As a student at Duke University, I have become proximally familiar with the little city that Duke calls home: Durham, North Carolina — a forward-thinking town with old Southern roots and a population of approximately 250,000. In addition to being a hub for education, medicine, and technological innovation, Durham has its own rich history and vibrant culture. For the most part Duke students are aware of Durham, but not well-acquainted with it. A short trip off campus is all it takes to see that the University differs greatly from the space it occupies.
As you move away from Duke, the tempered wave of non-accented intellectual chatter quickly becomes the smooth lull of Southern drawls. Gothic architecture fades into grocery stores, elementary schools, and other marks of a prototypical American city. The Greek affiliation that so stratifies our campus is suddenly nothing more than nonsensical letters. Midterms and finance internships are topics seldom discussed: real life is happening.
Nonetheless, Durham cannot escape Duke. Like a child finger-painting, the University smears its blue streaks across the entire city. Many businesses in the city quite obviously cater to the college audience. On a cool Friday morning, I study cultural anthropology at a left-of-center coffee shop across from an abandoned gas station. My friends and I walk to Whole Foods and buy $7 kale chips, in the same county where a significant percentage of children are food insecure. Students regularly pay a $10 cover charge to enter the Thursday night hotspot, Devine’s, yet we see no reason to give $2 to the homeless who sometimes sit on the streets nearby. Duke and Durham are entangled, for better or for worse.
Many Duke students have a sort of “Dear Old Duke, Dirty Old Durham” ideology. They feel that Durham (outside of the gentrified Ninth Street and Brightleaf Areas) is “sketchy.” This phrase, though condescending, is rooted in ignorance, rather than actual hatred. How can you appreciate a place that you have never really visited? In recent years, “revitalization” of the downtown area has created a posh live-work-play area that draws college students in hordes. My peers and I have a tendency to confine ourselves to these trendy boutiques, healthy cafés, and unseemly nightclubs near East Campus. By stepping out of the “Duke bubble” and into the mental/physical space of real Durham, students can bolster their over-simplified understanding. Mere exposure could greatly help to breach the gap between the Blue Devils and the Bull City. If we take the time to move beyond Shooters and Joe Van Gogh, into schools, clinics, and homeless shelters, we can gain a more well rounded understanding of the city that our college calls home.