An Open Letter to Scott Harmon

(Reprinted from the ABCDurham downtown listserv, in response to developer Scott Harmon’s “Open Letter to My Fellow White Progressives” posted to the listserv on March 13, 2019.)

Dear Scott Harmon,

We don’t know each other, but we have at least four things in common: we both work in downtown Durham; we both care very much about the future, character, and quality of our city’s rapid growth; we both consider ourselves white progressives; and we’re both proponents of residential density in city centers. I admire Center Studio Architecture’s redevelopment of the 500 block of North Mangum Street, a previously characterless thoroughfare stretch that has not only gained housing but also aesthetic presence from your firm’s three condominium buildings: Mangum 506, Mangum Flats, and now Eleven Durham, the latter currently in its early phase of construction.

Your “Open Letter to My Fellow White Progressives” (which I’ve copied below for those who haven’t read it or need refreshment) got and kept my attention ever since you posted it to the listserv a few weeks ago. No doubt that’s partly because I hear your voice, so to speak, every day. Before I continue, let me make an important disclosure, as you did in acknowledging (via Dawn Bland’s preface to your letter) that you are “a developer and architect in downtown Durham [who] has a vested interest.” I have a vested interest, too. In addition to working in downtown Durham, I also own and live in a house here too. It’s nearly adjacent to the Eleven Durham site; my bedroom is just a few dozen feet away from it. (There’s a fifth thing we have in common, or very nearly so: a property line.) The persistent beep-beep-beep of backhoes going backward, beginning daily at about 7:30 a.m., is a de facto alarm clock that gets me prematurely out of bed: I work nights and no longer get sufficient sleep on weekdays. It also, in a chorus with the downtown-wide beeping of heavy machinery and cherry pickers, heard like a soundtrack motif throughout the day, keeps me awake and alert to (not to say alarmed by) the full-throttle development I witness at street-level, with close observation, nearly every day: Eleven Durham’s daylong construction clangor and thunder often render my house uninhabitable for hours at a time, so I have to get out, and that takes me around and about downtown on foot.

Perhaps there is some world where people whose lives are upheaved and degraded by a construction project which deprives them of sleep and the basic comforts and tranquility of home are compensated in some way or another, or at least cautioned in advance of the project in case they should like to seek counteractive or protective measures. But I know full well that that world is not this one. The business of America is business, as the saying goes: hence it’s up to business to determine the activity, direction, and character of the country, or at least any given business’s part of the country. “Market forces,” as the euphemism puts it, answer our essential civic questions, either intentionally or incidentally: What is downtown Durham going to look like? What kind of place will it be to live and walk and work and experience, from any vantage point: that of the homeowner-resident or the tourist; the developer or the bartender; ground level or the parking deck roof; white or black?

You have, in other words, a heavy responsibility, and I genuinely appreciate the seriousness with which your open letter takes it. I suspect we agree that any city ought to strive to look, feel, and do good from whatever position and identity each of us occupies. In addressing you here, I’m trying to balance my public enthusiasm for seeing residential density increase with the personal inconvenience and stress I experience at Eleven Durham’s hands; and I’m also trying to reconcile my desire to see Durham keep thriving with my concerns about the nature of that thriving.

Another disclosure, or disclaimer: no doubt the city center we have now is better than the one we had before. Downtown fell into deep desuetude in the seventies. In the eighties, the only place to eat (as I remember it) was a sub shop called Grinderswitch, and Five Points was deathly quiet after dark save for a few intrepid artists who put on plays in bat-infested storefronts, and freedom-seeking teenagers who hung out on the roof of a long-derelict building that is now the Unscripted Hotel, enjoying not only an unmonitored place to smoke cigarettes but also the peculiarly appealing view from up there of a city deeply recumbent in its own slumbering history, the remnants of which were like embers, inactive but still aglow. It was the Dirty Durham era—it was bound to change.

A generation later, that change has come, and those embers have been fanned to a bonfire of growth. So what is Durham burning with?

The weekender enjoying downtown’s renascent vitality would have no reason to observe what denizens do: a stark lack of basic amenities. The city center has, for example, no laundry or tailor. (I still miss the African-American seamstress I knew only by her first name, Mildred, who used to do her work above what is now Rue Cler.) There is no significant green or shared public space to speak of; nor, after regular business hours, anywhere to buy bandages, light bulbs, an umbrella, duct tape. “It’s like a fake city,” an intimate of mine observed recently, in a voice that combined bewilderment and despair, a longtime Durhamite who took in at a walking pace the disproportionate overplus of restaurants, bars, and luxury boutiques, to the virtual exclusion of everything else. These absences will certainly be filled in due time—perhaps in some of the ground-floor storefronts of the monstrously ugly new parking garage at Morgan and Mangum, minimally redeeming this embarrassing architectural blight—but for now downtown is still, after all these years, a strange place to live.

