The People and Places Instrumental in Building the Bull City

The People and Places Instrumental in Building the Bull City

From developing infrastructure to the arts and food scene, we feature key players who laid the foundation for the city we know and love



Photo by Ben Casey

Michael Goodmon takes a moment to consider the question: How to sum up the transformation of downtown in the last decade, from empty storefronts in a crashing economy to today’s building boom and climbing skyscrapers? “To be fair,” he begins with a slight sigh. “We only have one skyscraper. One. Everybody relax, it’s one tall building.”

At 27 stories, nearly the length of a full football field in the sky, One City Center stands taller than the rest of downtown, looming over the ’80s-era Durham Centre a few blocks away and 21c Museum Hotel in the renovated Hill Building next door. It is, for now at least, the apparent top of the downtown building boom, both figuratively and vertically.

The downtown of today – with million-dollar condos and millions of square feet of office space under construction – is a far cry from the landscape that Michael, who runs Capitol Broadcasting Company’s real estate arm in Durham and who developed American Tobacco Campus, saw a decade ago.

“In 2007, you’re talking about the complete collapse of the lending market,” Michael says. “There was no money out there. We had five dead years when development just wasn’t on the list.”

Durham architect and developer John Warasila is amused by the often-giddy coverage the city’s rebirth receives.

“Everyone looks back at American Tobacco now as obvious and a home run and, ‘What a great project,’” he says. “Well, that wasn’t necessarily the case 15 or 10 years ago. People forget what a leap of faith that was.”

“There’s this reaction that, ‘Oh, my gosh, all this stuff happened to downtown Durham,’” Michael says. “But American Tobacco was placed in service 13 years ago, and we’re just starting to see the exponential growth we were all betting on.”

John thinks of the rise of Durham, beginning in the mid-’90s, as akin to the rebirth of Baltimore he witnessed a decade before, when its manufacturing base was all but abandoned by industry and residents who could afford to move.

“I saw them rebuild the whole city in a period of 10 years,” John says. “When I came to Durham, I said, ‘This is like Baltimore was in 1980. The buildings are here, the sidewalks are here, but there’s no people.’”

But well into the early 2000s, developers, city officials and business owners all waited for Durham to take off. In the meantime, they set to creating the city they envisioned.

“The feeling was, ‘Look, no one else is coming,’” John says. “‘Whoever is here, we’re it.’”

John had just finished renovating a gutted downtown building into The Eleanor condominiums as American Tobacco began to land tenants. Chief among them was McKinney, a major advertising agency bringing dozens of creative jobs to Durham. The firm hired Alliance Architecture, John’s firm, to design its space.

“I really wanted McKinney to be a statement,” John says. “Everyone was thinking in terms of, ‘Let’s do something great. This is what Durham can be.’”

When McKinney’s offices opened in 2007, Alliance’s design drew national attention for its blended use of restored warehouse space with modern glass-and-steel attributes. More notoriety arrived just a year later when Phil Szostak-designed DPAC opened, establishing a major arts center in downtown. Restaurants began to pop up in an expanding hub, from fine dining at Rue Cler within the Downtown Loop to a rollicking brewery and beer hall at Fullsteam in 2009 in the Central Park District.

As the Great Recession ended and word of Durham’s success spread, the trickle of projects became a flood.

“Durham had proved it could support a large-scale commercial project, and there was a lot of good stuff on the horizon,” Michael remembers. “Certainly this growth we are seeing is broader than we thought it might be, but honestly, we didn’t know what the hell we were talking about in 2007. We were just, at some level, taking a deep breath and saying, ‘Gosh, we made it to here, and isn’t this awesome?’” – Matt White

“The big [Broadway] shows, when they first go on tour out of New York, they want to go to the best cities,” says DPAC’s Bob Klaus. “There are over a hundred 3,000-seat theaters in America. Now, after 10 years, it’s not unusual for us to be on that first-year [tour].”


A sell-out audience was midway through the show “On Your Feet!,” a musical based on the life and music of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, at DPAC in January. It was opening night for the show, one of eight touring Broadway productions that DPAC hosts a season.

And then something went wrong. A piece of scenery jammed, perhaps, or a fitting came loose. The music stopped. The cast headed backstage, stagehands rushed out, repairs were made and, within a few minutes, the show went on, to loud applause from the audience.

“It doesn’t happen often,” says DPAC General Manager Bob Klaus a few days later, smiling slightly at the story. “When it does happen, you’re reminded that this is live theater. When everything goes right, the magic is unbelievable, but once in 200 shows, something goes a little off.”

