Letter from Steve Schewel, December 18, 2014

Durham City Councilman Steve Schewel sent this to many folks, and posted it on our Facebook walls. I’d like to amplify it further by posting it here:

Dear Friends,
This email is a work in progress, and there is much more I need to learn. Since I was not present at the demonstrations in Durham downtown on December 5 or more recently on Swift Avenue, I have had to rely on the reports of others—police, demonstrators, reporters and spectators—to come as close as I can to the truth about those events. I’ve talked to a lot of people, watched a lot of videos, read a lot of emails and Facebook posts. Now I’m ready to write about what I know and believe, and I look forward to hearing from you about this.

Here is the most important thing I know: The demonstrations in Durham following the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case are heartfelt, legitimate and important expressions of grief and outrage. The vast majority of people demonstrating are motivated by an authentic desire to make our nation—and our beloved city—more just. The desire to interrupt business-as-usual, to force people to face the injustices of our criminal justice system, is real, and I admire the people who have taken on this work. This moment demands our attention to racial injustice and our commitment to fight it. Durham can lead this crucial work, and we must.

The second important thing I know is that the charges about “outside agitators” deny a critical truth about these demonstrations: They are homegrown, right here in Durham. I know many Durham people who have been participating. Some are veterans of many political actions; but most of the ones I know are young, first-time demonstrators whose hearts are full to bursting with the injustices they know exist in our society and feel they must make their voices heard. Indeed, it is true that there are people from inside and outside Durham who are on the Internet urging reckless behavior on the demonstrators (more on that below). But these demonstrations are not the product of those Internet posts. They are the product of the ideals, hopes and dreams of Durham’s young people for a society where racial injustice is a thing of the past, where ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬.

To deny the legitimacy and authenticity of these cries for justice is to deny the future that we all need to embrace.

After the death of Jesus Huerta last year, I criticized our police department for what I considered their overly aggressive response to the demonstration on the plaza. I spoke to our city manager about it, to my city council colleagues, and to our police chiefs. I wrote about it publicly.

What I see now in our police department’s response to the demonstrations is a much more complicated picture. 
On the one hand, I believe there has been at least one time when our officers acted with too much aggressive force. On the other hand, I think they have worked hard to improve their practices from the Huerta march last year, and I think they have succeeded, often performing their incredibly difficult task with admirable patience and restraint under severe duress during the recent demonstrations.

A few days ago I had a 90-minute conversation with a young woman who was arrested on Foster St. on the night of December 5. She wants her name kept private, so I will simply call her Mary. I knew Mary because I had spoken to a class at Duke for which she was the professor’s assistant. Mary is highly regarded by my teaching colleagues at the public policy department at Duke. She is gentle, determined and totally trustworthy.

The events surrounding Mary’s arrest—and the arrests of others on Foster St. that night—are contested. Police say that they gave ample and loud warning for the demonstrators to leave the middle of the street and disperse. Mary and other demonstrators I trust claim they never heard these warnings. Mary says she was shocked when she saw an officer throw a young woman to the ground by her hair. Mary says that she then herself asked the officer to tell her his badge number and was immediately thrown hard to the ground–hard enough to lose a shoe and her glasses. She said a knee was put into her stomach from underneath her while two other officers handcuffed her. She was hurt, shocked and bruised. I believe her. I believe another witness who saw this happen. I believe this is unnecessary use of force. I believe we must not have this in Durham.

And yet there is another truth about that night. For three hours the Durham police reacted with great flexibility, calm and patience as they escorted the marchers throughout downtown. The marchers were switching directions unpredictably, blocking streets, disrupting traffic, and, at one point, jumped fences and blocked 147. Some marchers also threatened to disrupt the show at the DPAC and sought to breach the police lines there. Some–few!–marchers hurled sticks and rocks at the cops. Several officers were hit, and one officer I know well and respect greatly was struck hard in the chest by a rock.