Perhaps I should say “again” rather than “still,” for the quality of that strangeness has changed. Not long ago, downtown’s decrepit buildings could be bought for very little money, because there was scarcely any reason to buy or live in them. Now none but the wealthy can afford them. Your letter evinces a keen awareness of this very common but nonetheless troubling problem, and a desire to redress it: “If more people could afford a home,” you write, “the housing crisis would be less severe.” This is an admirable sentiment, but I can’t help noting that the units of Eleven Durham, the residences you’re building just behind my house, range in price from $569,900 to $1,199,900. Very few people, and certainly no one in my peer group, can afford them, as Eleven Durham’s website itself seems to acknowledge with its suggestion to prospective buyers to turn one floor of their unit into rental space for AirBnB income, as an apparent mortgage offset.

Nonetheless, I’m aware that people like me, the working class, aren’t Eleven Durham’s target buyer. According to the website, five of its eleven condos have already sold far in advance of the building’s completion. The rest will follow, no doubt. If downtown development continues as it’s going, my class will disappear from the area, except for those of us who bought our homes here a decade ago for a small fraction of what it costs to buy into Eleven Durham, and those of us who are nightly laborers in its booming service economy. I happen to be both; I feel at once lucky and endangered.

Your letter gives a historical account of the racial bigotry behind zoning laws. I trust this history is essentially correct. And I have no considered opinion about the conflict over Durham’s Expanding Housing Choices initiative—I don’t even know if or how the conflict has been resolved—although I do note that your argument proceeds from what appears to be a self-contradiction: “Neighborhood protection is a deeply held tradition that, on the surface, looks like a gallant fight against developers, builders, slumlords, students, renters, and traffic,” you write. “The origins of this tradition, however, are not so noble”: those origins, you explain, are in Jim Crow. But by your own narrative, zoning laws arose in the early twentieth century with “the sensible goal of separating residential and industrial properties.” The white power structure quickly perverted the purpose of zoning laws toward the programmatic segregation of blacks and whites.

The perversion of sensible goals and laws where the common wellbeing is concerned has long been a practice of the ruling class, of course. Power, as Orwell reminds us, seeks primarily to expand and serve itself. Any call, such as yours, to acknowledge and perhaps redress the resulting injustices is welcome. But being scolded, as “a fellow white progressive,” for greed-driven racial exclusionism isn’t welcome at all, especially because “white progressive” encompasses a broader range of people than you perhaps presume. (“Land use policy is the blind spot in white progressive politics,” your letter begins. We all have our blind spots, of course.) I’m not even remotely wealthy, and from my vantage—that of “the working-class intelligentsia,” to cite Orwell again—I can’t help suspecting that luxury condominiums do more to reinforce than to combat the century-old perversion of justice your letter identifies; and, although I’m no economist, possibly to deepen rather than alleviate downtown’s mounting housing crisis, or, as Hamilton Nolan puts it in your letter’s concluding epigraph, to “prevent everyone else from living in your pretty little city.” If nothing else, Eleven Durham neither belongs to nor encourages the development of anything in the category of basic amenities: as power begets power, luxury begets luxury. (I also wonder how an open letter about race to white progressives reads to the African-Americans it explicitly doesn’t address.)

I take it that relaxing zoning laws will, among other effects, afford developers like you greater freedom to build what you like, where you like. Downtown needs more residential density, as I said; and I’m all for freedom, which is our country’s most perversion-resistant (but not -proof) currency, provided that freedom is used carefully, deliberately, and with a long view of its consequences. But I want my own freedom, too, to be a white progressive whose social and political values aren’t accompanied by or protective of wealth, which I don’t possess. I resent being accused of greediness, especially as the parting word of your letter, and secondhand at that via a cultural critic who doesn’t know our city.

I would at least like the possibility acknowledged that the motivation behind protective zoning laws, having changed at least once long ago, might have done so again, and that a contemporary objection to what you advocate isn’t on racial or economic grounds but comes rather from an aesthetic concern about preserving the harmonious character of particular established neighborhoods—that is, history—while inviting your firm to establish a new architectural harmony by building multiple luxury condominium residences on the 500 block of North Mangum Street, which they greatly improve. After hours, when there is relief from the noise of construction, I can hear myself think of the good Eleven Durham may do to the block behind me, even as I harbor secondary doubts about its value to the larger citizenry, and about its potentially inflationary effects on downtown’s affordability.

