DURHAM - Last month, neighborhood activist John Schelp fought off
the asphalt industry's effort to build more plants in Durham.
Nearly 20 years ago, as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Congo,
he taught English, amid sick, starving children.
Both times, he felt the same impulse. He wants to build the community
he lives in.
"You see something that's wrong and you want to fix it," said
Schelp, sitting in his living room in Old West Durham, wearing an
African vest that matches the tapestries and masks on the wall.
In a city bursting with jostling political interests, Schelp,
40, is emerging as one of its most effective activists. Since 1998,
he has taken his century-old neighborhood, an old mill village sliding
into decline, and given it a new name and a new identity. Last year,
he shaped a city law to limit where high-density apartments could
be built. He also helped get city and state historic markers celebrating
Durham's old blues musicians.
Schelp, who projects both calm and high energy, has built relationships
with politicians, business leaders and other neighborhood groups.
He is president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association
and an executive committee member of the Durham NAACP. He is also
a member of the People's Alliance political group, where he was
vice president before being recruited to the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People.
People ask so often if he's going to run for office that he has
a stock response: Don't hold your breath.
His motivation springs from his Peace Corps experience, Schelp
"When you see a child with a potbelly and a runny nose and flies
flying around his head, when you see that kind of abject poverty,
it changes you forever," he said. "You develop a purpose. You develop
a clearer sense of what's right and what's wrong in the world."
For Schelp, a native of Washington, D.C., whose parents took him
traveling all over the world, the asphalt battle was his most visible
triumph yet. By accident, he came across a proposal by two companies
to change the city rules to open up 10 more sites for possible asphalt
plants. He discovered that all but one of the sites were in East
Durham, where poor blacks and Hispanics would bear the smell, noise
and possible health problems from the plants.
He went into battle as chairman of the NAACP's community committee.
He rallied residents, students, and an army of data. The industry
backed down, withdrawing its proposal. The City Council will vote
on the proposal Monday, and Schelp expects it to be defeated, meaning
it could not be reintroduced for a year.
People often ask what a white man is doing in the NAACP. Only
one other white person has sat on the executive committee in recent
Schelp chuckles. The NAACP was founded by both blacks and whites,
he said. The branch president, the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, calls Schelp
a star among the members.
"It exemplifies the fact that black and white people can work
together and be effective together," Gatewood said.
Before the asphalt battle, Schelp did most of his work as president
of the neighborhood association. Its members credit him for giving
Old West Durham its own identity, even its name. Before 1995, it
had neither. Real estate agents told their clients the area was
part of Watts Hillandale or the Ninth Street area.
In the late 1980s, it had hit rock bottom, Schelp said, when Erwin
Cotton Mills closed and many residents lost their jobs.
The neighborhood coalesced after an ugly incident in 1995. Three
men on Oakland Avenue started an intimidation campaign against their
neighbors, a white woman and a black woman who lived together. The
men used the N-word and shot off guns at night. One night, they
shouted vulgar, anti-black and anti-gay epithets through a bullhorn.
Schelp wrote a letter to the editor denouncing their behavior.
Then, just as he and his wife were having their first baby, they
started getting hate calls and hang-ups. A red pickup truck cruised
past their house every day.
The ringleader was indicted for a hate crime, in the first successful
indictment using the state's hate- crime statute. Another was evicted
from his house, and the third later died, Schelp said.
In 1998, the neighbors elected Schelp president of the association.
He started small --with a sign.
He wanted to put a sign announcing the neighborhood on Ninth Street,
its commercial heart, but city and state officials told him it would
be impossible. The city owned the land; the state owned the right-of-way;
there was too much red tape, they said.
But Schelp persisted, and they got their sign.
Today, the green and cream sign on Hillsborough Road reads, "Old
West Durham: Diversity, Harmony, Community."
Schelp staged a ceremony. A City Council member came, a police
captain came. One merchant paid for the $600 sign; others donated
biscuits and flowers. The sun shone. Schelp was building a community.
"That little sign ceremony pulled together the neighborhood,"
Schelp said. "It was a huge shot in the arm. We had arrived."
He and neighbor Pam Spaulding started an Old West Durham Web site:
There are oral histories. It tells the neighborhood's history, house
by house. The photo captions set down memories of places like the
house on Green Street that held people's stashes of white lightning
in floor-to-ceiling cabinets during Prohibition. It has dozens of
links, with newspaper articles and information about neighborhood
Schelp started mailing the Web site's address to the City Council,
the Board of County Commissioners, all the political leaders, Spaulding
said. It won awards from local and state historic preservation societies.
The Library of Congress chose it as one of the state's 44 "local
legacies," along with the N. C. State Fair and the American Dance
"It was as if the neighborhood was almost discovered as a result
of his one-man campaign," said Spaulding, 38.
Schelp arranged a neighborhood cleanup of a cemetery for workers
at the old Erwin Cotton Mills. Neighbors and mill workers' descendants
discovered the old graves and made it an annual event. Another piece
of the neighborhood had been resurrected, named, claimed.
Then came bigger projects. When a mammoth apartment building was
planned near Erwin Square office tower, Schelp worked with the developers
to make the design reflect the nearby Erwin Mill building, with
a red-brick facade and tall windows. Construction on the 340-unit
complex is scheduled to start this summer.
More important, he put the neighborhood's mark on the new law
that the city council had to pass to allow the new, high-density
complex. He shaped the law so that high-density complexes may only
be built near the stops planned for the future regional rail system.
Each project must also include open space.
Then came Ninth Street North, a big commercial building cater-cornered
from Elmo's Diner on Ninth Street. Again, Schelp and the neighbors
worked with the developer to add red brick to the design, and set
the building close to the street like the older Ninth Street buildings.
Only once, Schelp says, has the association had to battle with
a developer. That was Marvin Barnes, owner of M.M. Fowler oil company,
who owns, among other gas stations, the new Family Fare on Broad
Street at the corner of Markham Avenue.
Barnes originally planned a big, flat "interstate-style" roof,
two rows of pumps and a conventional-looking convenience store.
Schelp and the residents wanted him to use a sloped roof, one row
of pumps, and the store's original design. They won.
Schelp is a fighter, Barnes said. If he's against your project,
he'll find a way to stop it, or at least delay it.
But in the case of the Family Fare, Barnes said, "What we ended
up doing is more attractive from a lot of people's perspective.
And because it's been well received, I would say he was right."
One of Schelp's latest projects is to create a neighborhood gathering
space in a patch of creek and meadow across Green Street from E.K.
Powe Elementary School. The city has promised to pay for it, and
Schelp will have to negotiate with the owners of Erwin Square, whom
he expects will build near it.
The neighborhood has no parks, he said. It needs a place to hold
its picnics and potlucks.
"We need to create a heart of our community, and this would be
it," he said.