Like so many US urban neighborhoods, Durham’s Ninth Street district is an eclectic neighborhood that is in transition. Locally owned restaurants and retail shops have begun to disappear; in their place are large, expensive, multi-family rental housing with all the trappings that one would expect from high end luxury Single Family Homes such as stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. There’s even a Harris-Teeter Supermarket serving fresh salads, sushi, Starbucks and more.
This area, located roughly between the main campus and east campus of Duke to the South (Main Street/9th Street) bounded to the North by North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (W. Club/9th Street) is less than a mile long but it has always been a shopping and entertainment destination. Like much of Durham however, it has maintained a unique, quirky character. Can Ninth Street and the surrounding neighborhoods maintain their character and thrive? That’s the pertinent question.
Certainly Durham has been in development mode for a while, with notable successes like the Durham Performing Arts Center and the American Tobacco facility, an area of trendy restaurants, high tech businesses and entrepreneurs of all kinds. There are plans for at least two towering projects, one of which is a hotel-museum in the old SunTrust building. It is hoped that this type of density will lead to a real “downtown” feel in that area.
Unlike downtown though, Ninth Street has height restrictions and a quaint, comfortable ambience to maintain. The surrounding neighborhoods are composed of modest, comfortable houses and apartment complexes while chain stores are rare. The Old West Durham neighborhood is separated from Duke’s main campus by the Durham Freeway and the east campus forms the neighborhood’s border in that direction. More affordable neighborhoods to the north are Watts-Hillandale and Walltown.
Like much of the community, Ninth Street is built on local, distinctive shops. The college taverns, the storefront boutiques and restaurants invite browsing and carousing.
Durham’s uniqueness has been validated on a large scale recently, as it has been named the “Tastiest Town” by Southern Living magazine in it’s May 2013 edition. Though this endowment was specifically focused on the downtown area, with creative chefs using local ingredients as the reason, Durham as a whole has a great variety of tasty items and all manner of restaurants. Rue Cler, a bakery café, downtown mainstay Pop’s and creative sandwich shop Toast dot the downtown area. Brightleaf Square, a converted tobacco warehouse and concourse has some fine spots to watch the Duke game and snack on pizza and wings, both inside and across the street. It also features some boutique restaurants and a Brazilian barbecue restaurant. Further west, the original Q shack dishes out pork bbq, ribs and brisket, with a bunch of sides including spinach and collards.
Ninth Street is largely casual, with pizza, tacos and burgers predominating. This is likely to change with the new housing and shopping areas to come. There’s no doubt these projects will be a boon for businesses in the area, as well as students and visitors looking for shopping and entertainment. Large scale developments like Brightleaf Square have built upon the existing framework to add to the character of the area, while increasing commerce. Ninth Street could also use a face lift. Only time will tell if it can maintain it’s unique character in the process.
Sean O’Shea is a mortgage lender in Raleigh-Durham North Carolina