In 10 years, not much has been “off ” at DPAC. The performing arts center has stood as something of a showpiece for our revitalized downtown. Lit brightly for more than 200 shows, it’s drawn in nearly half-a-million visitors each season in recent years. According to Pollstar magazine, DPAC had the fourth highest ticket sales in the country in 2017 among theaters of its size and type, trailing just behind The Fox Theatre in Atlanta, The Axis at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas and Radio City Music Hall in New York City. In the last five years, the theater has averaged about 475,000 tickets sold, Bob says, with a peak year over 500,000 in 2016, goosed by a long engagement of “The Lion King. ”That’s a meteoric rise from a decade ago when, in its debut season of 2008-09, DPAC sold roughly 150,000 tickets.

The turning point, Bob says, came in 2010, when the theater hosted “Wicked” for four weeks, selling out every single showing.

“The biggest cities in the country were hosting [for] four weeks, so for us to host and sell out, that was a benchmark,” he says.

The theater’s calendar has, since its opening, been built around an annual series of touring Broadway shows, mixing classics in revival, like “The Sound of Music” this season, with modern hits just months removed from their initial Broadway runs, like “On Your Feet!” last month and, of course, later in 2018, “Hamilton.”

Demand for “Hamilton” tickets, Bob says, will likely exceed “Lion King” or “Wicked.”

“Every five years, it seems, there’s a huge show,” Bob says.

The theater has grown its schedule with special events, from stars like Jason Isbell and Bob Dylan to comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, along with touring magicians, dance shows and kids programs, like Paw Patrol Live!, which was the second most popular special event in 2017.

About half of all DPAC shows sell out, Bob says, with some of the quickest sales coming from a theater trend more recent than even DPAC’s short history: podcast and YouTube stars.

Today, DPAC’s Broadway series sells three times as many season ticket packages as it did a decade ago, to many customers who might rarely, if ever, come to Durham otherwise. About 40% of season ticket holders come from Wake County, Bob notes, while DPAC’s fastest growing market is ticket buyers who live more than 100 miles away. One couple, he says, comes from Virginia Beach.

“And there’s a Broadway series in Virginia Beach!” Bob adds. “They came for ‘Wicked,’ and they solved our theater that now they make it a weekend trip.”

That may be DPAC’s real legacy: introducing Durham’s growing downtown to visitors who might not have come otherwise.

“We’ve been the catalyst for a lot of first-time visitors,” Bob says.

As DPAC’s predictable crowds grew, so did Durham’s restaurant scene. Seth Gross opened Bull City Burger and Brewery just a few blocks away on Parrish Street in 2011, and he quickly began matching menu items to DPAC’s playbill.

“When they have a long-standing show, we have had some thematic burgers to go along with them,” Seth says. For “Wicked”’s return in 2012, Bull City Burger put out a Wicked Burger with green chimichurri sauce against Gruyere cheese and a cranberry gelatin sauce to match the show’s ruby slippers. “We served it on a gold plate with a cloche that was a witch’s hat,” Seth says. The entire cast came by to check it out, he says, and Bull City Burger has had similar themed dishes for “The Lion King” and other shows.

Since he opened Bull City Burger, the downtown food scene has mushroomed from a dozen or so places to, Seth estimates, around 50 options on a show night. He opened a second restaurant, Pompieri Pizza, around the corner from Bull City Burger in 2014. “The [Bulls] ballpark and DPAC are the two big sparks that started it,” he says.

Bob says it’s a two-way street. “Once they come and see the wonderful variety of restaurants and cafes to go to before and after the show, it gives them this desire to come back again and again.” – Matt White


A couple years ago, when we asked how Durham became the foodiest city in the South, Kelli Cotter gave credit to “our largest stepping stone, Magnolia Grill, with Ben and Karen Barker.” …

“So many talented chefs have time with the Barkers under their belts,” Kelli, herself an alumna of Magnolia, added. “That’s no coincidence.”

And many of them chose to stay right here and build their own businesses and restaurants. But they won’t forget the lessons they learned at Magnolia, which closed in 2012, or the many memories they made with the Barkers. Here, a rundown of those chefs/owners who stayed in the Bull City, and some of their reflections:

[My time at Magnolia Grill taught me] the value of a strong team [and the] importance of quality ingredients [and] taking the time to learn and use classic techniques.


Scratch and The Lakewood
Assistant baker working dessert service and pastry chef, 1997-2005 (with a break or two)


There were many lessons that I took away from my time at Magnolia, but the most important was developing relationships with our local farmers and suppliers. Another lesson I’ve definitely carried with me was the importance of developing my palate in order to create complex dishes that our guests can enjoy and relate to.