I have no doubt, once the dust of construction has settled and the backhoes have backed away from my backyard for good, that we can share downtown as a place that thrives not despite our differences of class and context but because of them, in the spirit and A-B-C-D letter of the coalition that gives this listserv its name: the motor of business in harmony with the arts of living, no matter our street or work or color or income. As a member of the working class. I neither have nor want much leverage in determining the architectural future of Durham, or its zoning laws. The only structures I dream of building are made of words. I especially would never presume to tell you how to go about your business, not even when it interferes with mine, and in exchange for that respectful accommodation, I ask only that you refrain from telling me my business, especially the business of my mind, which answers to no self-appointed authority beyond itself; that you address your “fellow white progressives” with the broadminded awareness that we encompass a much greater socioeconomic range than your letter evinces, and have priorities quite as divested from concerns about money as those priorities can get; and that you reciprocate in your public discourse the good faith we extend to you when we step outside our personal vested interests to see the civic value of the work your company does in Durham.

Prosperity has little need for history, perhaps because prosperity is history in the making—and history, Camus reminds us, has no eyes. What we ask from market forces like yours is a palpable, sharable improvement on Durham’s history as we live it out; that improvement, in its ideal form, flows, I suspect, along a meridian midway between Dirty Durham on one end and Pretty Little City on the other. Vitalizing us there is, after all, the manifest compensation, in this actual world, that people like me might have the temerity to demand for what’s happening in our backyards.

I wrote this on a quiet Sunday, for which I’m thankful. And I’m thankful to you, too, for initiating thought and eliciting feeling, and for your commitment to our city.

Best,

Adam Sobsey

(Scott Harmon’s “Open Letter to My Fellow White Progressives in Durham” follows.)

Ahead of tonight’s Durham Planning Commission meeting on the City’s Expanding Housing Choices (EHC) initiative (March 12 at 5:30pm at City Hall), I would like to share some thoughts with you. Below is a letter that Scott Harmon wrote urging us to take a pause and spend some time thinking about the history, implications, and knee-jerk push-back that can be so common in us white folks. I acknowledge that he is a developer and architect in downtown Durham and has a vested interest in one hand, but in the other, he holds a supreme passion for equity and a deep well of knowledge regarding Durham, development, the UDO, and urban planning that one would have to spend a lifetime acquiring to understand – luckily for us, he has.
White folks, please take a few moments to read this and sit open-minded in your discomfort regardless of which side of this debate you fall – because it is a very important piece of the discussion.

An Open Letter to My Fellow White Progressives in Durham
Scott Harmon
Reading time: 3 minutes

Land use policy is the blind spot in white progressive politics. On Tuesday March 12th the Planning Commission begins the public debate on Durham’s Expanding Housing Choices initiative. The Planning Department presented its draft recommendations in November after examining our current policies, seeking best practices from around the world, and bringing its best professional judgement forward. The recommendations were sensible and transformative. I would call them, indeed, progressive.

The version now before the Planning Commission, however, has been gutted by leaders in the white progressive neighborhoods that wield the most power in land use debates. When faced with a choice between progressive policies and neighborhood protection, protection wins every time; power trumps policy.. This is the blind spot, and I urge my fellow progressives to pay close attention to some key historic and environmental context as we start this debate.

In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein explains how zoning became the legal foundation of housing discrimination in our country. The first zoning ordinance appeared in 1908 in Los Angeles with the sensible goal of separating residential and industrial properties. In 1910 racial zoning laws sprung up throughout the country as communities used this new legal tool to protect their neighborhoods from blacks and immigrants. In 1917 the Supreme Court ruled that racial zoning is a violation of the 14th amendment, but in 1919 the city of St. Louis finessed the technicalities of that ruling and adopted the first “economic zoning” ordinance; what we call today “exclusionary zoning”. By excluding multi-family housing types from single-family neighborhoods (which most blacks and immigrants could not afford), St. Louis maintained the racial and economic primacy of its white communities. The racial motivations of these laws were obvious and were again challenged at the Supreme Court in 1926. But the court ruled that the 14th Amendment is not violated because the laws contain no explicitly racial language. Exclusionary zoning thereby became the established precedent for protecting our most advantaged neighborhoods from undesirable people by excluding undesirable housing. Add to this legal foundation the policies of the New Deal and the FHA, which required red-lining and racially restricted neighborhood covenants for its mortgage insurance programs. You now have, at the end of World War II, a complete system of local laws and Federal policies that explicitly exclude non-white people from the benefits of the largest housing and economic expansion in the world’s history. While the Federal policies finally met their demise with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, our local exclusionary zoning laws persist.

This history explains two things about today’s affordability crisis.. First, it explains why certain people have enjoyed generations of wealth building and others have not. In other words, if more people could afford a home, the housing crisis would be less severe. Second, our zoning laws continue to treat certain kinds of housing (the more affordable kinds) as “undesirable”. This limits the supply of housing in general and limits affordable housing in particular, thereby making all housing more expensive.