The police didn’t arrest the demonstrators who blocked the downtown streets for hours. They didn’t arrest the demonstrators who blocked the highway. At DPAC, they arrested a few people (six, I understand) who tried to force their way through the police line there and disrupt the show in progress.

I admire this work by the police under tremendous pressure. Despite the stones and the provocation, they remained calm and did their jobs well.

I don’t want us to lose sight of the whole, complex truth here. I believe that for the great majority of the protest over a very difficult three-hour period, our police officers acted with good judgment and restraint under duress. Then, on Foster Street, five minutes of bad decisions and unnecessary force marred the night.

There have been other demonstrations, too, and one—on Swift Avenue—which is the subject of dueling narratives about the behavior of demonstrators and police.

Here’s the point: Since the marches following the death of Jesus Huerta, our police department has made significant strides in its handling of demonstrations. Still, they need to continue to do better. The department’s leadership needs to evaluate the use of force, minimize the use of force, and give ample warning before arrests are made. I have confidence that they will do this.

I have a plea to demonstrators as well, and it involves civil disobedience. I have participated in hundreds of demonstrations in my 63 years. I probably marched or rallied 20 times just this past year. I have committed acts of civil disobedience many times. I never got to march with Dr. King, but I marched with his compatriots including C.T. Vivian and Fred Shuttlesworth. I have linked arms with Father Philip Berrigan and Sister Elizabeth McAlister to block the Pentagon. I was arrested at Moral Monday last summer. After one act of civil disobedience, I went to jail for eight days.

I list these bona fides only to claim solidarity with those who are committing civil disobedience in Durham now. Sometimes, I believe, civil disobedience is warranted, even necessary.

But as you disobey, I beg you to do so peacefully, lovingly. Civil disobedience must not mean intentionally provoking the police, or dehumanizing them, or making them the other, or resisting them when they come to arrest you for blocking a street.
I know many police officers well. Three times this year I have ridden along with young police officers on a Saturday night, and I have seen close up the desire they have to do the right thing. I have watched them make difficult split-second decisions on each ride-along, officers no older than the young demonstrators, officers putting themselves into dangerous situations on our behalf. We need to respect and support these men and women who are doing their best to keep us safe.

I have one more plea. There are, indeed, disturbing posts on the web which include threats to Durham police officers and calls to confront them with violence. I have read these posts. There have been demonstrators who have chosen a violent response, who have attempted to provoke our officers into making a mistake. My plea is for the great mass of demonstrators whose motives are pure to separate themselves from those who would do harm, who would provoke violence if they could. All of us who have been in demonstrations know that such people can be present and can mis-lead. It is the obligation of all of us to reject them.

And we must expect that when our police officers are physically threatened by fists or stones that they will don their plastic helmets, their “riot gear.” They need to be physically safe, too.

What is happening here in Durham with the police is part of a national effort for reform, as you all know. I am proud of the actions the city council took recently to reform our practices of racially disproportionate car searches, including our decision to require written consent for any consent searches. It puts us way out in front of most cities in the nation. Now we need to make that work. And we need to continue to work with our police department to make sure that our officers know how to handle demonstrations–even very, very challenging ones–without mistreating people.

We need to hold our police department to the highest standards of behavior—and we need to thank them and support them when they do their difficult work with skill and patience.

I believe Durham can lead this work.
I welcome your thoughts.
Steve Schewel
18 December 2014

