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What's it like to live in Durham?
May 30, 2011 2:10 PM   Subscribe

What is it like to live in Durham, NC?

As part of my ongoing quest to find the next and hopefully long term place to live, I'm currently looking at Durham, NC.

What is it like to live there? What would an average day be like? How is traffic/commuting? What does the weather feel like, really? What kind of people hang out in which parts? Where would I go for weekend trips? How hard is it to find a job? What are the best things? What are the worst things? What things would I normally not find out until I'd been living there a few months?

My partner and I are two females in our twenties, very liberal, want kids some day, have/love dogs, require a yard/green space, and want a mortgage manageable for someone in art/design. We currently live in midtown Atlanta, GA and the things we dislike are the traffic, the size/sprawl, what we perceive to be high real estate prices (even in this economy), and a hard to pin down corporate/shallow/commercial feeling. Other cities we like are Portland, OR, Lawrence, KS and Asheville, NC.

Any suggestions, descriptions, and commentary welcome, the more specific and personal the better.
posted by ohsnapdragon to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Why narrow it to Durham? Chapel Hill and for that matter Raleigh are in the vicinity.

FWIW Durham has more of a rep for crime but I would imagine that really really would depend on the neighborhood.

(I'm in Fayetteville so that is as specific as I can get-but I can tell you the Triangle area in general will fit you well. I'd peg you more as the Chapel Hill type if I had to pick.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:32 PM on May 30, 2011


I am open to other areas, definitely, but my mostly uninformed impression is that Chapel Hill is more expensive and Raleigh more suburban. Neighborhood suggestions outside of the "cool parts" of cities that are affordable with big yards and decent commutes are welcome too.
posted by ohsnapdragon at 2:51 PM on May 30, 2011


I'm in Raleigh. I was going to warn you off the weather (current heat index: 101 degrees) but since you're in Atlanta you're probably used to that. I doubt our weather at any point in the year is much different from what you get in Georgia.

Durham is kind of treated as the redheaded stepchild of the Triangle area. It has the highest crime of the three cities (the other two being Raleigh & Chapel Hill), but is still a great place to live and the cost of living is not bad. As long as you are able to find work in Durham, the traffic is not going to be an issue. Many people end up commuting between the Triangle cities, though, and that can be sort of brutal. They keep talking about setting up a light rail system but that won't happen for a few years at the very least.

There are very good arts and restaurant scenes in this area. The major cities in North Carolina are surprisingly liberal, I've found. My husband and I moved here six years ago from Los Angeles and have been very happy - we were able to buy a house almost immediately and neither of us have had problems finding jobs. My husband was laid off once at the beginning of the economic collapse, but found something else before he could even claim unemployment.

Raleigh definitely has a reputation for sprawl, but it is probably has the most opportunity as far as jobs go, and you don't have to live in the cookie-cutter suburbs if you don't want to. We live about 15 minutes from downtown in a quiet but convenient neighborhood - I can walk to the grocery store, library, vet, dentist, bars, restaurants, etc. It's like anyplace else; you just have to hunt a bit to find the best place for your family.

I've just returned from a weekend trip to Asheville, and while there are a lot of positives about living in an artsy mountain town, it's definitely harder to find a job there, and I think (even having gone through a multi-year hippie phase myself) I would find the college-town vibe grating pretty quickly.
posted by something something at 2:56 PM on May 30, 2011


Since your tags include other cities in the Triangle, I'm going to assume you're willing to entertain answers that aren't exclusively about living within the confines of the city limits of Durham. I've never lived in Durham, but I have lived in/near Chapel Hill for 16 years and feel like I can reasonably answer about the Triangle region.

Currently Durham is on the upswing, at least in terms of vibrancy and hipness. They are in the process of redoing the downtown of Durham and the ghost town feel that was there a few years ago is starting to diminish. Having said that though, there are still areas of the city that are struggling.

The commute can vary depending on where you live/work. I know people who live in Raleigh and drive to Durham or Chapel Hill for work and they face a 45-50 minute commute. I also know people who live close enough to walk or bike to work. As for cost, it's definitely easier to find affordable mortgages in Durham than in Chapel Hill or Cary. You can also find affordable mortgages in some of the bedroom communities that have sprung up (e.g. Apex) but these are most often large subdivisions with cookie-cutter style houses. That may or may not be what you're looking for. It is also possible to buy insanely expensive loft style apartments in the redeveloped old tobacco warehouses in downtown Durham.

The arts/cultural scene is reasonably strong in the Triangle, the presence of UNC, Duke and NC State mean that there's a nice vibrancy in the area. Though my sense is that Asheville is stealing a lot of the thunder these days. Both in terms of nationally touring bands and artistic types. Durham hosts a well respected annual documentary film festival as well as the American Dance Festival.

Weather wise, it probably is similar to Atlanta, maybe a little colder in the winter.

There are other nice things about the area -- it's an easy drive to get to DC or Atlanta if there's something going on there. The mountains or the coast are nearby if that sort of thing appeals to you.

