Back in the Day (30 Years Ago: Durham, NC)
I began my career as a public school educator in the fall of 1981 in Durham County, North Carolina. I left in the summer of 1985 to go to the University of Illinois to do the residence work for my doctoral degree. I hadn’t been back to Durham since 1985, until this trip in 2013, almost 30 years ago!
Before you go on a trip like this, you know things will have changed, but change isn’t so real until you see it firsthand. Memory gradually fades, making the “loss of yesterday” less jarring. But when you’re confronted with 30 years of change in a single trip: Wow!
What Stays the Same
Some things, however, have remained more or less the same. In some areas Durham appears to still be very, very economically depressed. I worked in a financially disadvantaged area back in the day, but that area appears much worse today.
Today I visited my very first apartment, on East Cornwallis Rd. Thirty years ago the apartment complex was “way out in the country” and was completely new. In fact, I was the first person to rent the apartment. The developer was still building apartment buildings in various locations on the property. I paid $335 per month for rent, a fortune at the time.
Now, with the exception of the tiny old cemetery on the corner of the property, the area is unrecognizable. It’s funny the things that slip your mind. I had completely forgotten that there was a cemetery there until I saw it. Most of the tombstones are so old they are illegible. Some that can be read are civil war era. The newest ones were from 1963. (Photos in the link at the end of this post.)
I drove past the old high school where I taught in the mornings. The property was sold less than 10 years after I left. It’s now a secured industrial complex for the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and was barely recognizable. I visited the old junior high school, now a magnet middle school. The school system has significantly added to the building, but not much has changed in the immediate vicinity of the school, which still feels largely as if it were “out in the woods.” I visited these 2 places about 750 times in years past.
We had lunch, North Carolina pulled BBQ, at Bullocks, still a favorite with all the Durham locals. The amount of food they serve is nothing short of shocking. And, even more shocking, the price they charge for two meals was considerably less than what a single meal would cost in California.
I hadn’t had North Carolina BBQ since I left Durham, and I missed it! It’s not at all like Texas BBQ. Caroina BBQ has a vinegar base and is just the best, hands down! I was delighted that Bullocks is still doing a booming business!
I had an impossibly difficult time finding the location of the old high school. The roads have changed so much, and new development, much of it industrial, abounds in all of the oddest places. I asked some teenagers, in a not-so-good part of town, for directions. They were friendly and started to tell me where Southern High School is now. When I reiterated that I was looking for the old building, one of them said in a deep southern drawl, pointing down the road in front of us, “You know, my mama told me once that the old high school was right down that road there.” We couldn’t find it then, but it turned out she was exactly right.
At Bullocks, I asked our waitress, who was “an old timer,” where the old high school building was. I just couldn’t remember the street’s name, and you couldn’t look it up on Google. She was delighted to talk about it when she learned that I had taught there some 30+ years ago and hadn’t been back to town since. I suspect she attended school there herself. “You take your life into your own hands when you go down there today.” she said shaking her head.
The Old South
In many ways, parts of Durham are still the “old south,” with kudzu vines taking over the trees along the railroad tracks, and weathered, wood-sided houses with almost all of the paint long since pealed off. Though I only saw one small tobacco farm, I could occasionally smell the tobacco leaves in the air, but the leaves haven’t been harvested yet. I read that cigarettes are no longer made in Durham.
It was a gray day, drizzly at times, raining, even pouring at times. For a complete gallery of pictures, go to Day Two: Way on Down Memory Lane