The environmental context is easier to explain because the math is unavoidable. The population is growing, globally and locally. Should we house more people per acre of land, or fewer? Should we be more efficient with our land, or less efficient? Which choice protects our watersheds, natural areas, and farmland from outward expansion (aka sprawl)? Which choice supports better transit systems? Which choice promotes walkable, healthy lifestyles? Which choice assures that every roadway, pipe, wire, and infrastructure investment is used most efficiently? Which choice reduces the carbon footprint of each human?

Let’s be clear how “density” became a bad word. This country protected its neighborhoods from undesirable people by restricting density (see the history above). But many other nations enjoy thriving cities with density, beauty, desirability, and diversity. As Mayor Schewel rightly points out: density is not the problem; it’s the solution.

Land use policy is the blind spot in progressive white politics. Our commitment to equity, inclusion, fairness, and affordability is hijacked by our instinct for comfort, power, and advantage. Most of us don’t see it. While we enthusiastically support the right causes with our time, talent, and money, our resistance to change in our neighborhoods is tenacious. Neighborhood protection is a deeply held tradition that, on the surface, looks like a gallant fight against developers, builders, slumlords, students, renters, and traffic. The origins of this tradition, however, are not so noble.. Even when we’re not consciously excluding certain types of people, we’re still using a system with intentions and rules of engagement that were established a century ago. Our families and fortunes continue to benefit from that system.

So, here’s my ask of my fellow white progressives in Durham. Resist the temptation to resist change, because preserving the status quo is not progressive. Our white leaders live in the neighborhoods with the most power when it comes to land use debates. How will we use that power? Will we advance our progressive agenda for the benefit of everyone in the community, or will we ask everyone else to advance the agenda for us? Will we support our elected leaders as they navigate a precarious political transaction that may be uncomfortable for us personally, or will we lobby to maintain our privilege? If we’re not prepared to forgo our privilege, we can at least leverage it for the benefit of the entire community. But this can’t happen if we “protect” our own neighborhoods from the policy changes that the rest of the community desperately needs. Because that’s not progressive; that’s NIMBY.

“Acting in a way that prevents everyone else from living in your pretty little city because you already have a place that you like does not make you a progressive. It makes you greedy.” – Hamilton Nolan

 

Advertisements

The Tobacconist, Vol. 7

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. On the face of it, it seemed a little surprising that North Carolina, a ten-loss team, not only got a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament but the highest No. 2 seed, making the 10th-ranked (in the polls) Tar Heels the fifth-best team in the country by the selection committee’s lights. They outranked 26-7 and ninth-ranked Duke — whom they beat two out of three times, so no huge surprise — as well as Cincinnati (30-4, No. 6 in the polls), Purdue (28-6, No. 11), and Michigan State (29-4, No. 5). The Spartans, who drubbed UNC in the PK80 invitational tournament in November, were the Big 10 regular season champions, yet were awarded just a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The explanation for this apparent confusion is derived from so-called “Quadrant 1” performance. The NCAA has more precisely codified wins this season. The Quadrant system rewards teams for beating top-30 opponents (by RPI) at home, top-50 teams at neutral sites, and top-75 teams on the road. (One can quibble with the RPI itself, but there has to be a baseline somewhere, and it’s not as if the RPI rankings are an abomination.) Those are all considered Quadrant 1 wins, and North Carolina not only has the most in the NCAA (14), they’ve played the most Quadrant 1 teams (22), by far, in the country. That’s why they got a cookie from the committee, whose priorities are quite clear: as often as you can, play good teams, especially away from home. A 14-8 overall Quadrant 1 record is nowhere near as dominant as Virginia’s 12-1, but it’s far better than Michigan State’s 3-4. (Duke finished 6-5 in Quadrant 1 games.) Carolina was rewarded for sheer quantity, which actually harmonizes with the program’s overall strengths: their current three-year run of high-level play has been fueled largely by how many extra shots their offensive rebounds provide them, and by players whose quality owes largely to staying around for three or four years.

The Tar Heels were also rewarded for something they had no control over: the ACC regular season schedule, which required them to run a very tough gauntlet, much tougher than Duke’s. While the Blue Devils were beating up on both Pittsburgh and Wake Forest twice each, UNC had to play Clemson twice, N.C. State twice, and Notre Dame twice. Their lone games against Florida State, Louisville, Syracuse, and Virginia were all on the road. Carolina got extra Quadrant 1 points just by showing up.

An outcome of this math can be measured in distance: UNC only has to drive down to Charlotte for the tournament’s first weekend. They’ll take on No. 15 seed and Atlantic Sun champion Lipscomb in the first round. It’s the Bisons’ first ever tournament appearance. Why they’re called the Bisons is beyond me, since Lipscomb is in Nashville. (But then, why are any sports teams in America called the Tigers?) If UNC manages to run the Bisons off the cliff — and hey, the Ken Pomeroy metrics rank Lipscomb eight spots lower than Wofford, so the Tar Heels definitely have a chance — they’ll meet the winner of Texas A&M and Providence in the second round. For what it’s worth, the Tar Heels beat Providence in the second round of the tournament two years ago, in Raleigh, on the way to the NCAA championship game against Villanova.

