East Durham is poised to become the city’s next Black Wall Street, a district defined by homegrown enterprises
By Matthew Lardie | Photography by Cornell Watson
There’s a park bench at the intersection of South Driver Street and Angier Avenue, right in front of the sign that reads, “Old East Durham.” Sit on that bench, and you’ll witness a neighborhood in transition. Your view from that bench two years ago was certainly different, and if you visit that bench again in two years’ time, the sights are guaranteed to have changed. Past, present and future converge at this intersection as East Durham attempts to define itself and a business district is reborn. This community is, in many senses of the word, undergoing a renaissance, and its growth, energy and enthusiasm is almost completely powered by those who live and work here. The Angier-Driver corridor is poised to become Durham’s next Black Wall Street, a district home to flourishing Black entrepreneurs and locally grown businesses that are creating a whole new “downtown.”
Diagonal from that bench is Rofhiwa Book Café. Beverley Boitumelo Makhubele and Naledi Yaziyo opened the part-coffee shop, part-bookstore, part-community center in 2021. The pair focuses on books by Black authors, championing Black-owned roasters and brewers and providing a space for Black culture to flourish. They also happen to live just a few blocks away and were insistent on bringing their business ideas to life in East Durham. “We are committed to the neighborhood as a place where Black people live and Black people thrive,” Makhubele explained, “and we are committed to the corridor as a place where Black entrepreneurs are enabled, supported and can flourish.” To that end, Yaziyo helped create a new Instagram account @driver_angier to highlight businesses like Bull City Sweet Shoppe, Russell’s Pharmacy & Shoppe and others. Unlike downtown, which has a taxable business improvement district overseen by Downtown Durham Inc., East Durham has no formal business organization, tax district or organized city support. Promoting East Durham, like most of the businesses along the corridor, has become a homegrown operation.
A short stroll up from Rofhiwa, at 304 S. Driver St., sit three recently renovated storefronts. Each space is just over 800 square feet, and two will soon be home to Durham grown businesses. All are owned and operated by Durham native Amos Cooper Jr., who incorporated the commercial real estate company Black Robin Ventures in January 2022. “Our drive is to disrupt systemic economic injustice and preserve Durham’s unique culture through strategic community partnerships,” Cooper said on his website. “I’ve been coming to East Durham ever since I got my driver’s license to get hot dogs at L&D Grocery & Grill, and there hasn’t been a lot of economic activity,” Cooper said. “I always liked this side of town and saw the potential it had. When the opportunity presented itself for a property in East Durham, I jumped all over it.”
One of his three spaces recently housed several exhibits from Pop Box Gallery – a popup art gallery helmed by Laura Ritchie and Mavis Gragg – in partnership with Gail Belvett of The Art Chose Me. The gallery is slated to end its run on South Driver Street July 1, and Cooper is currently in talks with investors to preserve that location as an artistic community and event space. The other two storefronts will soon be home to kombucha brewery Homebucha and The Raw Edition Candle Company. The Raw Edition founder Ticca Harris said that moving her business to East Durham was a homecoming of sorts. “My great-grandmother lived in this neighborhood for many years,” Harris said. “I would go to the playground, walk the sidewalks and even attend church [at Greater New Birth Baptist Church on Harvard Avenue] right here in East Durham.”
