It was meant to be temporary. I was not meant to get attached. Three years in the deep(er) south for school, and then my Yankee patootie could scramble back up north. I really just needed a rental apartment and a good coffee shop to make that work.
Three years later, I found myself inexplicably heartbroken at my impending move. Durham had captured my heart in a wholly unexpected way.
Before my then-boyfriend received an offer to Duke Law School, Durham was not on my radar. In fact, North Carolina as a whole was not on my radar. I was aware of its existence but didn’t really foresee a need for me to ever fully investigate it, much like the deep web or Hegelian philosophy. I wouldn’t say I was uncooperative, but I was less than thrilled to leave my cozy college town.
When we arrived in Durham just in time for the cruel summer heat, I was unemployed and friendless. My family lived hundreds of miles away; I was bored, sweaty, and lonely. I had trouble relating to my boyfriend’s friends at Duke and struggled to meet other people my age, and knowing our time in Durham was short, I didn’t want to get attached. Depression set in quickly, and my social anxiety nearly paralyzed me.
As my boyfriend became busier and busier at school, I found myself home alone for hours on end. At some point, the scale tipped and I realized that I would have to dig myself out of this hole. The only way to make it through would be to make myself at home. And Durham, this weird little city in the South, welcomed me with open arms.
I started out by exploring local coffee shops, where I could both participate in the community but it was still socially acceptable for me to hide behind a book. Plus, I just have a raging coffee addiction. Cocoa Cinnamon on Geer Street was one of my first stops. I was so overwhelmed by the menu that I did something I rarely do – I asked the barista for a suggestion. Within minutes I was being handed a frothy, cool, iced Caoba topped with whipped cream. That was all the convincing I needed: Cocoa Cinnamon was my new favorite place.
As I returned over the following weeks, Central Park quickly became my favorite part of town. From piles of classy home-cooking at Geer Street Garden to old- school-cool chicken sandwiches at King's, from folks drinking beer with their friends and dogs at Motorco and Fullsteam to yogis leaving Durham Yoga Company with blissed-out smiles, from the weekly farmer’s market to seasonal food truck rodeos, everything in this little four block radius captured my heart (and yes, I am aware that the vast majority of those things are food-related. No shame).
The Central Park Farmer’s Market in particular made me feel at home. In my past towns, farmer’s markets were an anomaly, something you attended when you felt guilty about your carbon footprint or you started dating a hippie. In Durham, however, the farmer’s market was a way of life. Less a grocery stop and more a weekly block party, families filled the market to both snag fresh produce and catch up with each other and friends. Children with sticky drips of LocoPops dripping down their forearms sat in the grass, preteens enjoying the freedom of roaming the market in groups made beelines for Pie Pushers, and young folks with excited dogs pulling at their leashes chowed down on Rise chicken biscuits. I felt immediately at home.
Meanwhile, I branched out to other coffee shops. Beyu Café poured heart and soul into their drinks and gave me a starting off point to explore the rest of City Center. Joe Van Gogh provided a shot of caffeine while allowing me to observe the habits of that mysterious and much-misunderstood breed, the harried Duke student. Bean Traders became the perfect reward for a run on the American Tobacco Trail. Triangle Coffee House and Madhatter's eventually led me to my new church, Blacknall Presbyterian, and my new favorite bookshop, The Regulator. I even ventured outside Durham to Chapel Hill, where Caffe Driade provided a cool outdoor oasis from the summer humidity and Honeysuckle Tea House brought out my inner hippie.
When I eventually landed a job at UNC, I found myself happier and happier to return to my Durham haven when the clock struck five and found more ways to become involved in my new community. One day, while exploring downtown, I happened upon the Central Park School for Children Strawberry Festival. I was utterly charmed and was inspired to take an after-school teaching job there the following year. Spending time at this unique school that was so utterly enveloped by the community shaped my view of Durham as well as my beliefs towards education and healthy communities as a whole.
That same year, my boyfriend proposed. We celebrated at Rue Cler, where we immediately and coincidentally ran into friends. When it came time to tie the knot, there was no question that it would be at Duke Gardens, surrounded by out-of-town family and friends in the sweltering August heat that I had finally learned to embrace.
My final year living in Durham coincided with the 2016 presidential elections - not a pleasant time for anyone attempting to remain engaged in politics while also maintaining a semblance of mental balance. I’ll be honest in saying that I was devastated at the results of Election Night. Taking a mental health day from work the following morning, I found myself at the safest place I could think of - Cocoa Cinnamon - where I knew I wouldn’t be judged for my sweatpants, puffy eyes, and general fatigue. As I sipped coffee and read, over the course of two hours I witnessed over a dozen friends, neighbors, and acquaintances cry, comfort, and conversate with each other. Over the following months, I watched with pride as this little city reaffirmed its values as an accepting, progressive, and kind community both in public statements and private daily actions.
There is something incredibly empowering and uplifting about living in a community in which locals are genuinely happy to live. Sure, much of the population is transient - the nature of being surrounded by many major universities means students, fellows, families, and professionals rotate in and out every few years. But I never got the impression that those in Durham temporarily were there begrudgingly, nor that those there for the long term were running on autopilot. Durham is by no means a perfect place - here, history and its waters of discontent run deeps, politics can be complicated, grudges die slowly. Here, too, are assholes. But there is a palpable sense of pride in Durham, in both its history and its sizzling potential.
When people ask me what Durham is like, I know what they’re expecting - because I once expected it too. Frankly, they just don’t expect much from a small city smack dab in the middle of North Carolina. And that might be our secret power. New restaurants are popping up left and right. Long abandoned gas stations, motor repair centers, and government buildings are being re-purposed in creative and forward-thinking ways. Festivals pepper the town throughout the year. With small, vibrant pockets of highly-engaged residents, the community continually re-evaluates and celebrates its core values. With no expectations to limit us, the citizens of Durham have only the sky to reach for.