Carolina fans may wince at the memory of that heartbreaker, but Carolina has a decent shot to advance to what would be their third straight Final Four. That would put them in rarefied air. It’s only happened eleven times — once by Carolina themselves, back in the late sixties, when UCLA was setting a never-to-broken record by appearing in ten straight Final Fours. (Duke made it to five in a row from 1988-1992.) To achieve that threepeat, Carolina has the easiest path of any No. 2 seed, as their overall rating affords them. The No. 1 seed in the West Region, where UNC was placed, is Xavier. Along the way, UNC would probably have to get past either Michigan, whom they beat earlier this season in Chapel Hill, or Houston, a slightly underappreciated and very good team that can both score and defend. (To me, that’s the scary matchup.) Still, all the way up to the regional final, it’s hard not to look at the bracket and conclude that UNC is probably the team you’d take. Then it’s a one-game toss-up.

Duke, meanwhile, is off to Pittsburgh as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region. They’ll play Iona in the first round, followed by the winner of Rhode Island and Oklahoma. That means there’s already a little drama awaiting the Blue Devils in the second round. Tenth-seeded Oklahoma has not played well lately, but they boast Trae Young, the wispy star guard, a lottery pick this coming June and the sort of player who can score forty points on any given night. If he has a career game — and players like Young tend to love bright-spotlight moments like an underdog March matchup against a team like Duke — the Blue Devils could find themselves in the soup. (You might recall what happened when they drew Derrick Williams and Arizona in the 2011 tournament.) Seventh-seeded Rhode Island — which wears Carolina Blue and is called the Rams — is coached by Danny Hurley, Duke legend Bobby’s brother. (An aside: Rhode Island’s loss in the Atlantic Ten tournament final had a domino effect of jeopardizing the bubbly at-large bid hopes of Arizona State, which is coached by… Bobby Hurley. Arizona State squeaked in as a First Four probation pick, and you should check out Danny’s reaction when his fear that he’d cost his brother a bid went unrealized.)

Arizona State’s play-in game — against Syracuse, an ACC bid I wish had been swapped out for Notre Dame, a much more interesting and fun team to watch, with perhaps the ACC’s most likable coach — happens to be in Duke’s half of the Midwest Region bracket, making it possible for the Blue Devils to play both Hurleys’ teams in consecutive tournament games. (Cue committee-has-a-sense-humor chorus.) That won’t happen, though, because Arizona State would have to beat not only Syracuse and its sticky 2-3 zone but then none other than the fearsome Michigan State Spartans — who, are, once again, the trendy pick to win the tournament, as it seems they are every year. The Spartans are the No. 3 seed in Duke’s region. Duke beat Michigan State earlier this year behind a career  night from hot-and-cold Grayson Allen, but that was nearly four months ago. A third-round rematch would be a potential powerhouse showdown in the round of 16, and it could be followed by Duke facing No. 1 seed Kansas in the regional final in Omaha. If the Blue Devils are going to the Final Four, they’ll have to earn it pretty much from the start. Even Iona can’t be discounted, if for no other reason than that the ghosts of Lehigh and Mercer are still perhaps hanging over Duke.

So with all that out of the way, where are our two teams now as they enter the tournament?

Duke plays at the highest level country, except when they don’t. That’s a way of saying that they’re a freshman-dominated team. They looked disengaged and outplayed in losing to Virginia Tech two weeks ago; looked terrifyingly great in storming back to beat UNC in their next game; had no trouble running away from Notre Dame in their first ACC Tournament game; and then let UNC slap them silly until a final, desperate rally in the last five minutes of the game almost produced another sensational comeback. You just never quite know with this team. At the level of efficiency and metrics there’s lots to love. Duke has the country’s third-best offense and seventh-best defense, per Pomeroy. They’ve got the best player in the country, in my opinion, and when Marvin Bagley III gets going he’s close to unstoppable. But they have long stretches of losing focus, and the solution Mike Krzyzewski has come with at guard doesn’t entirely work. Grayson Allen runs the show, but he isn’t a natural point guard, and no real priority seems to be given to feeding the ball to the post, where Bagley and Wendell Carter, Jr. ought to be primary options. It amazes me how many possessions go by without Bagley or Carter getting the ball anywhere near decent scoring position, if at all (although you could argue that anywhere Bagley gets the ball puts him in decent position to score). Krzyzewski’s guard-focused style is long practiced, of course, and he loves Allen; but it does seem like he runs the risk of living and dying by his lone senior.

