Posted on October 08 2019
V&V friend and neighbor, Farnum Brown, caught up with his old colleague and chum, Mayor Steve Schewel, for a chat. For more than forty years Steve Schewel has championed a progressive and inclusive Durham. Read their conversation and then come hear more from Mayor Schewel at the next Vert & Vogue Happy Hour on Friday, October 18th, from 5:30 – 6:30pm. Tickets are free and drinks are on the house. Please RSVP to reserve your spot!
Mayor Steve Schewel:
Steve Schewel came to Durham to attend Duke as an undergraduate in 1969. He is a former school board member and city council member, and he now serves as Mayor of the City of Durham. His commitments are to issues of affordable housing, civil rights, policing and crime, shared prosperity, and the preservation of open space, trails and parks.
Steve co-founded the Independent Weekly and published it for nearly 30 years. Since 2000, he has taught in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke. Steve and Lao Rubert have raised two sons, both graduates of Durham Public Schools. Steve is a long-time youth soccer coach, a reader and runner, and he fancies himself a pretty good cook.
I met Steve Schewel in the late 1980s when he was founder and publisher of the Independent Weekly and I was a rock critic for the Spectator Magazine. Both were local rags. The Independent was based in Durham and was an award-winning weekly focused on political and investigative reporting with a decided progressive bent. The Spectator was almost the mirror image of the Independent. Based in Raleigh and owned by a raging libertarian, the Spectator focused exclusively on cultural coverage, especially pop music and most especially local pop music.
What was the Triangle like back in those days when two relatively sleepy southern towns nonetheless had two very different, very accomplished local weeklies that were far ahead of their time? How is it different now and how did those two publications contribute to that change?
We started the Independent (now Indy Week) in 1983, and at that time the Triangle was only beginning to become a region. In fact, I think our two papers, the Spectator and the Independent, were a big part of creating this idea of a region. Until then, there was RTP, a regional job hub, and RDU airport, but I don't think there was this sense of a unified scene for music and the arts. Our calendar and our cultural coverage included the whole Triangle. A Durham reader could learn all about Chapel Hill's exploding indie rock scene and about stand-up comedy in Raleigh.
At the same time, we were introducing a new kind of reporting into our region, just like alt weeklies were doing all over America. First, there were the long-form stories that defined alternative journalism. Second, we were doing deeply reported investigative stories, often giving weeks or months to our reporters to report a single story. Third, we encouraged our reporters to use their own voices, to write in the first person when appropriate, to make their point of view clear. Before long, the dailies were doing the same thing, at least until the Internet killed the newspaper business.
I like to think that the Independent also helped to change the political landscape in the Triangle. Our endorsements carried significant weight, as the Indy's endorsements still do, because we were trusted by our readers. Our political reporting had an edge that the dailies could never achieve. The Independent was founded to help build a just community in our beloved Triangle home, and we embraced that mission in everything we did. I think that, over three decades and more, we contributed to making the Triangle a more progressive place. At least I hope we did. And I believe the paper is still doing that.
In August 2017 the Unite the Right white supremacist rally marched on Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. We all know what happened. Days later a crowd of protestors toppled the statue of a confederate soldier in front of the old Durham Courthouse. A week later students and protestors at UNC Chapel Hill toppled Silent Sam, another statue of a confederate soldier. As Silent Sam fell the hashtag #doitlikedurham went viral on the interwebs.
What does "Do it like Durham" mean to you and what would you like it to mean in the future?
Unfortunately, in Durham, we are forced every day to cope with the depredations visited upon us by our state legislature. The legislature won't allow us to control guns in any way in Durham, even though more than 200 people are shot here every year. The legislature has weakened our local environmental regulations, denied us the ability to require affordable units to be included in new apartment developments, outlawed municipal broadband, hurt our ability to negotiate with Internet providers, and on and on.
When I think of "Do it like Durham," I think of the ways in which we have chosen as a community to work around or through those legislative proscriptions. For example, we want to have a local ID for our undocumented residents that is recognized by our police, libraries and schools, and so we adopted the Mexican matricula consular as a recognized ID. Then the legislature outlawed that, and so our public institutions now recognize the "Faith ID" issued by El Centro Hispano and carried by several thousand people. I carry that ID in solidarity with these Durham residents. The fact that our police recognize this ID means that we are not taking people to jail unnecessarily and potentially getting them involved with ICE and the immigration system.
"Do it like Durham" includes our Misdemeanor Diversion Court. Instead of arresting or citing people for small illegal acts, such as marijuana possession, these people are referred pre-arrest to the Misdemeanor Diversion Court. This means they do not get a criminal record of any sort, including an arrest record, which is critical to their future opportunities. And it means that they are kept out of the criminal justice system and its fines and fees. Instead, the special court refers them to services that they need. We would like to decriminalize marijuana possession in Durham, but the legislature won't let us. So instead we have this Durham workaround. And it's working. We have cut drug arrests in half over the last two years.