MY MAGNOLIA MEMORY One year we did an event for the Durham Arts Council. We did a tuna tartare dish that was very popular but also very labor intensive, and our booth got a little behind. Lee Kepler, my good friend and the Magnolia sous chef, looked at Ben, Karen and me and said, “Next year, we’re serving haggis.”


18 Restaurant Group (Harvest 18)
Line cook, 1996-1999
(came back for a second stint in 2001-2002)


The most important lessons I took from the Barkers would be how to minimize waste and how to earn a dollar by being frugal.

MY MAGNOLIA MEMORY “The Missing Fig” story is, and will be, the greatest story that I remember during my short stint at the Grill. Ben was notorious on always knowing the exact amounts of everything in his inventory. One day, someone, who will always remain nameless, decided to eat a fig when she was in the [walk- in-refrigerator]. Moments later, Ben made up a sign-off sheet saying, “I did not take and eat the missing fig,” and made everyone who was working that day sign off on it. Needless to say, a few minutes later we all knew who the swiper was. The moral of the story is to always know your inventory.


The Original Q-Shack
Front production prep cook, 1994



Nana’s, NanaTaco, NanaSteak, Bar Virgile







[I learned] how to taste food and identify flavors – huge lesson and not an easy thing to teach. Ben has an amazing palate.

MY MAGNOLIA MEMORY Ben was a huge Redskins fan, and I’m a Cowboys fan. The year after the Cowboys won the Super Bowl, [Cowboys running back] Emmitt Smith sat out the first couple of games in a contract dispute. Ben gave me hell, but when he signed I brought in an Emmitt poster and hung it downstairs. Emmitt went on to win MVP and Cowboys won the Super Bowl. It said a lot that Ben let the poster hang. He’s a great sport!


RISE Biscuits & Donuts
Grill cook, 1993


The Barkers both possess an attention to detail that is unique and difficult to maintain. Nearly three decades of consistency and growth are virtually impossible without their individual work ethic and consistency with systems. Ben had a respectful-yet-austere relationship with purveyors. Not one for a cold call, he knew what he wanted and didn’t have much time for flattery or BS. If you were a food or wine purveyor, you were held to a high standard. That level of accountability is contagious … you just wanted to be a part of it.

As a member of their team, you were expected to internalize your relationship with guests. I had success there because I was truly excited for just about every guest who I took care of. I remember being able to recommend food and wine pairings with energy and passion because I was actually envious of the people I was serving. Ben saw that in me: He thanked me for it once, he’s not one for flattery. Both of their talents were a huge impact on my career. That’s where I fell in love with the restaurant business. Magnolia Grill is where I learned that this particular business is for me. They don’t call [Ben] the Jefe for nothing.

MY MAGNOLIA MEMORY Once I had a large table of fancy businessmen. It was summer. The menu reflected summer flavors and lighter fare. They proceeded to order a $500 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. They also ordered delicate fish dishes. I was excited to show Ben that we had sold the big, fancy wine. He looked at me in the eye and said, “That wine is unavailable, sir.” I hung my head because I knew he was right … that wine was completely  inappropriate for their order. He said, “Those fellas aren’t leaving here thinking I don’t know how to cook.” I went back to the table and said, “The wine you ordered is unavailable.” They asked, “Are you out of it?” I replied, “No, it is simply unavailable.” They knew where we were coming from. I then directed them to a bottle of Riesling from Clare Valley, Australia. I went back to Ben with the new order. He replied something along the lines of, “Thanks for taking your head out of your butt.”


Bar Virgile

Waiter and bartender, January 2007–January 2009

I have always been a friendly server; working at the Grill elevated my friendly customer service to one of a gracious host. I would keep notes on my regular guests so when they returned they felt as if they were being welcomed into our home. … I practice this still today at Toast and Dashi, making everyone feel welcome, remembered, comfortable chatting about the menu, so they feel as if they’re visiting with family.

Billy developed his skills to balance and bring out flavors, to add acidity when a dish needs brightness, [and] the importance of list-making for an organized mind and kitchen.

MY MAGNOLIA MEMORY We were living in Atlanta and planning to move back to Durham. We both wanted to work at the Grill. Mid-2000, I sent my resume and cover letter explaining why they just needed me on their team. A month letter, Billy is wrapping up his cover letter; he had just written to Ben, “P.S. congratulations on your James Beard award,” when the phone rang. It was Ben. He was pretty sure he had a server position opening up right when we were planning to arrive, and he thought I might be a good fit. “But where is your husband planning to work?” He was calling for Billy, but swore he wasn’t! We always laughed about it. Billy never mailed his resume, we both interviewed when we got to town, and we both got jobs.