Letter from Steve Schewel, December 18, 2014

Letter to Durham City Council, December 18, 2014

Dear Council,

I’m writing to add my support to Laura Friederich’s letter of earlier this morning, which I assume you’re already in receipt of. If not, it’s also posted here: https://www.facebook.com/laura.friederich/posts/828265822088
Laura touches on many excellent points in her letter, and she is entirely correct when she redirects your attention to the fact that these protests are about calling attention to the racist foundations of our current society.
The police, and particularly Chief Lopez, seem to want to make this issue about themselves. They seem to feel like they’re under personal attack – and perhaps they carry some level of institutional guilt that encourages that impression.
But the majority of the protesters I have seen and engaged with are concerned about much bigger issues than policing in Durham. They are truly trying to send the message that Black Lives Matter, all over the US, and all over the world. Unbalanced policing and unexamined racial biases on the part of police departments are certainly a big part of this, but it cuts much deeper than that.
I’m sure there are legitimate questions about why so many of the recent protests have happened in Durham, and not other cities in the Triangle. I’m curious about that myself – not in the sense of asking why Durham, but rather in the sense of asking why not Raleigh, and Chapel Hill, and Cary, and everywhere else as well.
I think it says *wonderful* things about Durham that our citizenry are the most politically active, the most impassioned, the most likely to speak up when they see injustice, whether here at home or elsewhere in the world. I think it’s wonderful when our locally-led protests are joined by citizens of other towns, where apparently the population at large aren’t nearly as engaged or impassioned.
Laura makes an excellent point when she says that the police have shown at various times that they are capable of restraint, and of respecting the rights of the people to assemble and to let their voices be heard. Durham could set a shining example to the rest of North Carolina as a place where citizen engagement is valued and fostered and encouraged. 
But it will require your leadership –  not just from the few of you who have spoken out publicly already, but from each and every one of you. I encourage you to speak up, as Steve Schewel already has, in favor of free speech, in favor of Durham’s activist history, in favor of the rights of the citizens to be passionate, and politically engaged, and yes, sometimes angry.
Warmest regards,
Ross Grady

Letter to Durham City Council, December 18, 2014

December 14-15, 2014

Sunday was Sunday. Monday was D’Angelo. All day. I left XDU on Sunday with a huge list of links to download most of what Relapse put out this year, and I haven’t touched any of them, because D’Angelo.

Sunday was for reading tweets in the aftermath of Saturday’s protest & the police crackdown. I made you a Storify of them.

I emailed Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield & asked him when the DPD got their LRAD. To his credit, his response was quick & complete:

The LRAD system was purchased earlier this year at a complete package cost of $17,355.  The LRAD device purchased was the small model and to describe it as a sonic weapon would be inaccurate.  The equipment was purchased to allow the police department to communicate audible orders to large crowds that are yelling or using music, drums, etc to drown out directives.  I approved the purchase under my contracting/purchasing authority which did not require City Council approval. Funds to purchase this equipment came from the Police Department Asses Forfeiture Fund. Let me know if this response does not answer your question.

I asked around & got a few responses from folks about the DPD’s use of their LRAD against protesters.

Based on those tweets & what other people have told me, it sounds like the DPD does use the LRAD for PA purposes, as Tom claimed in his email – I’ve been told that people heard orders to disperse coming from it. But it’s also very clear that they like to pipe ear-splitting high-pitched tones through it to disrupt protests & coerce protesters into dispersing.

Monday night we went to the Carolina Theatre to see The Night Porter, as part of this weird new “Film Acoustic” series, which is curated by this irritating self-aggrandizing film nerd/host guy, and which features musicians introducing movies that they find significant or influential in some way.

The Night Porter was selected and introduced by Wayne Coyne. I can’t imagine that the $20 tickets purchased by the ~100 people who attended were sufficient to pay Wayne to show up, but oh well. I hope the [taxpayer-owned] Carolina didn’t foot the bill for that one.

We went because neither of us had seen The Night Porter, and this seemed like a reasonably convenient way to correct that.

To be honest, we shouldn’t have bothered.

I didn’t have a visceral reaction to it – it’s fairly tame, by modern standards. I found it entertaining to sit there & speculate about the mindset of everyone involved when it was made. What did Italians think about Nazism in 1973? What did any of them think about exploitation, about dominance & submission, about misogyny? 

But that entertainment only sustained me for about 45 minutes of its 2-hour runtime. 

I came home & read Pauline Kael’s review (collected in Reeling; couldn’t find the full version online). She ripped it to shreds for being kind of lousy (it is), and for using concentration camp settings as backdrop/window dressing. She had nothing much nice to say about Dirk Bogarde or Charlotte Rampling. 