"Do it like Durham" means that we are finding our own path as often as we can to get over, through and around the legislative proscriptions we face. It doesn't always work--all our attempts to find a way to regulate guns in Durham have come to naught. But as often as we can, we find a Durham way.
Steve was one of the founders of Raleigh's annual Hopscotch Festival, which in 2010 was the first nationally recognized, popular-music festival in the Triangle.
How does it feel to you now that the Art of Cool Festival (Black American Music) and Moog Festival (Electronic) have come to Durham and Wide Open Bluegrass festival has come to Raleigh? Do you take some pride and maybe a little credit now that the Triangle has become a veritable hotbed of music festivals?
I'm really proud of having been one of the founders of Hopscotch. But the truth is that I was following the lead of two of our much-younger Independent staffers, Grayson Curran and Greg Lowenhagen, who led the creation of Hopscotch. For me, at age 58, I knew it was too late to take on the Rock Impresario role, so I just enjoyed the heck out of it. I loved the music, marveled at the gastronomic demands of the top-billed acts, rode my bike around Raleigh in the middle of the night checking on venues, prayed that the rain wouldn't come, and mainly paid the bills. In the five years that I was an owner of the festival, we lost money most of them. But what a wonderful ride! And how cool to get to hang out with Questlove.
The dialectic of urban revitalization/gentrification is playing out across the country and Durham is no exception. From many long conversations we've had, I know that you’re more knowledgeable about housing policy at the federal, state and local levels than I’ll ever be. In one of our conversations you expressed a truism that is often forgotten, which is that there is no perfect equilibrium: in the life of a city, the community is either investing or dis-investing in it. It is either expanding or contracting.
How do you, as Mayor, plan to insure that as Durham enjoys the benefits of robust growth, those benefits are equitably distributed among all those who live in Durham?
This question has an answer that is way too long to give here, but I'll take a stab at the short version. First, this is what I wake up every day thinking about as mayor. This is why I do the job--to help meet this challenge. Our city is in a period of tremendous prosperity. The question is: How can the city we love be a city for all? That is the defining question for our community, as it is for all of the many prosperous cities in America now. Gentrification and unaffordability are not just Durham problems. These problems are much worse in Brooklyn and San Francisco and Boston. We want to take on these problems here before we become like those cities--less diverse and less affordable.
While we can't stop the market forces that are driving gentrification, there is a lot we can do to make a difference. Right now, the people who are moving to Durham are making $10,000 more in annual income than the people who live here now. These newcomers are driving up the price of housing, especially in the near-downtown neighborhoods, and this is driving out long-term renters and home-owners, especially black and brown families who are being forced to the margins of our city, far from jobs, amenities, schools and transit.
We can accept this future for our city, or we can choose another future that is worthy of the Durham we love. The first way to do that is to pass the $95 million affordable housing bond that is on the ballot on Nov. 5. This bond intervenes in a bold way against the market forces. The bond will, over five years, affordably house 15,000 low-income Durham residents. It will fight homelessness, provide 400 home-ownership opportunities for first-time low-income home-buyers. It will build or preserve thousands of affordable units. It will stabilize nearly 3,000 renters and homeowners in their current affordable homes. It will redevelop five Durham Housing Authority properties downtown, turning them into mixed-income communities so that the DHA residents are living in neighborhoods with resources they can draw on. The bond includes a jobs program so that public housing and other low-income Durham residents can get trained for the good construction, property management and other jobs that the bond program will bring. The bond will leverage private construction spending of about $440 million, and at least $130 million of that amount will be contracted out to minority and women-owned businesses. The bond is a way to intervene in a major way against the market forces making our city less diverse and less affordable. We can house thousands of people and create tremendous economic opportunity as well.
I will mention only one more way, among many, that we in City government are trying to make our city more equitable and inclusive. In this year's City budget, we have included $300,000 to stand up a non-profit to train, connect to resources, and advocate for minority- and women-owned businesses that have been historically disadvantaged in Durham. The second step in this plan is to create a debt and equity fund that these businesses can access for start-up and growth.
WE HOPE YOU'LL JOIN US ON OCTOBER 18 TO VISIT WITH OUR SPECIAL GUEST, MAYOR STEVE SCHEWEL, AND ENJOY A DRINK ON THE HOUSE! RSVP HERE.
P.S. A special MERCI BEAUCOUP to the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University for co-sponsoring this event! You can learn more about their work here.