As for Carolina, they’ve got the friendliest path to the Final Four of any No. 2 seed. They’ve been playing well, even in their loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament final. Unlike Duke, Carolina is pretty predictable out there on the floor. They tend to win or lose based on varying degrees of how well they do the things they always do (or try to do). In their win over Duke in the semifinals, they took seventeen more shots than the Blue Devils did by dint of offensive rebounds and points off turnovers. Against Virginia, those advantages weren’t there. They’re playing about at their peak — also unlike Duke, a team that could get a lot better in these last six games — but the question is whether UNC’s peak is high enough to take them back to the national championship. Probably not, but that a team that lost to Wofford at home this season and started the conference schedule 5-5 has set itself up for a decent shot at the Final Four may be reward enough.

The Tobacconist is unsure whether he will be back this season. He has enjoyed it tremendously — probably more than he’s enjoyed any season in recent memory, and that includes numerous Final Fours and championships by our two local teams in this decade. (This is just a reminder that either Duke or Carolina has been in the Final Four in six of the last ten seasons; had Kendall Marshall not fractured his wrist against Creighton in 2012, it’d almost surely be seven.) The sheer coltish excitement of watching Duke’s freshmen learn on the job — not to mention Bagley’s breathtaking ability, Carter’s great old-man post defense, Gary Trent, Jr.s’ sweet shooting — and the subtler simmer of UNC’s development have yielded all kinds of rewards, including three games against one another this season, all of them entertaining. No one reads these posts, I barely edit them. They’re just to express a personal joy in watching the local college basketball, which is the greatest college basketball in the world.

But for me March Madness is closer to March Sadness. The season is coming to an end, and even though there’s baseball, our chance to watch college basketball players is by definition limited. Grayson Allen, Joel Berry, and Theo Pinson have built tremendous legacies around here, and it’s hard to say goodbye to these kids who have played so hard for so many minutes, games and seasons — and who have been growing up, in their own different and tangled ways, before our eyes. And then there are the inevitable early exits by players like Bagley, leaving us to wonder what could have been had they stayed longer. There’s always a point in the season, usually right around the first Duke-UNC game in early February, when you feel as though it’s all just getting fully going, and then you realize how soon it’s all going to end. It has been a blue winter in more ways than one, and the Tobacconist feels fully saturated in the color, be it sky or midnight or some amalgamated shade. The NCAA Tournament is an awful lot of fun, but it’s also driven by unpredictability, unfairness, and bitterly quick ends to long work. It’s as hard to watch as it is fun. And it may be that between those opposed feelings, the best thing to do is to take it in quietly and let it speak for itself.

I leave you with a beautiful tune by the Pernice Brothers that I always associate with the end of winter and coming of spring. It’s called “The Weakest Shade of Blue.”

The Tobacconist, Vol. 6

“Fandom is a great beacon of our cultural idiocy,” a pro ballplayer once told me. “Wanting your team to win and not understanding why they can’t is so dumb.” This has always stuck with me, not because I quite agree with it — why would there be sports at all if no one rooted for anyone? — but because the way I feel after my team loses is generally not so much disappointed or upset as something close to dumb, and dumb in a particular way; that is, for having any kind of emotional reaction to athletes winning or losing games.

The psychology of this reaction is complex and has surely inspired many studies, journal articles, cultural studies, and so on. I don’t feel the need to analyze it much more than we already do. And I need to qualify this by saying that I covered both Duke and UNC basketball as a journalist, which means that I have: A) a certain amount of objectivity (although you would be amazed by how many sports journalists are actually just diehard fans of some team or other); B) an unusual diffusion of what rooting interests I do possess. Not many people can get behind both of these rival programs.

For a longish time, I adopted the ballplayer’s no-rooting, fandom-is-idiocy ideology, because I have Buddhist tendencies and will look for ways to practice them. But over time, I’ve come to appreciate that fandom, expressed in certain ways, bespeaks a certain kind of generosity and ardor that I don’t really want to relinquish, and probably can’t even if I were to try. I grew up around here. I remember Rich Yonakor and Gene Banks and Ranzino Smith and Alaa Abdelnaby and where I was when [insert any number of great Duke and/or UNC moments here]. Our fandom dwells in our childhoods. To abandon it is to be less than our full selves.  Continue reading The Tobacconist, Vol. 6

The Tobacconist, Vol. 5

I was at last night’s game in Cameron Indoor Stadium, in which Duke thrashed Louisville, 82-56. I covered the Blue Devils in 2011-2012 and so had seen numerous games in the justly legendary building, but there’s something very different about sitting in the stands. It’s not just that I was literally on the other side of the court from press row, nor that I was with some friends who had kindly invited me. The whole feel of the experience is different; the eyes see differently; one’s investment is different. The specifics of the action on the court yield to a broader absorption: swaths of play; looks on players’ faces and attitudes of body language; and those almost mysterious rises and falls in collective intensity level that are like weather systems passing in quick time lapse.

