Sunday, 10:00 a.m. Sunny.
Total cars in deck: 22.
In hourly spaces: 13.
No cars on Level 7:
The day after Christmas was unusually warm, and I had some time on my hands, so I went up to the roof, Level 7, with something to read. I made myself comfortable on a ledge that probably wasn’t intended for people to sit on but makes a good bench nonetheless and affords a panoramic view north from downtown. The deck wasn’t designed as a recreational space, of course, and it is almost entirely concrete, although its ostensible pure functionality is betrayed by some surprising aesthetic aspects; but because it is virtually never used for its designated purpose, parking — more on that below — it provides an openness and serenity of the sort central Durham lacks. It is a very pleasant urban retreat.
After I’d been reading for about two hours, a guard wearing an Allied Security jacket — Allied is the private company contracted by the City of Durham to patrol its parking garages — emerged from one of the elevators, walked unhurriedly over to where I was sitting, and told me I had to leave.
He gave this command courteously and without urgency. I, also courteous, told him I often came up here for the views. He replied that that “they” — meaning, I presumed, the supervisors to whom he answers — had seen me on the security camera and told him to come up and tell me I wasn’t allowed to be here. I asked him why not. He said it wasn’t safe. I told him I was only reading. He said a security guard had been killed earlier in the year. (In the small hours of a morning in May, an Allied guard named Jay Aaron Foust was shot dead in the alleyway that runs from Mangum Street along the south face of the deck. The crime does not appear to have been solved.)
The guard was only doing his job, so I did not protest. I did not tell him that two other people had come up to the roof level of the deck during the time I had been reading on it, one on foot via the elevator and the other in a pickup truck bearing the logo of an HVAC service company; both visitors spent a substantial amount of time taking in the views and hadn’t been asked to leave. I did not tell him that over the last few months I had had exchanges on Level 7 with multiple guards — including, if memory served, this very guard — all of whom asked me courteously if I was okay; when I replied that I was fine and merely taking in the nice views, all of them told me that was fine and left me alone.
I especially did not say to the guard that, given that it was one of his colleagues who had been killed near the garage, he was warning me of a danger much greater for him than it was for me. Later, I pondered on the contradiction inherent in building the Morgan-Rigsbee Parking Garage, or any similar structure: the City of Durham tacitly acknowledged that the garages it built were dangerous by hiring people to patrol them. a patrol which put them in danger of being murdered. I thought about the curious logic, or lack of it, attached to this (rather circular) chain of consequences. I thought about a married couple I know who live in a downtown Durham apartment and rent a parking space in a nearby city deck. They told me that trips to and from the car fill them with apprehension and anxiety. The garage is “creepy,” they said, and they’re always looking over their shoulders.
As I said, the guard was simply following his orders; I wanted to follow his in turn, genially and without protest. The rules aren’t his; they probably aren’t even those of the people who told him to enforce them. With my assurances that I would gather my things and leave, he walked away, having done his job. I finished reading the section of my book, collected my things, and left the deck about ten minutes later.
The notion of parking generally had been on my mind since I wrote a biography of rock musician Chrissie Hynde, published in 2017. Hynde was born in Akron, Ohio, but moved to London in the early 1970s and has lived there ever since. When asked why she expatriated, Hynde explained that she loved English music, but also made a point of adding that she also wanted to get away from American “car culture.” In one of her songs, written in 1982, she laments that “all my favorite places” in Akron had been “torn down, reduced to parking spaces,” an update on Joni Mitchell’s 1970 observation in song that “they paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”
While I was writing my book about Hynde, the notion — and it was only a notion — of parking came to mind more locally when I published an article about the challenges facing downtown Durham retailers in 2016. Parking shortages were a nearly universal refrain of interviewees, who included Steve Schewel, then a city councilman, soon to be Durham’s mayor. It was Schewel who alerted me to the impending construction of the Morgan-Rigsbee Parking Garage, where my photo project has been conducted. “The new garage is necessary,” its accompanying press release explained, “due to an unprecedented demand for parking in City-owned public parking facilities.”