My problems with it were less aesthetic and more political; I went back and forth with myself trying to reason out whether it was an obscene patriarchal fantasy or a potentially legitimate depiction of how PTSD might play itself out within the framework that the plot sets up. Never really resolved that question.

Next month Lucinda Williams will be here to introduce Wise Blood, John Huston’s kind of wretched 1979 adaptation of the Flannery O’Connor novella. Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Ned Beatty; a kind of silly bluegrass soundtrack. It’s quite a piece of work, and has long been one of my favorite movies, despite the fact that in many ways it’s awful.

So I’ll be there. I hope the place is crammed with Lucinda Williams fans & I hope they all leave bewildered.

December 14-15, 2014

December 12-13, 2014

As I noted Friday on Twitter, I’ve had to buy an unusually large number of tickets via Ticketmaster this month. 90% of the time, the shows we attend are at local rockclubs, or via Duke Performances, so at worst I wind up paying a couple of bucks in fees to Etix or TicketFly, or having to navigate Duke’s Byzantine online ticketing system.

But if you want to attend anything at the Carolina Theatre, or DPAC, or now at the newly LiveNation-managed Ritz in Raleigh, it’s Ticketmaster. So this month, having bought tickets to Sleater-Kinney, Erykah Badu, and two of the Carolina’s Film Acoustic screenings, I’m literally out something like $70 in fees to Ticketmaster.

In the case of the Carolina, this is partly because I was too lazy to walk the 5 blocks to the box office and buy them there, so there is a significant self- component to the loathing I’m feeling.

Friday was pretty brutal at work for both M and myself, so I walked over to Toast for takeout, and then we wound up watching Ravenous, which had been recommended earlier in the week by johndarnielle

It’s an odd one. I had seen it before (though M hadn’t), but I had forgotten just how odd the tone was. It’s bloody & deadpan and kind of unsatisfying, but in an interesting way. Plus it features Jeremy Davies lurking in a small, amusing role as a highly-religious private.

Saturday was bullshit errands, and then a matinee screening of Mockingjay. Which starts out pretty terrible – limp dialogue, lots of catch-up exposition, not much action – but then slowly morphs into a really interesting (and DARK) meditation on the role of propaganda in political and revolutionary conflict. 

It’s not as good at that as Starship Troopers, but there’s still a lot going on there. I probably wouldn’t watch it again for fun, but I could see myself teaching it in a class.

After the movie we had an invitation to attend the friends and family pre-opening at Juju, the new venture from Charlie Deal, chef/owner of Jujube in Chapel Hill and Dos Perros in Durham.

Juju is much closer in vibe and spirit to Jujube (as the name implies), although if anything the space is more beautiful. The website says “Asian Tapas” and when I was talking to Charlie about it a few months ago, he said that part of his vision was to have dim sum carts circling so that you could be offered something delicious within a few moments of being seated.

There was a little bit of that happening last night, along with a lengthy menu of moderately-priced small plates, including a whole section of vegetables. In fact, the lightly glazed roasted brussels sprouts with dried apricots were our favorite dish of the evening.

Some of the dishes – dumplings, the mushroom curry soup – will be familiar to anyone who has eaten at Jujube. Others are unique to Juju.

For a friends-and-family pre-opening, the kitchen was doing a remarkable job – we had several dishes that are as good as anything I’ve eaten in Durham in the past year or so.

They open for real on Tuesday. It’s a pretty big space – and there’s lots of room at the center bar, as well as a kitchen bar like the one at Jujube – but I still predict they’ll hit a Mateo level of crammed pretty quickly once word gets out.

After we got home from Juju, I started seeing tweets about a protest march from Walltown, down through Ninth Street, and in the direction of 147. A friend who was there said that the decision had been made early on NOT to try to take 147, but somehow the march still wound up on the Swift Avenue bridge over the freeway, where they were apparently met by riot police with their LRAD noise weapon.

[Aside: when did Durham buy that? How much did it cost? Or was it one of those federal government cast-off freebies?]

