On a walk from Parker & Otis to Mercury Studio this morning, I reacquainted myself with the ever-evolving downtown Durham. The past year has brought a flourish of new restaurants — on every corner there seems to be a dessert eatery or tapas restaurant or sandwich shop. This push for revitalization of the downtown Durham – years in the making but slowly picking up steam – mirrors the revitalization in the neighborhood I just left — the Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg.
During my stay in Maboneng, I couldn’t help but notice how, in order to make the neighborhood palatable for economic investors (hotels, designers, restauranteurs, etc), the district was heavily monitored by security guards. These guards are constant reminders of the social clashes that can happen when investment developers set their sights on a neighborhood.
For an article in the Mail & Guardian entitled “Maboneng Precint [sic]: ‘I am an island’,” Malcolm Rees, a former Maboneng resident, writes:
The conflict that ensued, with Maboneng desiring to “use” Nollie Faith [a skateboarding youth outreach program] as one of its outreach initiatives but not keen on having the kids loitering around and begging when not on their boards, highlights a difficulty faced by the corporation which they don’t appear to have dealt with in any of their public narratives.
“It’s a difficult balance because yes they want to ‘use them’ and they want to feel that they are socially responsible but they … don’t want people from the community hanging around,” he says.
“They want the street culture but they only want the good. They want the graffiti but it must be controlled.”
Personally, I used to love spending a Saturday morning skateboarding down our privatised street alongside the laughing, eager children of Nollie Faith.
But the pang of loneliness, of otherness, would return when my friends with those same bright smiling faces came to greet me by the Chalkboard Café, only to be shooed away with the stern, unforgiving grimace of our guards.
(Read more opinions about the Maboneng Precinct’s upcoming expansion in the Mail & Guardian article “Not everyone sees the light.”)
Durham has not been immune to this gentrification debate. Durham’s coolness factor has been celebrated in the national spotlight, but the African-American business owners who kept Durham’s economy afloat in the 1970s and 1980s are being ignored while the [mostly white] hipster population is celebrated for “saving” a “dead” downtown.
Bringing in investors – which also generally means bringing in jobs and resources – inevitably sheds light on the economic disparities in a city and can even lead to unceremonious evictions of the original neighborhood residents through rent hikes or social pressure. The knee-jerk reactions — demonizing economic growth or waxing nostalgic about the “good ol’ days” — are not solutions to the conflict between heritage and progress.
So how are artists promoting economic rejuvenation that is culturally sensitive and socially responsible?
To mitigate this potentially divisive and exclusive economic development, artists are celebrating Durham’s cultural heritage and uniquely hospitable vibe through collaborative community projects, murals, and school outreach programs.
Artists in Maboneng and Durham have the opportunity to create unique new approaches for socially responsible economic revitalization. Approaches that are inclusive rather than exclusive, empowering rather than gentrifying. For an issue as complex as economic revitalization there is no single perfect solution, but we must admire and encourage the leaders in Maboneng and Durham for their creativity, awareness, and tenacity.
Keep track of these communities’ developments on this site, and feel free to leave your reactions or suggestions in the comments below. All comments will be forwarded to the creative leaders in Maboneng and Durham.