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.


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


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