Because I’d always gone straight into the press room when I was covering Duke, I had never thought to take the time to visit Cameron Indoor Stadium’s museum/shrine to Duke basketball and varsity sports generally. We arrived rather early and had some time on our hands, so we wandered through it. The one exhibit I’ll never forget was what I took to be an artist’s heroic rendering of  basketball shoe at an approximately 2:1 scale, about the size of a small dachshund. As I moved closer and read the placard, I discovered that it was an Actual. Shoe. Worn. By. Jahlil. Okafor. You know what they say about men with big shoesContinue reading The Tobacconist, Vol. 5

The Tobacconist, Vol. 4.

For a few years I worked for a redoubtable and stereotypical prima donna chef who was known to 86 menu items in order to force customers to order other ones; refuse to cook certain cuts of meat past a certain temperature regardless of whether it was ordered that way; deny his stock of nicer wine glasses to guests who didn’t spend an arbitrary minimum amount on their bottle; and so on. He drove his cooks like oxen and could be mercilessly hard on his floor staff as well, and harder still in affect because he didn’t throw Ramsay-ish tantrums. Instead he gave cold, calm, premeditated, dead-eyed, withering disapproval. It hurt up under the sternum to receive this treatment, but there was treatment of his that hurt even worse: being ignored. Once that happened to them a few times, waiters knew their time at the restaurant was short. They’d never be fired, of course: that could result in filing for unemployment, which the chef would never risk paying. He’d simply make them feel so exiled — abetted, somewhat unintentionally, even apologetically, by the rest of the front-of-house staff, who were too terrified to risk affiliation with a pariah — that they’d quit sooner or later, often as a means of putting and end to an unhappy spell working the restaurant’s Siberia section, which of course included Table 13.

After UNC beat Duke in Chapel Hill last Thursday night, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked about shooting guard Grayson Allen’s low scoring output. Krzyzewski began his answer like so: “Trevon…” Then he tailed off and rephrased his response: “Grayson had to handle the ball a lot.” He didn’t mention Trevon Duval again.

Continue reading The Tobacconist, Vol. 4.

The Tobacconist, Vol. 3

Is it going to go like this for the Tar Heels? Lose multiple games in a row and then come home and maul a lower-division conference opponent 96-66 (or 96-65) behind a big night by Luke Maye? At what point is the inflection point, if any, where progress begins? Everyone knows UNC is too talented and has too much experience to be as bad as they frequently are, so why, frequently, are they? This is really the question of the season in Chapel Hill, unless the team somehow gets so far past the inflection point that the Final Four becomes a legitimate subject. Continue reading The Tobacconist, Vol. 3

The Tobacconist, Vol. 2

Fun (or “fun”) stat: Yesterday, Duke and UNC both lost at home on the same day for the first time since 1973.

Are they panicking in Chapel Hill yet? The Tar Heels lost to their little brother in their own bedroom yesterday, and there’s every reason to worry that within thirty-six hours  they’ll have lost three games in a row. On Tuesday night they play at Clemson, where the very-good Tigers are waiting to avenge so forth and so on.

Roy Williams likes to say, after losses, that he has to coach better, although he doesn’t seem to have said it after yesterday’s defeat. I’ve always understood this habitual mea culpa as his way of playing possum in front of his team so that public complaint will be fired at him rather than on his amateur athletes. An admirable gambit, but will he, you know, coach better? One minor change to his customary postgame dadgummery this season is his recent admission that, although he still doesn’t believe that he (or anyone) should have to “coach effort,” he does in fact have to do that and he is trying. But that’s not his way and never has been. The Roy Squat, which he will occasionally adopt as his team, in the throes of a tight game, drops back into defense, is a show of motivation, but it sometimes strikes me that Williams’s efforts come too late–hence his famous habit of waiting too long to call timeouts, or never calling them at all. Continue reading The Tobacconist, Vol. 2

The Tobacconist, Vol. 1

I sometimes think I’m still covering the two blue teams around here. I watch them, I think about them, I care about them, I talk about them. I’ve been quite appalled by the NCAA for years, and have once or twice sworn off college sports. But when you do that, you abandon these young athletes who are out there on the courts and fields. They don’t care about the corruption around them; they’ve just come to play; and in their passion and pride they alone are responsible for lifting their sports out of the surrounding mire. What dignity and value big-time college sports have owes entirely to the people playing them, and we owe them gratitude and attention.

More locally, Duke and UNC are our greatest gift. To wake up in Durham or Chapel Hill every winter morning and know that we possess the most profound and potent energy source in college basketball is to feel unbelievably lucky. What we have here is something to celebrate, delight in, protect, and promote, as New Orleans does with its parades and Barcelona does with its Gaudí. So here’s some of that. Continue reading The Tobacconist, Vol. 1

Chrissie Hynde: Rock & Roll & Reading, Friday 9/15

Hynde Book Cover

What: Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography reading with live rock & roll.

