Gary Kueber wants you to help write Durham’s history. He has surely given us a leg up. Kueber started the website Endangered Durham which is now Open Durham, a massive repository of Durham’s history. The thousands of photographs1 are only the beginning of the treasure trove. The comments on the photos are an outpouring of Durham’s story that may be unparalleled.
But to Kueber, it is only the beginning. His intention was never for this to be a solo project. In the updated parlance, his words, he wants to “crowdsource the fine grain detail of Durham’s history.” That means you, people, the site is set-up to be contributory. Kueber has given us our own platform to write Durham’s history.
Kueber rewrote his original blogger data aggregator, Endangered Durham, a blogspot like this one, into a custom search site. Open Durham is designed and engineered so that people can create content, write the entry of their own house, upload photos of their street, document the oral history of their neighborhood.
“Untold Durham” is a different portion of the overarching project, perhaps an attempt to prod Durham to share as much of the good dirt as it has. The Clarion Content was privileged to able to watch Gary Kueber deliver “Untold Durham” at the Carolina Theater. “Untold Durham” is a two-hour multimedia presentation with fabulous photographs, musical recordings, oral history testimonies and Kueber narrating the whole thing for our benefit.
He weaves an interesting web. In an interview about ten days after the presentation, which even at $35 a ticket nearly packed the house, Kueber told the Clarion Content that it was his goal (and he succeeded wildly) to tell the unconventional narrative of Durham in his “Untold Durham” presentation. He said and we are paraphrasing here, that he did not believe in the traditional dichotomies often presented about the past, that things were either great or terrible.
He didn’t reject the conventional narrative. It had a place as part of the panoply of viewpoints that were needed to understand and begin to picture the whole. Interestingly, “Durham: A Self-Portrait“, a PBS-Wikipedia-esque history of Durham had just aired at MotorCo. In the Clarion Content’s opinion this worthy documentary is a well-constructed, if staid and largely uncontroversial, view of Durham’s history.
Kueber was shooting for something else. In our interview, he noted it is important to avoid simplistic constructs of the past bad/good, terrific/awful. People, stories and time are more complicated than that, and to construct the past in that way detrimentally influences our understanding and interpretation of the present.
He is not playing for small stakes either. He hopes to draw his audience, you, us and all of Durham into an intimate, safe place of joy where from our love of certain parts of our city’s history and past we can contemplate the worst parts of it, namely, segregation. The Clarion Content was reminded of Neal Stephenson’s and Avi Halaby’s Holocaust Education and Avoidance Pod. You have to face your history to face it down.
It started with a proverbial kick in the eggs. Kueber is, in fact, a doctor of medicine, first. He was helping Preservation Durham. Specifically, he was working to save a desolated, but beautiful, old, 3,000 sq.ft. house on Angier Avenue from destruction. One day, after a report that some kids had been seen playing on the porch of the old place, the City of Durham showed up, unannounced, no warning, and tore it down.
It was era when Durham was tearing down a lot of old buildings, houses and history were disappearing in what echoed the “urban renewal” disasters of the 1960’s and 70’s. Kueber, aware even then of how these demolitions were tied into shame and embarrassment, how they were attempts to erase memory and failure, was desperate to help save what history he could.
He would later come to learn as a developer that to tear down to create a blank slate for development rarely works in urban environments. The houses and buildings, the architecture and the spaces are the anchors to development and renewal. Projects start with economic viability.
At the time, he was mostly frustrated and looking for an outlet to do something. He was bothered by the “randomness of application” of the city codes and strictures when it came to the buildings it wanted to rid itself of.2 He wrote a letter to the Durham Herald-Sun. The letter was republished as Op-Ed piece.
The positive public response to his frustration inspired him. He began writing Endangered Durham under the pseudonym Sven Rylesdorn. When Ray Gronburg tracked him down, he stepped out from behind the curtain. The rest is history and Kueber’s mission to record it.3
His “Untold Durham” is peppered with audio clips of older Durham citizens reminiscing about everything from the hot night spots to music, food and more. He warned the crowd that he was bringing the unconventional narrative. He started all the back when they were building the first road from Hillsborough to Raleigh and in his words, the area that would become Durham was a series of 19th century truck stops – the most notorious of which was Pratt’s Tavern. Along the way we heard lots of the seedy side of the story.
Kueber would periodically update the crowd on the tally of taverns to churches in town. The saloons held the edge four to two in 1858. By 1887 it was nine to nine, but the urge to be a little more establishment never undermined Durham’s original gloss, “A Roaring Old Place.”
The Clarion Content’s manic note taking and Kueber’s encyclopedic knowledge of Durham history could make this a 10,000 word piece. We will spare you. All we can say is you must see the presentation. You learn all of the city slogans Durham ever had, you get to hear the story of the 1934 textile strike and a tent city. You learn about Durham neighborhoods called Edgemont and Monkey Bottom. You hear tales of Durham speakeasies and dancing salons, our Greek diner culture and the drive-in burger joint that was where Whole Foods is today… and more, and more and more.
The Clarion Content asked Kueber when the next performance of “Untold Durham” will be, but it hasn’t been scheduled. We encouraged Kueber that many, many more Durham citizens want to see this fascinating and nuanced view of our history. We told him somebody4 needs to film the next time he gives his presentation.
The audience adored “Untold Durham.” At the Carolina Theater we heard two little old ladies, tittering at intermission about whether they should be amused or offended by all the dirt Kueber was dishing on Durham. But he wrapped it up perfectly, methodology merging with message, closing with a couple of quotes from Durham citizens.
Durham is a place where you can be who you are, but not be defined by it.
Durham, we don’t have mountains, we don’t have a river, we just have each other and that makes us dedicated to building a livable city.
1The Clarion Content makes frequent use of Open Durham’s photos of Durham’s days gone-by.
2This randomness of application of City Codes is still a problem today.
3A summary and an oversimplification to be sure.
4The Clarion Content would love to…