Here is video of a little bit of what happened next:

It’s pretty shaky and hard to make out, but this video and the protesters’ tweets seem to suggest that the police pursued the protesters back across the bridge and to the Main/Broad intersection, in several cases chasing and tackling fleeing protesters.

I haven’t seen or heard anything in the news about this, and it’s unclear to me what the protesters could have done to deserve being chased and tackled after they were already leaving the area that the cops had blocked off.

There was also this little detail:

Pretty classy, Ben & Jerry, you old capitalist faux-hippie farts.

December 12-13, 2014

Letter to City Council re: Friday arrests

Dear Council,

I’m writing to express my concern about the actions of the Durham Police at the end of the protest march on Foster Street on Friday night. 

According to most accounts, the police showed a greater than average degree of restraint during the early hours of the march. Some of my friends who were there might disagree, particularly with the use of the dangerous LRAD device on the protesters at the DPAC.

But compared to events in other cities (as well as previous events in Durham), during the first couple of hours of the march, it seems the police were at least trying to respect the people’s rights.

For some reason, though, as the march was winding down, things got ugly. According to the account of one local blogger, blame for this lies entirely at the feet of the police:

There were six or eight cars with their lights twirling and a line of cops blocking the street. As we got closer, we realized they were in full riot gear and carrying axe handle sized sticks. There were almost as many of them as there were protestors. About ten of us stood on the sidewalk and tried to tell them they were taking the wrong approach. There was no need for a power struggle. No need for a show of force. It was a protest, not combat. When the enemy didn’t show up, the makeshift army loaded onto a bus and went after them. Literally. They saw where the protestors were and blocked the street to create a confrontation. They arrested about forty people and then kept marching up the street even as the protestors went the other way. The only reason there was any sort of agitation was because the police made it happen.

Ginger called 911 three different times to report what was happening. The last time the operator asked if she would like to speak to an officer and one found her on the street. I walked up in the middle of their conversation. He said the protests had been going on for five hours and “you can’t let civil disobedience go on for five hours.” (Why not?) When she asked about the sticks, he said they were for pushing people back, not for hitting them. “They are better than guns,” he said.

There is video of a portion of the confrontations on Foster Street:

It’s worth nothing that this is Foster just south of Geer, a block that is completely deserted after dark. To obstruct citizens, prevent them from moving freely or dispersing, and then violently arrest them for obstructing traffic on a block that is deserted, verges on the Kafkaesque.

“Fitting,” then, that clearly visible in the background of the video is the Elna B. Spaulding Conflict Resolution Center. 

Just around the corner from the location pictured in the video is the corner of Geer and Rigsbee. On pretty much any weekend night, the block of Rigsbee between Geer and Corporation is clogged with cars backed up from the Pit valet stand, with food trucks parked on the sidewalk, and with pedestrians walking freely in the street back and forth between MotorCo and Fullsteam.

If “obstructing traffic” is such a priority in this neighborhood, then why aren’t there riot police down there every weekend throwing the valet parking guys into the bushes & onto the pavement?

From all indications, the size of the march had already dwindled, and given the lateness of the hour, it was likely to break up on its own accord. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the police saw this as their last opportunity to enact some kind of retribution on the protesters.

Perhaps even more concerning, I have just received word that the Durham police have been harassing the citizens who were arrested on Friday. They have reported that there have been police cars parked on the streets in front of their houses. And at a meeting for the protesters at the Pinhook over the weekend, a DPD officer in street clothes showed up uninvited and started videotaping the attendees. He then fled when he was recognized by some of the arrestees.

It would appear that Chief Lopez is continuing to try to bolster his fantasy narrative of “outside agitators.” He said as much in some of his quotes to the media over the weekend.

I only spent about 10 minutes in CCB Plaza at the start of the march, but just in that time I saw at least a half-dozen people that I know, and as the rest of the evening unfolded, I saw tweets from many other friends who were participating in the march. Two of my friends are among those who were arrested.