So many people I spoke with while working on that article invoked parking that I began to wonder what they really meant, as I habitually do whenever I hear a word or phrase repeated over and over again without elaboration and with little context . (In America, that phrase is often “the economy” or its cousin “jobs,” especially during political campaigns.) It’s akin to the experience of hearing a familiar word incessantly repeated until it loses its meaning and becomes nonsense. I live in downtown Durham, and I always see plenty of available parking spaces both in garages and on the street, from which virtually nothing inside the Loop is more than ten-minutes on foot. Perhaps that was what people objected to: walking, no matter how short the distance; with the growth and development of central Durham they were likelier to have to park a little farther away from their destinations. (Anyone who has lived in a big city can tell you that a final foot commute to the destination from transportation, be it private or public, is a normal part of daily life.) Or perhaps what they didn’t like was the conversion of street parking spaces from free to metered, which took place around downtown shortly after I published the article.
But all of that is car culture at its most deeply embedded, unexamined, and unconsidered: the belief, even the instinct, that there should be no separation whatsoever between people and their cars, that the vehicle should be permitted to be more or less directly on-site, no matter the site’s location; and that the vehicle must be accommodated at no cost. It is essentially giving rights and privileges to cars that not even most people enjoy. It’s making cars more important than people.
It wasn’t just automobiles that drove Chrissie Hynde out of America but their culture: the entire way of life they create. I began to wonder if the clamor for downtown parking was a common, automatic response to the recognition that more people were coming to the area; and if there were more people, there had to be more places for their cars, because people are (America is) so inseparable from cars that we can’t help prioritizing them above everything else, whether we need places to park them or not. Think of what could have been built on the acre-plus of prime downtown land the Morgan-Rigsbee Parking Garage occupies: places to live, work, shop, dine, play, relax—places, that is, for human beings. But of all the things that could have been put there, assuming something had to be put there at all (there had already been a parking lot there before construction on the deck began), the city chose another place to stow 665 cars, even if there was an insufficient number of cars to warrant the choice.
I live four blocks from the deck. I observed the progress of its construction every day for nearly two years. Even for a parking deck, it seemed unusually large and unsightly, partly because its mostly rectangular design includes an elbow that allows it to occupy as much of the plot of land as possible. And of course there was the inconvenience of months on end of traffic obstruction, closed sidewalks, noise and debris. These daily hassles tend to be publicly accommodated and officially ignored, dismissable as “growing pains” while they’re happening and forgotten after the fact; but living among them makes inuring oneself, and hence forgetting, more difficult.
The Morgan-Rigsbee Parking Garage opened in March 2019. There was an official ceremony; Mayor Schewel cut the ribbon himself. On the day of the event, the City of Durham’s Twitter account raved:
We gotta say…some amazing views of downtown #Durham are from the top of our new @movesafedurham Morgan-Rigsbee Parking Garage! 📸 pic.twitter.com/1Qg07fOxgi— CityofDurhamNC (@CityofDurhamNC) March 7, 2019
I found it odd that opening a parking garage would occasion a ceremony, and odder still that the Mayor would preside over it; it seemed a misuse of his time and his authority. But the oddest thing was the city’s tweet about the views. Obviously it was just a piece of pro forma positive-mindedness expressed by the social media manager, but it was hard to know what to make of a tweet praising views no one would ever be able to enjoy except while walking a few paces from a parked car to an elevator. It sounded almost like a taunt. Then it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t necessary to park a car up there in order to enjoy the views. I made a note to do that sometime.
My wife and I went overseas not long after the deck opened, delighting all summer in the non-car culture of places we visited in Europe and the Caucasus, from Albania to Azerbaijan, where some streets in city centers are customarily closed to cars entirely, permanently pedestrianized, thronging with people on foot day and night. As an American in Baku, which has a lot of pedestrianized urban space, I worried that “we will wake up one day to find that the world we thought we were leading has taken an alternate and faster route to some completely different destination and left us still driving our cars to nowhere while civilization is soaring up and away to heights undreamt.” A week later, in early July, I suggested that Durham “salvage the unforgivable outrage that is the hideous and barely utilized new parking garage at Mangum and Morgan by turning the roof deck into a city park.”