Family connections also played a factor in Michael “Mike D” De Los Santos’ opening of his Mike D’s BBQ Supply & General Store on South Driver in 2020. De Los Santos’ wife worked as a community organizer in East Durham, and the family lived just down the road in southeast Durham when they moved to North Carolina in 2007. “When I started my business in 2013, I knew if I ever grew to have a brick-and-mortar location or a restaurant, I wanted it to be in this neighborhood,” De Los Santos said. Cut to 2023, and De Los Santos ended up closing the supply shop, only to embark on a bigger venture: Mike D’s BBQ is set to open as one of the anchor tenants in the refurbished Garland Woodcraft Co. building at 455 S. Driver St., just down the road from De Los Santos’ old store. The circa 1940s building was in disrepair after years of neglect and a fire in 2016. John Warasila and Vandana Dake of Alliance Architecture, who were fresh off a major rehabilitation project down the road at Golden Belt, partnered with Matt Thompson’s Garland Ventures LLC, which owned the buildings. Garland Ventures enlisted Gateway Building Company – one of Durham Magazine readers’ favorite commercial builders – to breathe new life into the structures, including creating an open-air courtyard where part of the roof had previously caved in. The new Mike D’s will incorporate both a smokehouse for meats and sides, plus a retail supply shop. Totaling 3,035 square feet, its space will share that outdoor courtyard with a new bar and cafe from familiar East Durham faces – Makhubele and Yaziyo of Rofhiwa.
“Bev and Naledi have become great friends, not just in business, but also in life, and [we] … share the same vision,” said De Los Santos. The concept, Congress Bar & Cafe, features nearly 1,000-squarefeet of space centered on a wavy bar designed by Zac Avant, a longtime Rofhiwa customer whose Avant Studios woodworking shop is directly across the street from Congress at 456 S. Driver St. The furniture for the bar is being built by May Young, another neighbor who Makhubele met at Rofhiwa one day and then walked her down to show her the Garland building. Black-owned Proximity Brewing Company, which has held pop-ups at Rofhiwa in the past, will occupy the space on the other side of Congress.
Spend any amount of time with East Durham business owners, and you’ll quickly realize that this is how things go. It’s an old-fashioned way of growing local connections that can be hard to find these days. In fact, over at Russell’s Pharmacy, it’s not uncommon to have owner Darius Russell and his staff call up customers to sing “Happy Birthday” to them.
Back at the intersection of South Driver and Angier, directly across from Rofhiwa, you’ll find the old People’s Bank building. Originally built in 1921, it has, at various times, been a pawn shop, a clothing store and a church. Today it houses the offices and furniture showroom of Design Bank, an interior and landscape design firm and retail furniture business from North Carolina native John Hykes (who was named a readers’ favorite landscape designer in this year’s Best of Durham poll) and his partner, Craven Miller. The pair bought the building in 2019 and have since transformed it into around 1,600 square feet of retail and office space. “We could sense the energy in the corridor, and we love being a part of the neighborhood,” Hykes said. “Many new businesses are moving in, and it’s fun to be part of that entrepreneurial spirit.”
Leave Design Bank and head back over to that bench. Look around, and you’ll see lines of hungry lunchtime customers in front of Ideal’s Sandwich & Grocery and Cate’s Hot Dogs. You might notice someone sporting a fresh haircut as they leave Samuel & Sons Barber Shop, Executive’s Grooming Lounge or Fuss & Bother. Another person could be headed to a workout at Top Notch Performance Fitness. There will be food truck owners prepping for the evening at the commissary kitchens in Joe’s Diner. There’s a woman-owned tattoo parlor (The Studio), a pizza, subs and wings place (Sofia’s Pizza), a local skin care shop (Little Homestead Farm) and a bakery (Bull City Sweet Shoppe). If ever there were a place in Durham that modeled the ideals of the 15-minute city, a concept that virtually everything a person needs would be within a 15-minute walk or bike ride, East Durham would be a close fit.
That intentional creation of community is the core of what these owners hope will continue to be a thriving district helmed by Black-owned businesses.
“I love what’s happening to the community,” said Bull City Sweet Shoppe’s Stacy Ramos. “We’re here to let people know that coming to East Durham is amazing … that there are beautiful shops here to serve the community.”
As for the future of the Angier-Driver corridor? “It will be a destination for folks who don’t live in East Durham to come out to,” Cooper said. “I think it will be this cool, Brooklyn-feeling neighborhood.”
“If we put just a little bit of effort into that corridor … in 10 or 15 years, what we really might have on our hands is a Black commerce district,” Makhubele insisted. “If we’re successful in doing that, there won’t be anything like it in Durham or North Carolina. I think it’s possible; it’s happening already.”