A Thousand Words:
Panel Discussion on The Future of Durham

On Friday, J. Cardinal Events and Jada Drew of Social Designs LLC hosted Welcome to the New Durham: A Thousand Words at The Palace International.

A diverse panel that included recording artist Joshua Gunn, Clarion Content Founder Aaron Mandel, Mercury Studio Owner Katie DeConto, and INDY Week Editor Lisa Sorg, took questions throughout the evening from Drew and the audience touching on an array of topics centered around Durham and its literal and figurative changing landscape.

What is to become of Durham?

Words like “independent” and “entrepreneurial” were used by Gunn and the other panelists to describe the rich history of Durham that birthed Black Wall Street, and cultivated the attitude that has existed long before this recent transformation. This prefaced the stage for 3 paramount questions:

  1. How would you describe the culture?
  2. What is your vision for Durham?
  3. What is the process for seeing this vision through?

Separating these questions was challenging for the panelists, yet highlighted how these ideas are intertwined, one reliant on the other. Durham’s culture is why we have such vision for the future and how it is possible to reach those goals.

“People say YES in Durham.” – Aaron Mandel

The city’s reputation, both throughout the state and nationwide, has always been one of degradation. Of the four panelists, Gunn is the only one raised in the Bull City. It is a flag he says he waives honorably with his “head held high.” Often identified as crime-ridden, poor, and dangerous, Durham maintained a sense of self-pride that exists thanks to, as DeConto describes, “diversity and adversity.” It is the “amalgamation” of people and the intentional association of cultures that distinguish Durham from its contemporaries.


For the city of Durham to sustain these ideals, it will take significant foresight from city officials and action from the citizenry. Sorg was adamant about inclusion in “New Durham,” that relies on affordable housing for the low and middle class individuals, efficient public transportation (which does not seem to be a priority over fancy paint jobs), and economic opportunity. These conditions are true for any growing community, and so are the consequences for allowing unchecked development to continue without accountability from the city government and developers.

“The people who make downtown Durham cool deserve to be able to stay there.” – Katie DeConto

DeConto has two businesses in the “DIY district” of Durham; Mercury Studio and The Makery. The district has been successful and continues to grow, but so does the concern that a potential spike in property value will make it difficult for current businesses and residents to maintain in the area.

Participants take graffiti lessons from Jason Roane after the panel discussion.

Participants take graffiti lessons from Jason Roane after the panel discussion.

All of these presumptions are predicated on participation from the citizens of Durham. Calling out our politicians is not enough.

“Don’t always be a cheerleader!” – Lisa Sorg

Going forward, it will take a collective effort from the long-time residents and transplants alike to generate any long standing change. Communication throughout the entire city, and not just the concentrated downtown area, is an important step towards a bigger, more inclusive conversation on the future of Durham. Race became a frequent topic, as noted by host Drew, as it is difficult to overlook the social and economic ramifications of change. We often neglect to consider exactly who is benefiting. Some members in the audience argued that the “New Durham” was not for them, and did not feel they were welcome to participate. Gunn made it clear:

“If Harris Teeter is for you, then the Farmer’s Market is for you. If Starbucks is for you, Scratch Bakery is for you. If Subway is for you, Toast is for you.”

“New Durham” is about supporting each other, supporting local business, and giving every citizen the opportunity to engage in what is taking place. The four panelists concluded the discussion with action items such as networking through neighborhood listservs or attending City Council meetings to let your voices be heard and stay informed on what could be affecting you.

Durham is evolving. Change is happening all across the city, for better or worse. It could take more than 1000 words, but it sounds like our panelists, and the audience, look forward to more conversations to come.

Columnist Justin Laidlaw is a renaissance man. His interests range from the music business to politics, from Durham’s history and culture, to the world beyond. The co-host of Clarion Content’s podcast, he is fast becoming a veteran columnist. He is a fashion model, a tech sceptic, a business manager and more.

Be first to comment