I can’t imagine what the Chief’s thought processes must be here. In some of his quotes over the weekend, he gave the impression that he thinks these current protests are still about the Durham police specifically, rather than institutional racism and white supremacy in general. 

Whatever the reason, his leadership of the DPD seems to be coming from a position of personal paranoia, rather than actual understanding of the facts on the ground. And that is an incredibly dangerous thing for our city.

Letter to City Council re: Friday arrests

Police, protestors clash during demonstration | The Herald-Sun

Police, protestors clash during demonstration | The Herald-Sun


November 21, 2014

Came home from work, read the movie section of the Friday Times, ate dinner at Toast. Walked by Letters Bookshop on the way home & M wanted to go in, which is how I wound up buying The Things They Carried and a late-90s collection of Christgau essays, Grown Up All Wrong.

I’ve never read any Tim O’Brien and now seems like a good time to change that. The Christgau will go on the shelf next to all of the Consumer Guide books & will eventually get read.

M didn’t buy anything. 

Did some debating about whether to fly to NYC in February to see John Cameron Mitchell in his 8-week run as Hedwig. Current thinking is that it’s not quite worth it. Had we heard about it the instant tickets had gone on sale, and been able to get aisle seats in the first 6 rows, it’d probably be a different story.

It’s late November, so there are actually around a half-dozen movies playing in Durham (or at the Raleigh Grande) that we’d like to see. Half of them will be gone by the end of this coming week. I’m well aware of the market forces that dictate studio release schedules (it’s just as bad in the music world), but it does suck to be a moviegoer in a tertiary market.

So of course we didn’t go see anything after dinner. Had a discussion with friends at Toast about the fact that the Carolina now seems to have some kind of repertory double feature in their various “Retro” series literally Every Single Friday. I wonder how many people they got out to see The Odd Couple last night. 

Today [Saturday], just before sitting down to write this, I walked to Geer St. for lunch. On my way out of our building, I ran into a couple of guys who first spare-changed me, and then asked for directions to some sort of apocryphal market on Queen Street, or a parking lot, or something. And then went walking off up the street, checking car door handles (including mine).

I didn’t call the cops. The folks on the neighborhood listserv would be really disappointed in me. Instead I spent my entire walk over to Geer St. mulling over white supremacy & global capitalism. 

I didn’t come to any useful conclusions.

November 21, 2014

November 19-20, 2014

I have three vastly different books going at once:

And if that was all you knew about me, I’d be an egregious White Male Tech Nerd. Ouch. 

Still, they’re all pretty solid. The Javascript book is actually outstanding – if you’re a software developer with an object-oriented background, this book is only 95 pages & it does a better job at telling you what you need to know than anything else I have read. Really well-written.

I’m liking the Gibson so far. Better than the most recent trilogy.

The cocktail book is ludicrous, which is why I bought it.

Ate dinner Wednesday at Piedmont, for the first time in a couple of months. Marked improvement in the entree – it was probably the best thing I’ve had there since the turnover. It was flounder with some fingerling potatoes, some fennel, and some kind of foam. In the old days it would’ve been aggressively salty or sweet or something, but this time it was subtle and delicious. No wonder they’ve been a lot busier lately.

Late Tuesday night, Hiss Golden Messenger were on Letterman. I haven’t watched late-night TV in ages & ages, and even my next-day internet watching has waned. I got kind of teary when I saw Dave Letterman, because I watched him [a little too] religiously in high school, and high school was a long time ago. 

Hiss Golden Messenger were great, as good as I have ever seen them. Glad they busted out the big guns for their national TV debut (whatever that means nowadays), and glad to see folks like Amelia Meath up there singing backup, taking a break from being Way More Famous than Mike is.

I have opinions about current events on various fronts, but they’re fairly predictable and I’m pretty sure I have covered them adequately, here and elsewhere.

November 19-20, 2014

November 14, 2014

Had a kind of disappointing series of emails with a member of Durham City Council, someone who is by most markers a progressive, but who at one point said the following:

 I’d say that people who can convince others that they are a good bet get access to capital. Some get access to a whole lot of capital, because they convince a whole lot of others–or at least some with who have access to a lot of capital.