When: Friday, September 15, 7:00 p.m. Free!

Where: Global Breath Studio, 119 W. Main St., 3rd Floor, Durham, NC.

Who: Adam Sobsey and “The Pretend Pretenders,” a band assembled just for the occasion.

Why: The recent publication of my biography of Chrissie Hynde, the legendary leader of the Pretenders.

A bit of background: In 2014, I was asked to contribute a biography to the American Music Series, edited by the venerable Raleigh-based music journalist David Menconi and published by University of Texas Press. I chose Chrissie Hynde, whose Hall of Fame band the Pretenders — best known for their tough- and melodically-minded pop-rock songs from the late seventies and early eighties, like “Brass in Pocket” and “Back on the Chain Gang” — are still very much alive and well, with a superb album out in 2016 and a recent US tour with Stevie Nicks. Hynde is an extraordinary and unique figure in pop music: she has an iconic voice and signature style; she’s “a self-possessed idol with no real forebears; a complete original who has trail-blazed for countless musicians [yet] has no true musical descendants,” as I put it in my book.

My musical biography focuses on Hynde as, above all, a great and greatly underrated songwriter. I hear her life through her music: from her well-publicized, Hindu-based vegetarianism to her complex feminism to her staunch commitment to motherhood. A review at Pop Matters called the book “gloriously comprehensive… I doubt there will be a need for another Hynde biography for some time as a result of the quality of this one.”

On Friday, I’ll read from the book, including excerpts about individual Pretenders songs, and the “Pretend Pretenders,” a quartet of excellent musicians from Greensboro, will play the songs. It will be great fun, perhaps illuminating, and there will be beer. Afterwards, I’ll have copies of the book available for purchase at a discount and signing.

For additional background, check out this Pretenders Spotify playlist I made for the book’s publisher or my preview of the Pretenders’ show in Durham last November. The webpage for the book itself is here.

The Pretend Pretenders and I hope to see you Friday!

ObScott: on the life and music of the late Scott Miller

 

Scott2Steps
Scott Miller recording Two Steps from the Middle Ages, 1988. Photo by Robert Toren.

On the Loud-Fans listserv in the 1990s, it was common to refer to Scott Miller as “Our Scott.” This usage was mainly to clear up any confusion with another Scott Miller, whose alt-country band called the V-Roys were popular at the same that Our Scott Miller’s band, the Loud Family, was active. The name Loud Family could cause confusion, too, because it was borrowed from the subject of a somewhat infamous reality TV show from the 1970s called An American Family. Our Scott Miller was multiply obscured, sometimes by his own choices. Even the praise he got from America’s foremost rock critic, Robert Christgau, in 1990, called him “a prototypical eighties artist: serious, playful, skillful, obscure, secondhand … rendering the ostensibly public essentially private.” (Another critic called his music “obscurantist pop.”)

That same year, Our Scott joked that “Erica’s Word,” the catchy 1986 single by his previous band, Game Theory, had only managed to earn them “national obscurity, as opposed to regional obscurity.” And he never relinquished the notion. On a Loud Family album released in 2000, pointedly named Attractive Nuisance, Miller sang of his own “willful obscurity” (summoning the rock-critical cliché “unjustly obscure”) and then quit making records. Thirteen years later he killed himself. He had just turned fifty-three.

Over the last couple of years, the revival label Omnivore Recordings has been re-releasing Game Theory’s entire catalog, all of it out of print since shortly after the band broke up at the end of the 1980s. Two months ago, Omnivore delivered the final Game Theory album, 2 Steps from the Middle Ages (1988), bringing the project to completion. That was followed, earlier this month, by another nominal Game Theory release: Supercalifragile, a crowdfunded album of songs derived from recorded fragments, notes, and ideas Our Scott was kicking around (including that title) just before he died, intending to make what would have been the first new Game Theory album in a quarter century. He had gone so far as to contact members of his old band. The project was revived by his widow, who enlisted pop maestro Ken Stringfellow to oversee a posthumous LP, something more than a tribute but less than a true Game Theory album, a sort of speculative assembly of a ghost’s ephemera, and with an initially ghostly presence, too: Supercalifragile has not yet been publicly released, only privately distributed to fundraising campaign backers. (The rough mix of one of its songs is on YouTube.) A few of the dozen or so musicians who helped write and played on the album are famous enough to draw limited outside attention to it, but mostly as a curio. With the Omnivore series complete, future opportunities to write about Our Scott will be few. Following the life, the afterlife, too, is coming to an end.

Continue reading ObScott: on the life and music of the late Scott Miller