What is Durham’s Identity?

Cities have different identities. Back in 2008, Paul Graham (Entrepreneur and Venture Capitalist) wrote an amazing post about the messagethat a city conveys. New York’s identity centers around making money. Cambridge/Boston’s identity is knowledge and education. Los Angeles has fame and Washington D.C. has power.

How does the new construction in downtown Durham influence the city’s message? What is Durham’s identity? WeWork announced that it iscoming to Durham and will be a tenant One City Center, downtown. I don’t know if WeWork had previously been considering Durham as a location for one of their co-working offices. However, the construction of One City Center created a space that made sense for them. It enabled WeWork to be a part of Durham’s rapid growth.

It remains to be seen, exactly how influential WeWork will be on Durham’s identity, but it has the potential to champion this city as a startup/innovation hub. WeWork has a relationship with Techstars, a startup accelerator with programs in cities across the globe. It wouldn’t be surprising for Techstars to create a program in Durham once WeWork opens. Combine that with AmericanUnderground’s multiple locations, as well as smaller co-working spaces such as Mothership, and Durham moving further towards an identity of innovation seems plausible.

Of course, there are many other identities that could emerge or have already emerged in Durham. The official city logo, until recently, included the phrase “City of Medicine”. Durham has been in the conversation for one of the best foodie cities of the south. Liberty Arts wants Durham to be to go-to city for metal working/sculpting in the arts. To me, the most powerful Durham identity is one of inclusive community. Durhamites care about each other. I have noticed strangers striking up friendly conversations around town. I have also been struck by the new Mayor, Steve Schewel’s dedication to making sure all Durhamites, regardless of race, religion, orientation, or socioeconomic status, get to participate in the city’s prosperity. Perhaps the identity is destined to be a combination of these messages.

As Durham grows and changes, its identity grows and changes along with it. The new construction and the new buildings, from One City Center, all the way to the new County Fare barn in Lakewood influence the direction and the message the city communicates to its residents and visitors.


  1. I think it depends on who the viewer is. I imagine most people unfamiliar with the area are looking at the Triangle as a whole, so I think our "national recognition" closely matches that: young, inexpensive, academic, tech-focused, growing but not yet "established". As is typically is of larger single cities, the Triangle metro has an identity, and each of the anchor cities has it's own sub-identity within the greater whole. I personally have heard Durham compared to the rest of the Triangle as: "cooler", "more artistic", "more academic", "higher income disparity", "less safe", "less expensive". It seems to me that in many ways Durham is seen as a more distilled version of what the people who are considering migrating to the Triangle are looking for in the first place. Raleigh, however, continues to grow more quickly than Durham does, and I wonder exactly why that it. Maybe it is because people are migrating more and more to cities and are willing to pay a premium for an urban lifestyle, and Raleigh still has more of that to offer comparatively.

    As an aside, I wonder if in the next 8-15 years we won't see Raleigh shedding lots of the younger people moving there today into the other areas of the Triangle as they grow older and start families? Although I imagine many of those will simply move into the eastern parts of Wake county as well where the prices won't increase as much since they are not as central.

  2. Great insight here, thanks Mitch. It does feel a little like Durham is a Brooklyn to Raleigh's Manhattan in a lot of ways. I think schools and crime, or at least the perception of crime keep Raleigh growing faster in terms of raw numbers. But the identity of Durham definitely shines through. People who move to Durham are doing so excitedly. They are passionate about moving to a place like Durham as opposed to the rest of the Triangle (unless they are just moving for Duke grad school). I think there are more "true fans" of Durham than there are of other cities in the Triangle, which can be great places to live, but don't have that level of personal investment that you see from some Durhamites.


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