What We Love About Living in Watts-Hillandale

What We Love About Living in Watts-Hillandale

This National Historic District is more than 100 years old, but its social and active residents maintain its vibrancy

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Dave Wofford supervises his son, Miles Wofford-Kao, 6, outside Horse & Buggy Press and Friends, Dave’s letterpress studio and gallery on Broad Street.

BOUNDARIES

Englewood Avenue and Hillsborough Road to the south; 15-501 to the west; I-85 to the north; and Broad Street to the east.

POPULATION

Approx. 2,500

HOMESTYLES

Craftsman, bungalows, Colonial Revivals, Cape Cods, ranch houses

AVERAGE HOME SALE PRICE

$307,000


Norah Laughinghouse, 13, Nancy Middleton and Owen Laughinghouse, 15, and their pup, Winnie, on the stoop of their Club Boulevard home.

Drive around Watts-Hillandale, and it might not be immediately clear why the neighborhood is so popular. Sure, some of the houses in the community’s southern end are spectacular. But many in the heart of the area, which lies north and west of downtown, are unpretentious World War II-era boxes, and the lots are relatively small.

In fact, what makes the neighborhood truly special is the sense of community that exists here. One of Durham’s oldest residential areas, it has an almost suburban vibe, but is still within walking distance of stores and services. And above all, the people who live there know their neighbors, work together to create community institutions, and look after one another.

“It’s a highly involved group of people,” says Tom Miller, a longtime resident who lives on Virginia Avenue. “They see the neighborhood as a community benefit and a community obligation.”

Aside from serving on the board and organizing a few of the deep-rooted events in the area, Tom is also Watts-Hillandale’s unofficial historian. He explains how the neighborhood was initially established in the early 1900s along West Club Boulevard, with grand houses that were owned by doctors, politicians and developers.

Thanks to World War I and the Depression, further development didn’t really pick up until the late 1930s, when the area saw a spurt of growth: small homes that soon were affordable to soldiers returning home from the second World War.

By the 1980s, though, Watts-Hillandale was in a state of “gentle decline,” as Tom puts it; the original residents were aging, and many homes were rental properties owned by a few landlords. But new, younger residents like Tom brought energy, and in 1984 they founded the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association.

Today, the neighborhood hums with life. There’s a busy listserv, a crowded playground in the center of the neighborhood – Oval Park, one of the most popular in town – as well as one at its top boundary, Indian Trail Park, plus a slew of events throughout the year that draw both neighbors and folks from outside the community. Residents include longtimers who’ve raised kids in the neighborhood, young families who just bought their first homes and renters of all ages.

“There are a lot of community-type activities,” says Perry Whitted, an artist who works in metal who’s currently serving as president of the neighborhood association; he designed the new violin-shaped bench in Oval Park that honors strings teacher (and Watts-Hillandale resident) Dorothy Kitchen. Now living on Maryland Avenue, Perry started out on Woodrow Street in 1994; he’s one of many residents who’ve moved within the neighborhood.

Some of that intense civic engagement might be due to the neighborhood’s walkability and relatively small lots: People can’t ignore one another. But the area also just seems to draw altruistic folks. “There’s a fair amount of social concern here,” Perry says.

Caryn Rossi, Perry Whitted and dog, Molly, prepare for a stroll through the especially walkable neighborhood.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that the neighborhood is home to a number of community leaders. Mayor Steve Schewel lives in Watts-Hillandale, as does state Senator Mike Woodard, former city council member Don Moffitt and Self-Help Credit Union CEO Martin Eakes. There’s also a good handful of business owners in the area, people like Dave Wofford – he recently relocated his Horse & Buggy Press studio and art gallery to Broad Street from downtown – and Sidney Cruze, owner of Ninth Street’s Zola Craft Gallery (and Don’s wife).

Another key element in Watts-Hillandale’s popularity is the much-beloved local elementary school, E.K. Powe. “There’s a real commitment to bringing out the best in kids there,” says Don, whose daughter, Izzy, now 13, attended the school. Residents say community support for the school has vastly grown over the past decade, and local businesses often host fundraiser events for it.

Which, unsurprisingly, makes the neighborhood a great place to raise a family. Evan McCormick and his wife, Emily, rented a house on Sprunt Avenue when they originally moved to Durham; after their first son, Sawyer, was born five years ago, they bought a house on Oakland Avenue, just a few blocks away – and just down the street from Oval Park.

“That became like our backyard,” says Evan, an investment advisor. “We met the vast majority of our social network there, hanging out and meeting people with similarly aged kids.” The McCormicks have since added Henry, 2, to the family, but they still regularly participate in neighborhood events.

Some things have changed over the past few decades – namely, housing prices. Durham’s boom has caused home values in Watts-Hillandale to skyrocket.

But many things haven’t changed. Just ask Nancy Middleton. She and her husband, Jeff Laughinghouse, are raising their kids in the grand Club Boulevard foursquare house she grew up in.

You can’t get much more local than Nancy: she works as a teacher’s assistant at E.K. Powe, and her sisters, Melanie Middleton and Gayley Crockett, also live in the neighborhood (Gayley even married a neighborhood boy). Nancy says that raising Owen and Norah, 15 and 13, respectively, in the neighborhood and house she grew up in is “wonderfully weird.” But it’s not that different from how it was when she was a kid.

“There were lots of kids our age all over back then. And there still are,” she says. “People looked out for each other.”

And they still do.


OUT AND ABOUT IN WATTS HOSPITAL–HILLANDALE

HALLOWEEN

On Halloween, Club Boulevard is so full of trick-or-treaters from across the city that the sidewalks are packed. But the numbers decrease on the side streets, and a toddler Halloween earlier in the evening allows younger kids to enjoy the holiday, too.

ART WALK

This November event brings visitors to the doors of up to 20 of the neighborhood’s artists and craftspersons.

NIGHT OF LIGHTS

Residents purchase “luminaries” (paper bags with candles inside), line them up along the edges of their yards, and light them on a Sunday night prior to Christmas. The event raises money for Urban Ministries of Durham.

FIRST THURSDAY FOOD TRUCKS

During the warm months, a handful of food trucks gather at Oval Park’s northern perimeter on the first Thursdays of the month around dinnertime.

FOURTH OF JULY PARADE

Started in 1950 by six kids riding their bikes around the block, this one-of-a-kind parade has grown to more than a thousand people each year. The event always includes a fire truck, dozens of flags from around the world and tiny bottles of Coke given out at the end.

NATIONAL NIGHT OUT

Complete with a tent, an oompah band, beer steins and 15 cases of beer, Tom Miller welcomes neighbors to a bier garten in his yard on the first Tuesday in August.


Photography by Briana Brough