Building community, home by home, block by block

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By Bob Ashley -- Durham Herald-Sun

A couple of sentences in an article last Sunday by Blake Strayhorn, executive director for Habitat for Humanity, stuck with me.

Strayhorn wrote about a Habitat success, citing a story from a young man, Adriel “AJ” Holland, who described the apartment where he lived as a youngster.

“In 17-D, AJ learned to tell gunshots from fireworks,” Strayhorn wrote. “Before he was 10, AJ saw a man shot as he took out the trash.”

Too many children in Durham have learned what a gunshot sounds like. Too many have died from gunshots -- the first homicide victim in Durham this year was 9-year-old Jaeden Sharpe. Vigils for slain teens are all too common.

No magic wand will wave across Durham and eliminate our too-frequent violent deaths. But the story of AJ Holland – recounted again by the young man at Durham Habitat’s “foundation breakfast” last week – and of Habitat are reasons to hope we can eventually triumph.

Coincidentally, Strayhorn’s column appeared as a murder trial was underway in Durham.  Robert Earl Wilkerson is charged with slaying 83-year-old George Junior Pratt in April 2010. North Hyde Park Avenue figures in the story – Wilkerson and an accomplice allegedly drove Pratt’s car there after shooting him and tossing him out. They searched it for valuables and left it there.

In 2010, North Hyde Park was a place that could easily happen. It was lined with dilapidated houses abandoned but for an occasional squatter.

Durham Habitat has very intentionally set out to change that picture.

Today, Strayhorn wrote in March, “The 400 and 500 blocks on North Hyde Park Avenue and North Maple Street are in the ‘battleground.’ Many streets in NECD include boarded-up, abandoned houses, but North Hyde Park and North Maple are different.  

“Within the past 18 months, six families on these short blocks built and bought rehabbed homes in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Durham. Habitat also repaired four homes for existing NECD homeowners.  The vacant shells of historic homes had potential, and today are vibrant and alive. Two of the six won Preservation Durham Conservation Awards last year.  

“Residents on North Hyde Park and North Maple say they feel safe, and that their streets are quieter than neighboring streets. They credit a committed group of neighbors who look out for each other, as well as Habitat’s work. As one homeowner says, ‘When Habitat comes into a neighborhood, it’s going to change.’”

Habitat is one of many groups engaged in what Mayor Bill Bell called in a video “block by block transformation” in East Durham. The city focuses significant effort there, and nonprofits such as KidzNotes, the East Durham Children’s Initiative, Preservation North Carolina and Preservation Durham are hard at work.

Habitat has for years helped determined people of modest means own homes. In recent years, it has ramped up those efforts significantly and made transforming troubled North East Central Durham a mission.

In Durham Habitat’s first 20 years, it built 150 houses. In the past nine years, it has built the same number – more than doubling its pace. The acceleration continues.

AJ Holland is a high school senior, headed in the fall to N. C. A & T University.

Six years ago, shortly after moving into the family’s new home in the Golden Belt neighborhood, AJ wrote, “To me my habitat home is more than a place where I live. It’s my every thing.”

Durham Habitat’s credo is “building community.” AJ, those homes on North Hyde Park and scores more are testimony that it does indeed do that.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or

Habitat Success Stories

Anita and her sister thought they were experiencing night sweats but realized that it was raining inside their home. Habitat partnered with Blue Cross Blue Shield to replace their roof. "I used to go to bed every night and the rain would be all over my face but not anymore. Thank you."