At no point in that email (or any other) did he acknowledge the fact that race, gender or social class might in any way affect people’s access to capital. 

In his original response to my email (the one posted to Tumblr yesterday), he said:

The incentives for large scale developers are based on what the developers will do–jobs, tax base increases and more. To get any incentive money, they have to perform. If they don’t, they get nothing. If they do perform, the incentive is paid for by a portion of their property tax. They don’t get the incentive until they’ve finished their improvements, increased the tax base and started paying increased taxes. Large scale developers are, in a way, funding their own incentives.

My question back to him, and to the rest of the City Council, to which I have still not received a response, was as follows:

I’ll confess that I don’t know as much as I should about how business taxes are structured in the city of Durham. So does every successful business get a discount on their taxes as a function of the value they’ve added back to the city? Does one’s tax rate go down for every new employee hired? Does one’s base rate go down in proportion to every dollar of additional taxable value one’s improvements add to a piece of property?
Because that actually sounds like a pretty interesting system, especially inasmuch as it could be used to incent people who are sitting on empty structures to actually put them to use. So is it applied across the board?
I’ll absolutely post followups here if/when I get an answer to that question.
In case these posts haven’t made it crystal clear: I believe that handing out millions of dollars in incentives to out-of-state developers now, at this point in Durham’s growth, is a terrible idea.
The city’s success thus far has been achieved, to a remarkable degree, by people and companies who are heavily locally invested. The out-of-towners are showing up now because they want to capitalize on all of that hard work done by others. Which is fine, up to a point, but I see no reason to promise them additional incentives for doing so.
It was really cold after the sun went down. We walked to Toast for dinner & the chill (not to mention the freezing wind) was undeniably wintry. Walking back home, we noticed a couple of folks sleeping rough in the doorway of the Bargain Furniture building. 
It’s never a good time to be homeless, y’all, but winter is a real killer. If you’re not already, please donate to Urban Ministries of Durham. They work tirelessly to feed, clothe & house Durham’s homeless (and unlike some other groups, they don’t lay an explicitly religious trip on people as a condition of receiving help).

November 14, 2014

Blue Coffee, downtown development & unequal incentives

I just sent this letter to the Durham City Council:


I read with some interest this article in the Indy this week about Blue Coffee:
In particular, my attention was captured by these paragraphs:

“It’s ironic that Blue Coffee is being displaced by the very forces it nurtured. Austin Lawrence Partners, the new owner of the former Jack Tar Motel, is renovating the building into a boutique hotel with a rooftop bar, street-level retail stores and restaurants.


It’s also ironic that the city and county awarded Austin Lawrence Partners $7.9 million in tax breaks for its City Center Project, 26-story tower at Corcoran and Main streets and the renovation of several buildings in that area, but a city grant program to help small businesses like Blue Coffee is out of money.

Mathews may have been eligible for a Retail and Professional Services Grant, but according to the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, no funds are available through that program. City Council appropriates money for it.”

Last time I emailed you all about downtown development and the character of Durham, Steve responded asking for my suggestions about how the Council could work to maintain the character that we all appreciate.

I made some general observations, and then I asked if you all had a tally of the economic incentives that had been granted to small locally-owned businesses, and whether they were in any way comparable to the huge incentive package promised to Austin Lawrence.

Judging from this quote in the Indy, it sounds like the tally wouldn’t really measure up.

So here’s my suggestion: perhaps the fund to support small locally-owned businesses could be shored up via a tax on new large-scale development, particularly of the variety where teardowns of existing buildings take place, or where zoning or other variances are granted. Or perhaps a per-space tax on new privately-owned parking structures.

Because from where I sit, right now it looks like we’re funding these large out-of-town developers on the backs of locally-owned, tax-paying small businesses. And that seems backwards to me.

Warmest regards,

Ross Grady

Blue Coffee, downtown development & unequal incentives