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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Centerfest Rethink 

Durham's Five Points

The Clarion Content's brilliant new Culture columnist, Cady Childs, has the first of a two part series rethinking Durham's Centerfest. As likely most of you know, dear readers, Centerfest, a thirty-seven year-old Durham tradition, is taking a hiatus this year. What was sad news for many Durhamanians at first, may end up being a wonderful opportunity as the beloved, one-time street festival reconciles itself to Durham's vibrant, exploding, downtown cultural scene. Durham loved Centerfest when nobody outside Durham loved Durham. Now Durham pride and patriotism are everywhere: our food, our music, our art are undergoing renaissance of proportions not seen for generations1, it is time to bring Centerfest into this era.

Cady Childs channels her personal experiences at the height of Centerfest's popularity to envision what it might become again.


Imagine being ten-years-old, in the passenger’s seat of your Dad’s truck, the whole booth packed back tight and cozy behind you, dusk-tinged sky in front. A cream soda bottle clutched in your fist drips chilly beads of condensation over your hands and thighs, leaving streaks from where it cuts through the street grime clinging to your palms, fingers, legs, and arms. You’re singing in harmony with Whiskeytown’s ‘Avenues’, and the then bare, dirty, and empty Morgan Street streams outside your window. You’re clutching a tile you made all by yourself out of tiny little mosaic squares, mapping out a gray sword with an off-white border, a present for your older brother’s upcoming birthday. Proudly, you hold it up to your father, his show hat secure to his head with a leather cord, big nineties shades and a t-shirt line peeking out from under his sleeve. It is 1998, Centerfest is at its peak, and your mind is a sponge sucking up everything around you.

I remember wandering up and down the blocked off grid of Main, Corcoran, Chapel Hill, and Morgan streets, the potters, painters, leathermakers, quilters, photographers, jewelers, and sculptures sitting under their white canopy tents, most with portable fans clipped to the back pole to cool them off. These blocks, instead of yielding to the traffic headed for the Durham Freeway, were packed with people, their brightly toned shirts and hats making a hodge-podge, a spotted flag out of downtown. I would stop and stare with child-like wonder at everything I saw, and while the craftsmanship was impressive, it is the people I remember the most. Many of these artists, my father included, knew each other from other shows. They were a community. They had shared booths next to each other at the Eno, been a few spots away at Virginia Beach. They had watched each other’s children grow older, had mutually observed one another’s art develop.

The familial and the familiar was always more apparent at certain shows than others, Centerfest felt to me, a kid who grew up around it, more like a reunion than anything else. I spent the afternoons quietly walking around the Durham Arts Council, sneaking into a dance studio I knew on the top floor from summer camp. It was always unlocked and empty, a great place to play. I’d roam the hallways, peaking in at artists quietly at work, teenage actors sitting on the back steps flirting with each other before their afternoon performances. I would stare at prints and paintings on the walls. Enjoying how hushed and quiet it felt in the corridors, almost, hallowed and holy, almost church like, the thick wall of crowd noise and humidity that hit me as I walked out the door always felt dramatic, vibrant, alive with community and art: more talent, more voices, more mediums, more life than most children’s heads have an opportunity to witness or experience throughout the entirety of their elementary educations.

Recently, Centerfest has been such a hot topic for papers, news stories, blogs, conversations over lunch, etc., it’s hard to be left out of the loop or miss the buzz surrounding the Durham Art Council’s recent decision. After several years of declining attendance, squeezed budgets and funding, the conclusion was to “rest the festival for 2011 in order to launch a one year visioning/production process for the 2012 expanded arts and entertainment festival format.” This new format, according to Sherry DeVries, executive director of the DAC, will include additions such as a food festival, and perhaps synchronization with other Durham events and entertainments such as Full Frame and African-American Dance Ensembles, taking note from successful festival models such as Bele Chere, Asheville’s yearly booze, food, music, and art weekend celebration.

I am personally struggling to see how Centerfest (not parking lot Centerfest---old, Five-Points Centerfest) did not already serve as the festival of converged Durham cultures, tastes, sounds, and smells it seems DeVries is hoping to create (and find the funds for). Budget cuts are something we can understand, now more than ever, and certainly no one is pointing a finger of blame at the first person to suggest attempting to attract art lovers into a barren parking lot on a sunny, unseasonably hot, autumn day. The loss of what Centerfest used to be is apparent, almost self-evident and the why it happened is not one answered with one name or one group. It is a question of place.

Breaking the festival away from the Arts Council building that has served as its beacon, its central hub, was likely rooted in the financial reality rather than in the ideal world. A parking lot cannot stimulate the character of city streets. This loss of character and eroding of the community vibe has been clearly visible in the steady drop in attendance since the festival’s move. But now, with a commitment to making it better than ever being heard and felt across so many Durham demographics, the step to take Centerfest back to it’s original form and location seems more possible and achievable than ever.

Local businesses, restaurants and foot traffic are ever more prevalent inside the Loop. Downtown Durham is thriving! Imagine what could be created with all the amazing new establishments as a part of the process. Imagine the representative canvas it would paint, local artists, musicians, performers, and small business owners working together each year on a celebration of our cultures, our ideas, our community and its people. Durham.

Considering the exposure the Arts Council and everything surrounding it would receive in those two days, it’s hard to think that there aren’t enough people to create the necessary coalition and financing for the festival to be heralded home to it’s literally, street form. And personally, I can’t think of a better form to base this re-envisioning process on than the Centerfest of the past.


1Just ask the New York Times. Or check out this month's Durham Magazine. (Of course, if you only read The Independent, you'd never know...)

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What a nice reflection. Thanks A and C. I remember those years when ALL of Durham was like the quiet DAC dance studio Cady describes: "...always unlocked and empty, a great place to play." Those years where hometown identity was formed in spite of hibernation. Something is happening in Durham if Centerfest, that art playground mecca for Dirty-D (and I mean that in the sense of Eno-dirt), is taking a rest. Where are we going? I gotta take this opportunity to quote 2004 Centerfest performer David Byrne: "Home is where I want to be, but I guess I'm already there"
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