Smells Like Nostalgia

Smells Like Nostalgia

The memories of tobacco curing downtown in the summertime are still strong

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Photo by Ben Casey.

I belong to a Facebook group entitled, “Growing Up in Durham.” Many local people like to post messages about their experiences in this city. A message was recently posted asking if anyone remembered the smell of tobacco while driving down Duke Street. The multitude of responses brought back my own memories.

I was a student at Durham High School from 1967 to 1970 (it is now Durham School of the Arts). One of the strongest memories I have is the smell of tobacco leaves hanging and curing in the warehouse rafters across the street. It was a somewhat sweet, pungent odor that was most prevalent during the late summer and early fall days of each school year. There was no air-conditioning, so windows were always open during that time of year to try and cool things down. The aromas from across the street always floated their way into the classrooms, and I guess I got used to it and didn’t think much about it. Funny, but all these years later, it is one of the strongest memories that really sticks with me.

In 1990, I was part of the planning committee for the 20-year reunion of the Durham High School Class of 1970. After contacting as many classmates as possible, I put together a directory of sorts. I wanted to know where everyone lived, what they had done in the 20 years since graduation, their work/marital/child status, and, most importantly, the strongest memory of their time in high school. Among the responses about various sporting events and/or specific teachers, the largest number of classmates remembered the smell of tobacco. I was not surprised, to say the least!

Through the years, the manufacture of cigarettes stopped and moved away. The Liggett & Myers and American Tobacco properties sat vacant for a very long time. Other businesses moved away, and downtown became “a place not to be” and “unsafe” on many levels. I remember hearing, “You wouldn’t be caught dead in downtown Durham,” quite often.

Fast forward all these years later – I am thrilled that our city has been reinvented and the many tobacco buildings and warehouses as well as former businesses have been reused, renovated and repurposed. There is no more smell of tobacco, but you may catch a whiff of one of the many new eateries enticing everyone to come in and enjoy their food. Great things are happening in Durham, indeed!

I wonder what the Durham School of the Arts Class of 2018 will remember the most when they have their 20th class reunion.

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