In the quiet, early mornings, I have been walking in downtown Durham, North Carolina. Few others have been on the street as I walked. A man in a suit, headed one morning toward a bank, nodded as he passed me and said hello. Two police officers, passing in their cruiser, watched me make photographs. Two men crossed the street behind me and called out to another who drove by in a garbage truck and then called out to the driver of a city vehicle that passed. Those few encounters occurred on successive mornings. This downtown has felt a little empty, a little forlorn.
Modern travels drop one quickly in new places—about which one knows little. A morning walk offers few insights and many questions. As I walked in Durham a few boldly designed buildings from the first half of the last century evoked earlier prosperity. Numerous empty buildings and open lots spoke loudly about the loss of prosperity, at least in the downtown.
What has been most striking about Durham is the proximity of the tobacco warehouses and processing plants to downtown. In a modern city, the industry would be at the margins, not next door to banks and stores. The structure of Durham has made it feel from another time.
At one time this downtown must once have been an active place. I have imagined workers passing from neighborhood homes through the downtown on their way to work in the brick establishments of tobacco. Those workers must surely have gathered at cafes for lunch or sat with lunch buckets on surrounding streets. Many must have stopped in bars and other joints after work. The closeness of the tobacco plants to the downtown must have created a tight community. Did this downtown smell richly of tobacco from the warehouses and processing plants as well as from the cigarettes of workers at midday?
The calm of my early morning walks has made me wonder when the tight community dispersed. Was it the disappearance of tobacco or some other loss in the community that led prosperity away from this downtown? Not all prosperity has disappeared—the buildings once occupied by tobacco are now boutiques and restaurants. Tobacco has become heritage in Durham. The facades of the old tobacco remain. They have been bright in the early sun and have made me wonder about the stories behind the facades.