s face it, this is a very important matter in the Bull City.
Nicole: I have an obsession with Wool E Bull. He’s my favorite bull. I met him before I moved to Durham because I was up here visiting my brother and my sister-in-law. We did this charity walk and he happened to be there. I cannot explain what it is that it does to me when I see him, but I get weirdly excited. I feel like I have a lot of pictures of him running away. The good news is I think they have different people inside the costume.
I don’t mean to take away from the lovely diamonds that she’s (Tamra) bought me and other things, but probably the best gift she’s ever given me is one Valentine’s Day she gave me a Wool E-gram.
This means Wool E showed up at our house with a dozen roses and baseball tickets. I’m sure I scared the crap out of him because when I opened the door I didn’t know that it was Wool E, and I started crying like somebody who has won the Publisher’s Clearing house. So I’m sure he was scared, but it was the best day ever! There are pictures of me on our porch with Wool E in his tuxedo with his roses and I’m bawling. It was amazing.
Tamra: I guess it would have to be Major in the plaza. Maybe there are 2 bulls. There’s Major and the bull in left field at the stadium. Before we got married we went around town and got fantastic pictures of the bull at the stadium. There is also one of Nicole in front of Major that I really like. Plus, if I’m seeing Major, it means ice cream at The Parlour isn’t too far away.
It’s evident that Tamra is always the voice of culinary reason. She and Nicole can often be seen throughout the city supporting local causes and upon occasion, selling Dirty Durham Official gear. Until their next outing and for those who love the Bull City from afar, you can get your Dirty Durham Official T-Shirts and bumper stickers visit DirtyDurham.com.
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.:::
Oh and treat yourself, your mom and everyone you love to the best coffee mug of all time, which happens to support this here book project. No big deal. But very big deal. Click HERE.
Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.