Toast and Dashi

Server, November 2000–November 2007



Toast and Dashi

Sous chef, November 2000–November 2003


Ben and Karen were pioneers in the local farm-to-table restaurant movement. Over 30 years they crafted their success in a very old-school way – out of passion, dogged hard work and a commitment to doing even the littlest thing in an exact and precise manner that felt honest and intrinsically appropriate to
the two of them. At the Grill, that philosophy applied across the board: to menu ingredients sourced from longtime farmer friends; to exterior landscaping at the restaurant, which showcased favorite native NC perennials; to demanding the prettiest pieces of fish (and being willing to send back anything that was less than stellar); to a refusal to expand their business model to include a second property due to quality control concerns. The Barkers, they were hardcore, and they meant it.

That is probably my single biggest takeaway from Magnolia Grill: To become a successful, independent, small business owner, you have to mean it, and you have to put in the serious work yourself. There is no outsourcing of your vision.

MY MAGNOLIA MEMORY I often get asked about the name of my catering company, which is called Soigné Events. Soigné is a French adjective, defined as “indicating an aura of sophistication in dress, manner or design; presented or prepared with an elegance attained through care for the finer details.” My business’ name was chosen to pay tribute to my time spent as a young woman studying and traveling in France, as well as to a longstanding in-house reference at Magnolia Grill.

As a Duke undergrad, I studied abroad for a semester in Paris, and then lived there again a few years later while completing my master’s degree. In France, I learned to appreciate fine food and fine wine, which was quite helpful when I applied for a part-time hostess job at Magnolia Grill in 1997. However, upon starting to book reservations for the dining room, I quickly learned that “soigné” also meant VIP in Magnolia Grill parlance, indicating that you better find a table for Dr. Brodie, or that table 63 in the back left corner was where Joel Fleishman should always be seated. A big, handwritten [star] plus a name on the kitchen ticket meant pay extra attention, or Ben is gonna crush you!


Chef-owner and event designer, Soigné Events

Host/Shift Manager, March 1997–March 2001; January 2002–March 2005; Restaurant Manager, April 2005–June 2008

“Back in the old, old days, Time After Time Vintage [Thrift Shop] also had a warehouse in Durham and would have warehouse sales occasionally, which I loved,” Laura says. Now, downtowners can find unique clothes and wares at spots like Dolly’s Vintage.


As co-founder of indie label Merge Records and bassist for local rock band Superchunk, Laura Ballance has had a front-row seat to the city’s artistic and cultural evolution. Though the band and label were originally founded in Chapel Hill, Laura, alongside co- founder and bandmate Mac McCaughan, decided to move the label to Durham in 2001.

“A large part of our decision to move to Durham was monetary,” she says. Laura bought a house in Durham in 1998, and recalls how quiet it seemed then. “I had taken to riding my bike around Durham looking for a good place to move our offices,” she says. In those days, Laura says downtown felt like a ghost town. The upside? “There were many good deals to be had. When we bought our building, there was a burnt-out building two doors down the alley,” she recalls. (That building has since become The Eleanor condos).

Owning their own spot also felt vital to what Merge was working toward at the time. The team had been renting in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, which, while great location-wise, didn’t make them feel invested in the space. “They did not belong to us,” Laura says. “Buying this building in Durham has made us feel really settled.”

She says Durham’s development has been a big plus in terms of job perks, too. “We have a lot of options of places we can walk to for lunch or to get coffee.” But for Laura, the value of the city’s progression is that it has resulted in a place full of entertainment options for so many. “Durham is diverse and open-minded, and that is really a big part of why I moved here.” Her current go-tos for food, art and inspiration: Taqueria La Vaquita, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, The Regulator Bookshop, The Carolina Theatre and Gocciolina.

That appreciation carries over into the arts and music venues and festivals she’s seen either open or grow in her time here, including The Carrack, The Pinhook, Motorco Music Hall, Moogfest, Bull Durham Blues Festival (now the Blues and Roots Festival) and the Art of Cool Festival. “I have loved seeing The Carolina Theatre carry on and flourish,” she says. “Things there have improved a lot, and it seems like it’s going to keep going.”

