Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Durham, North Carolina was once a tobacco hub. Mayor William Bell talks about on his city’s post-industrial transformation—and the challenges that come with it.
By the late 20th century, Durham, North Carolina, was in a downwards spiral. The former tobacco hub was bleeding jobs. And by the turn of the century, its downtown area was a shell with boarded-up storefronts, blighted housing, and abandoned factories.
In the last two decades however, the city has seen its fortune reverse. It now boasts a growing research and development sector, and a swelling young population. Cranes peck at new development around the city. If you walk around downtown, you can see new beer gardens, restaurants, cafés, and renovated industrial lofts. And there’s more to come.
“We’ve done over a million-square feet of rehabilitation of of our tobacco factories,” Mayor William Bell said in an interview at CityLab 2018 in Paris. “What you find now is that people are living there, working there—the whole scene has changed.”
The bulk of this revitalization happened under Bell, a former IBM engineer and longtime public servant, who took the mayoral seat in 2001. It seems many people were happy with his leadership; he was reelected six times after that.
In our conversation, Bell reflected on the lessons learned, and some of the ways his city is now thinking of approaching affordable housing and transit expansion. We also talk about how he has led a blue city in a red state through recent controversies, including the toppling of a confederate monument. Watch below: