Durham, North Carolina Is Redefining What It Means to Be an Innovative City

Creativity and community-led spaces are at the heart of experiencing this city in the Research Triangle.

Left image displays the American Tobacco complex in downtown Durham. Right image displays the bull statue in downtown Durham, NC

Durham, also known as “Bull City”, is having a creative renaissance in many of its historic pockets.

Photos by zimmytws/Shutterstock

When major players in the tobacco industry left Durham, North Carolina, in the late 1980s, their departure seemed to be the nail in the city’s coffin. Since the Civil War era, the city’s economic success (which even helped create one of the country’s “Black Wall Streets”) had been built on businesses like American Tobacco Company and Liggett & Myers.

The cash crop business left Durham by the end of the 20th century, and the subsequent nothingness gave the city’s downtown a new nickname: the doughnut hole. But a couple of decades later, Durham has managed to fill its shell.

Downtown Durham has received $1.7 billion in public and private investment since 2000 and the area is filled with more than 60 retail stores and 100 restaurants and bars. North Carolina’s fourth largest city has been getting a lot of attention as of late, fueled by technology from Research Triangle Park, the country’s largest research park (most of it lies in Durham County), which is slated to include a future Apple campus. Fellow behemoth Meta has confirmed office space in the city. The small urban hub of nearly 300,000 is poised to double in population over the next quarter century thanks to these changes, and the city is anticipating this growth by peppering the skyline with new skyscrapers—Durham is anticipating seven towers coming to its skyline by 2025.

However, throughout downtown Durham, independent businesses rather than big chains line the streets, spotlighting the artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs making room for themselves. According to the 2022 State of Downtown Durham report, 90 percent of downtown Durham’s retail, restaurant and personal services businesses came from North Carolina and 70 percent started in Durham.

Durham’s support for its inhabitants is evident in the way spaces are shared, whether it’s a restaurant opening a podcast studio inside or a hotel dedicating space on its elevators for local artists. It’s a case study of community-sourced creativity: “[Durham’s culture] has been something that everybody’s kind of like riffing from what somebody else has done. Or they come here with a unique culture, a cuisine and they want to contribute that to the community,” Adam Klein, chief strategist of Durham-based startup incubator American Underground, says. “And I think that’s a really interesting place to go and experience something. It feels a little random and it’s surprising in a really good way.”

As real estate in the city gets more expensive for businesses and individuals, Discover Durham’s Cara Rousseau summarizes the city’s philosophy: What’s good for the residents is good for the visitors. For travelers, the physical adventure of stumbling upon these community-led spaces creates a sense of whimsy and desire to explore.

If you find yourself in Durham, go a bit slower and engage with the residents—they’ll know where to find the good stuff around the city.

The entrance to The American Tobacco historic district in downtown Durham.

Located a street away from Durham Bulls Athletic Park, American Tobacco Campus spotlights local restaurants and shops.

Photo by Sharkshock/Shutterstock

Innovative spots to visit in downtown Durham

American Tobacco Campus

The government and local leaders in the private sector (like Capitol Broadcasting Corporation) took post-tobacco revitalization efforts into their own hands, including the $200 million renovation to reopen the American Tobacco Campus. The 2015 project turned the factory’s brick husk into a 14.5-acre mixed-use development that hosts concerts and documentary festivals alongside local brews from Tobacco Road, retail craft shops like Parker & Otis, and even the headquarters of big-name businesses like Burt’s Bees. This attitude of renewal is present in decor ranging from a retired train to a man-made river running through the campus, making its tobacco-producing past a distant memory. (Well, except for the looming water tower bearing the words “LUCKY STRIKE” on its front.)

In 2020, the campus announced that it’s getting even more room with a 780,000-square-foot extension, the first phase of which should be completed around 2024–25. But it doesn’t want to fill empty spaces on both campuses with just any tenant—it’s getting bigger with the help from American Underground, a startup hub focused on supporting local entrepreneurs, especially women and people of color. The startup has already put Puerto Rican concept Boricua Soul and is set on providing exposure for other leading entrepreneurs in Durham.

“There’ve been interesting stories of Durham real-estate companies working with local restaurateurs who want to like try something out. But then, how do you think about it after the pop-up?” Klein says. “What’s the step after that? As Durham grows, you’ve got those anchor restaurants and places that people want to come to really see what the culture’s like.”

Durham Food Hall

This theme of anchoring is prevalent in private projects like the Durham Food Hall, a 15,000-square-foot building about a 15-minute walk from the American Tobacco Campus. The red-brick hall opened in 2020 as a shared home for locally-owned eateries that want to be experimental in their own way. One restaurant, Ex-Voto, aims to explore the tortilla-making process, showcasing the way infusing nixtamal corn can create more flavorful burritos and tacos. Little Barb’s Bakery is another food hall vendor, giving home baker Barbara Nigro a shot at serving her peanut butter cakes and other pastries out of a brick and mortar. The seven concepts may vary in purpose but share the food hall’s goals: to be an incubator for local talent under the values of sustainability, responsible sourcing, and inclusivity.

Queeny’s and Kingfisher

When Michelle Vanderwalker and Sean Umstead opened downtown Durham restaurant Queeny’s in 2021, they had a vision: “create that feeling of just being a place where people just know they can come and hang out.” The menu—which ranges from birria sandwiches to acorn squash—was intended to be a recognizable take on comfort food. Two extra rooms in the restaurant, spaces that the duo decided were better spent for community building than dining. Now anyone who stops in can curl up on the library’s sofa couches and read books curated by the founders or record audio in a podcasting room at the back of the restaurant—no renting the podcast room allowed.

They’re additions Michelle explains as something that speaks to being a place both “welcoming and supporting” and a philosophy they have also embraced at Kingfisher, a James Beard–recognized craft cocktail bar they opened in 2019 serving local ingredient–based concoctions, including rice daiquiris and butternut squash–infused bourbons. While dimly lit tables create an intimate top floor, the bottom floor of the bar is dedicated to being an exhibition place for installations from local artists.

Left image displays woman in 21c's Counting House restaurant with a pink penguin in front. Right image displays a blurred person walking in a room of different art installations.

You can find 21c’s art collection in places like its Counting House restaurant and lobby.

Photo Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

Where to stay in Durham

21c Durham

Book now: 21c Durham

Part hotel and part art museum, 21c hotels showcase contemporary art with a mission to connect and revitalize local communities through creativity. The nine-hotel chain tapped Durham to be its fourth location in 2015, dedicating more than 10,000 square feet of its space for exhibitions and events. Each 21c location is supplied by art from the 21st century (giving the hotel its name) and features art from a rotation of exhibits—all of which can be visited for free, even by nonguests.

Until May 2023, the exhibition This We Believe is on display on the bottom three floors, using photos of women with guns, collages of national currencies, and other media to represent the way belief systems affect society. But the hotel also gives Durham creatives exposure by rotating local work throughout the hotel, including Whitney Stanley’s We Just Be exhibition in 21c’s Vault Gallery.

Chloe Arrojado is the associate editor of destinations at AFAR. She’s a big fan of cafés, dancing, and asking people on the street for restaurant recommendations.
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