However, with openings come closings, and she fondly remembers several now-shuttered standbys, like Troika Music Festival, Poindexter Records and Starlite Drive-In. “It was my favorite way to see horror movies, because I could pace or chatter if I got nervous and not bother anyone,” she says. As for music venues, “I really miss Ringside,” which held its last show in 2008. “That place was four floors of crazy. Definitely not up to code. I was telling someone the other day that when I think back on it, it was like walking into ‘Blade Runner.’ Urban decay, danger, loud music and beauty.”

Though these places no longer exist, they are what paved the way for the kind of growth that Laura says remains true to Durham’s history. After all, we seem to have more festivals than ever before, retail continues to grow – including other downtown record stores like Carolina Soul and Schoolkids in Brightleaf, and cultural additions like Museum of Durham History, Letters Bookshop and galleries galore. Instead of the drive-in, we now watch movies in Durham Central Park thanks to Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Durham Cinematheque and the Durham’s Parks and Recreation department. “Durham is evolving rapidly, but still has a gritty underbelly that I really appreciate,” Laura says. “I hope we don’t lose it. That grittiness and squalor allowed creative people to get their feet in the door here and do wonderful things.” – Morgan Cartier Weston


Cars bustling down the street. The jingle of a bell as customers and business owners exchange greetings. The hum of activity.

This is Black Wall Street circa 1908. It’s also Black Wall Street circa 2018.

Like many of your favorite TV shows, Durham’s Black Wall Street has gotten a reboot in recent years.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Parrish Street was the hub of African-American business during a time when black citizens nationwide were being disenfranchised. It set a precedent for the city and the state at large. Mechanics and Farmers Bank and North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (NC Mutual) both called Parrish Street home.

Now it’s home for a new era of business owners and entrepreneurs in the 21st century, including Tobias Rose, principal and creative director of digital agency Kompleks Creative.

“When you start talking about Black Wall Street and legacy, that was something that was in my DNA,” Tobias says.

He attended high school in Kannapolis on a road named after his great-grandfather. His grandfather sold insurance for NC Mutual, and both Tobias and his father are North Carolina Central University alumni. But it wasn’t until college that Tobias delved deeper into the history of Black Wall Street and its gravitas.

“Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to a diverse range of people who looked like me doing professional things,” he says. “Going to NCCU gave me something that I really needed to see, [which was] perspective – seeing black people as attorneys, doctors, educators and chancellors.”

It’s a sentiment that Val Jackson, co-owner of Hairizon beauty shop in Northgate Mall, echos.

“We have so many mothers who have come into our store and say (to their daughters), ‘See, there are business owners who look like you,’” she says. “It’s exciting to me and my daughter, [Joi], to be in the vicinity of where history was made.”

Carl Webb, a 30-year entrepreneur and Durham native, says the city has always been a place where black people have done things in the business community.

“It’s a source of pride to see how much downtown and the community has changed,” Carl says. “But, I struggle realizing that the black business community has not benefited [at the same level] as the general business community. I’m excited, but we still have work to do.”

Tobias’ unconventional entrepreneurial journey culminated with his team moving into an office space on Parrish Street in 2014, a milestone for which Black Wall Street’s history gave him a deeper appreciation.

“It was beautiful, but it was scary,” Tobias says of his first day in his new office. “Now you have historical perspective, now you know what (your ancestors) went through.”

It’s one of several reasons that Tobias dedicates much of his time to fostering the next generation of thinkers, tinkers and tycoons. In addition to being on the board of directors for the Durham Chamber of Commerce and serving as an advisor for the National Society of Black Engineers, he is also a co-founder of the nonprofit Black Wall Street, which continues the same mission this area held at the turn of the century – to build multicultural communities and wealth through business ownership.

“[Every year] we host an event called Black Wall Street Homecoming,” Tobias says. “I wanted to provide an alternative to the [typical] homecoming experience, which were parties and step shows. What if people were interested in business? Where could they go and network? We put all of our ideas together and I said, ‘Let’s call it Black Wall Street Homecoming. We’re here on Black Wall Street, let’s bring people home.’”

Black Wall Street Homecoming cataclysmically aims to bring more diverse entrepreneurial talent to Durham. Each year the gathering gets larger and larger. Last year the speaker lineup included more than 32 speakers ranging from business owners and engineers to venture capitalists and CEOs – all from varying industries.

“Durham is a city of innovators and entrepreneurs,” Carl adds. “[It] has a creative energy that is the core of who we are.”

The type of innovation that comes from a group of different people gathering in a room to solve a problem is what drives Tobias. “I feel like we’re creating a new Black Wall Street, and this Black Wall Street does not stretch from corner to corner,” he says. “It is becoming a network and an ecosystem.” – Latisha Catchatoorian

Photography by Briana Brough