Steve Hopkins says abandoned houses like these become havens for drugs and prostitution. Photo: Steve Schapiro / American RadioWorks
Steve Hopkins says in parts of east Durham, imprisonment has become much more pervasive since he was young, and harder to recover from. "In Durham, the ex-cons really don't have a chance," he says.
When Hopkins finished his last prison term in 1982 his parole officer helped him get a construction job and a car, he says. Now, because of changes in sentencing laws, more and more inmates are serving full terms and getting released with no parole. That means they have no official contact with the state, no officer monitoring their behavior or offering support.
Entry-level jobs, for ex-cons lucky enough to get them, pay less than they used to.
Heading back up Fayetteville Street we pass a strip mall that's anchored by a chain drug store and a KFC. In the 1920s, a street near here became known as the "Black Wall Street." It was home to Mechanics and Farmers Bank, the nation's first black-owned financial institution; the largest black-owned insurance company, North Carolina Mutual Life; and other, smaller, black-owned businesses. When Hopkins was a kid in the 1960s, the neighborhood was still the center of black economic life.
"Then urban renewal came through," along with the new Durham Freeway, "and took out a lot of the black-owned businesses," Hopkins says. North Carolina Mutual moved to downtown Durham while many other black-owned businesses disappeared entirely.
The forces that swept through east Durham are common to lots of urban neighborhoods. Desegregation allowed middle class blacks to move out, leaving pockets where almost everybody was poor and working class. Then the factory jobs went away.
Durham used to be a tobacco and textile town. Photo: Steve Schapiro / American RadioWorks
"We used to be a tobacco [and] textile town," Hopkins says. "Now all the tobacco plants are closed down, and most of the textile plants are gone. And now we don't know what we are. They call us the City of Medicine, so I guess we have become a service-providing community."
To leaders in this town of 140,000, the "City of Medicine" slogan means high-paying jobs at the Duke University Medical Center, at area research labs, and at the technology companies in Research Triangle Park. Raleigh-Durham was a New Economy boomtown until the bubble burst in 2001. But most people in east Durham qualify only for the jobs at the bottom, serving food or cleaning.
So ex-cons find it hard to get a job they can live onthe one thing that, according to researchers, would give them the best chance of staying out of jail.
Another important variable, researchers say, is marriage. Those who come out of prison with a committed relationship, or who form one soon after their release, are more likely to stay out of prison for good. But just as a prison record makes a man as unattractive to prospective employers, it has a similar effect on potential mates.
We meet Dreta Perry on another visit to the Fayetteville Street housing project. She's an unemployed mother of three. The father of her children is in prison; she's not sure what for, she says.
Dreta Perry says she's not looking for a man because so many have criminal records and can't get legitimate jobs.Photo: Steve Schapiro / American RadioWorks
"It's hard for them when they get out, whatever their charge is," Perry says of the many ex-cons she's known. "Basically you can't get a job. You've got to lie about having a criminal record [because] they don't want to hire you." If an ex-con does lie, she adds, "then they hire you and after a while they find out [and] they fire you."
In Perry's neighborhood, so many of the men are in that predicament that she finally gave up finding a man. "I'm not looking," she says flatly. "I can speak for, as a woman: the men that's getting locked up, I mean, they're getting out, they can't get a job, so what's left? The pharmacy on the street. Selling drugs."
Next: Dragging Down Neighborhoods