The historic Hayti district is located in the southeastern corner of Durham. Traditionally, Hayti was an African American neighborhood, and is the site of the United States’ first publicly funded African American liberal arts college, North Carolina Central University. However, in the 1960s, Hayti fell victim to urban renewal projects and the building of the Durham freeway (Highway 147); both are to blame for the neighborhood’s decline. Over the next 20 years, Hayti’s population dropped by 70% as highway construction and renewal projects relocated many of the businesses along Pettigrew and North Fayetteville streets which were the foundation of the neighborhood’s commercial district. These projects disrupted commercial activity, jobs, and for a period of time, Hayti’s access to the rest of Durham.
Urban renewal’s primary focus was to upgrade and modernize neighborhoods that had fallen into disrepair. The concept was an “if you build it, they will come” type of idea. Between 1940 and 1960, most of the affluent African Americans had moved out of Hayti into other parts of Durham. Though there are many reasons for this, the main cause was that Hayti had become a destination for African American troops from nearby military bases due to the neighborhood’s reputation for world class jazz halls. The increased nightlife also meant increased crime from which many affluent community members chose to escape. Combined with the closing and modernizing of tobacco factories, textile mills, and other main economic sources, the quality of life for the people of the community began to decline, making it a focus of urban renewal. Renewal projects demolished countless homes, many built in the early 20th century (some even earlier), leaving the strip malls and parking lots seen along North Fayetteville Street. The St. Joseph’s AME Church, now known as the Hayti Heritage Center, is a monument to the neighborhood that once stood here. There are still a number of African American owned businesses in Hayti, some that were not destroyed while others have relocated to the neighborhood from Pettigrew, including The Carolina Times. Relocation was often at the expense of the demolition of homes. Moving further south, away from the Durham Freeway towards NCCU, the neighborhoods become more well-preserved with historic 1900 and 1920 Victorian homes lining the streets. The neighborhoods begin to feel like a community as the roots of Hayti here have been preserved. Historic Hayti serves as a reminder of how complex communities are, and although change may appear simple to an onlooker, what appears as an improvement may very well compromise the community’s soul.