When we returned from our trip, I thought the first step in pursuing this purpose was to see if I was wrong about it. Perhaps there really was “unprecedented demand” that made the new deck “necessary”; perhaps I was wrong to have announced from Europe that it was “barely utilized” and that I would find it full of cars. So I started making almost daily visits to the Morgan-Rigsbee Parking Garage, usually just taking pictures, sometimes staging little mini-scenes just for the fun of it. At one point, I found a table and chair up there, both city-owned (there are dozens in the small public spaces scattered around downtown), and stashed them for occasional use in one of the odd nooks found around the roof. At some point over the last couple of weeks, someone moved the chair away from the table, all the way down to the other end of the unusual walkway that runs across the north face of the deck. There is something cheering about this mysterious rearrangement — signs of life other than mine up here:
My main interest, though, was in seeing what was actually going on up there from day to day. In short: were people parking in the Morgan-Rigsbee Parking Garage? Was it fulfilling its intended purpose? The answer was no. Most days, there were no cars at all on the roof level, perhaps one or two at most, and not many on the six lower levels, either. Eventually, I started taking a count when I went to visit the garage. It soon became clear that during the week there are about 150-200 monthly-contract clients using the deck — which, as I said, holds 665 vehicles — and usually a couple dozen cars in the designated hourly spaces (of which there are about 150) on the lower levels. At night and on weekends, occupancy drops precipitously and it’s normal to count fewer than a hundred cars in the deck. (On the Sunday of CenterFest, which inundates downtown with thousands of visitors for a weekend in September, I was shocked to find the garage almost completely empty; perhaps there were two-dozen cars in it all told.) At maximum usage, the deck is never more than about a third full. We don’t need this parking garage.
It could be objected that we may, or even will, eventually need it as Durham continues to grow. The obvious counter-objection is this: If the city, having presumably done its research and planning before approving the plan and funds to build the garage — which was budgeted at $23 million — found that it had years to accommodate 665 additional cars downtown (not really that many, all things considered, especially for the size of what was built to accommodate them), then surely a better way than this garage could have been imagined. But this is what our car culture produces. The blight of garages — ugly, dangerous, anti-human, environmentally damaging — has been known to us for half a century, as Joni Mitchell and Chrissie Hynde (and others) have periodically reminded us. It was this retrograde vision that I had in mind when I wrote, from Baku, that the rest of the world is taking an alternate and faster route to some completely different destination while America keeps on driving to nowhere, especially to the nowhere of null spaces like parking decks. When we picture what a city could look like, we see a fifty-year-old concrete hulk. We are stuck in a long-abandoned past. The problem is that the past, as we’ve rebuilt it at Morgan and Rigsbee, has killed the future. The garage has voided these 1.2 acres, forever. (As to the objection that the deck includes a few ground-level retail spaces, nearly a year after it opened these spaces remain unoccupied and indeed unfinished.)
What can be done about it is to salvage a portion of it by turning the roof level into a city park, as I proposed idly from Europe over the summer. My proposal isn’t idle anymore. For one thing, downtown Durham badly needs a park. It doesn’t have one of any substance. Level 7 has good views. It has open space, more than an acre of it. It could have benches, some greenery. It could be a place where people like to go and spend time, instead of a place people get out of as quickly as possible, or—as it is now—a place people know nothing about at all and would have no reason to know about. And it could help increase patronage and revenue for the deck’s sparsely used six lower levels.
Of course there are logistical issues: liability, engineering, maintenance, etc. My plan is to do some of that legwork and then present a proposal to transform the roof of the Morgan-Rigsbee Parking Garage into the Park on the Deck, or the Parking Park, or (my favorite) Level 7 Park. Rooftop gardens are in vogue right now, not least for environmental reasons, and there is an incipient trend in city garage parks and recreational spaces, as well, in places like greater Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Philadelphia. (Apparently, Raleigh was planning to build a rooftop park, too, but the project was canceled for lack of money.) The City of Durham could redeem this virtually unused, dangerous, and unhealthy $23 million garage. Indeed, the solution nearly already exists in the latent form of an innovative city park. The city has put itself at the vanguard of a phenomenon.
It would probably not take much to make this imagined place a reality. It would certainly take a great deal less than it took to build the parking garage.
I could use input and help from people with relevant experience in design, urban planning, and so on. If you’d like to participate in my proposal and project, please contact me. Otherwise, wish me luck. Wish us all luck.