If you and your partners are foodies, Durham definitely has the best restaurant selection in the Triangle, with a wide range of options, ranging from cheap southern fried options to finer dining (see the recent NYT article about dining in Durham)

I often tell people that life in Chapel Hill gives me the best of both worlds, a small college town feel but with a lot of the benefits of being a large city. Durham may not have as much of a college town feel about it as Chapel Hill, but the sentiment still applies.

On preview: your observations about Chapel Hill and Raleigh are reasonable ones, though there are areas close to downtown Raleigh that escape the suburban feel. As for Chapel Hill, I love the place but housing in Chapel Hill and Carrboro tends to be more expensive than what you can find in Durham or Raleigh.
posted by cptspalding at 3:01 PM on May 30, 2011


something something, those are my reservations about Asheville exactly.

Would you mind sharing your Raleigh neighborhood, and/or some others like it? That sounds about like what we're looking for.
posted by ohsnapdragon at 3:02 PM on May 30, 2011


Sure, we live in North Raleigh, about halfway between I-440 ("the beltline") and I-540.
posted by something something at 3:09 PM on May 30, 2011


I live in Durham, and based on your stated demographics, Durham seems like a great fit.

What is it like to live there?
It's great -- housing is relatively inexpensive, and it's a small city so it's not hard to get around quickly. We have lots of amazing locally-owned restaurants, breweries, and food trucks, with new ones opening every couple of weeks, it seems. Lots of emphasis on locally-sourced ingredients. The farmer's market rocks, and is legit -- you have to grow the stuff you sell, unlike other markets, e.g. Raleigh. There's a great music scene in Durham and the rest of the area. We just got a couple new live music venues and they're doing some amazing things like music brunches on Sundays with food trucks and bands. The community is large but pretty tight-knit among the art/music/etc. scene. Plus we have Duke, which means great stuff like gardens, art museums, musical events, and hospitals connected with the university.

What would an average day be like?
Depends on what you're into. I work until about 4:30, come home, if it's Wednesday go to the Wednesday farmer's market, and then either make dinner or try to decide where to go out for food. There are club shows every night if you're really into live music. There are plays, performances at DPAC (big 1200-seat performing arts center), free days at the museums...but when the weather is nice I just hang out on the back porch and listen to the birds.

How is traffic/commuting?
I live in the downtown vicinity and work in the RTP. My commute is about 13 minutes door-to-door, about 10 of it on a freeway. It's very easy. There's a local transit bus service that goes all over the whole Triangle, a local Durham bus line, and a free bus that goes between downtown and Duke. I go to Raleigh once every month or so to see friends, and to Chapel Hill a couple times a month, usually to see a band.

What does the weather feel like, really?
Spring and fall are gorgeous. Winter is pretty mild (for my midwestern blood). A snow or two per year. Summer is probably a lot like Atlanta.

What kind of people hang out in which parts?
Lots of the 20s to 40s crowd can be spotted at restaurants, bars, etc near downtown, or near Duke in the 9th street district. Seems like most of my music/art scene friends live in areas like Northgate park, where houses are smallish but very affordable. You'd be around very like-minded people there. Some of the more trad people I know from work live in areas like Woodcroft, further from downtown but closer to RTP and the big mall. I'm sure I'm missing stuff that's not in my circle of friends/interests, too.

Where would I go for weekend trips?
The beach is 2.5 hours away, the mountains are 3.5 hours away.

How hard is it to find a job?
I'm not sure -- haven't had to look in a while.

What are the best things?
The Carolina Theater and the Full Frame Documentary Film festival, The Scrap Exchange, Locopops, food trucks, taco stands, the community, all the local businesses....I could list a couple hundred things, probably.

What are the worst things?
The civic planning, the roads, the fact that people from the 'burbs think you live in a 'dangerous' place. Some of the school districts are better than others, but there are also great magnet schools.

What things would I normally not find out until I'd been living there a few months?
I'm still finding new stuff, and I've been here over 6 years.
posted by statolith at 3:11 PM on May 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


statolith, you make me want to pack my bags.

I've been looking at Durham neighborhoods Northgate Park, Colonial Village, Forest Hills, Trinity Heights, Trinity Park, Old North Durham and Old West Durham, and Watts Hospital-Hillandale. What else should I be looking at? Any I should rule out?

People seem pretty much in agreement that the dodgy part of Durham is on the east side. Where does this begin, exactly?
posted by ohsnapdragon at 3:19 PM on May 30, 2011


Those are all good neighborhoods, from what I've seen. Trinity Park is expensive. I have friends who live in Northgate Park, Duke Park, Old North and West, and they all seem great to me. I live near Forest Hills, and the park is amazing. (I don't know Colonial Village.) There will be areas of all these neighborhoods that will be walkable, but not all, though many will be within easy biking distance of what you need.

You're right that the East is generally dodgy, and I'd say it begins just east of downtown. Though, that's changing. The Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood is sort of up-and-coming, but beyond that, I'm not really sure. I just never have any reason to go through any of the bad parts of town -- they aren't on the way to where I'm ever going.
posted by statolith at 3:28 PM on May 30, 2011


Durham (at least the older parts) doesn't have one 'dodgy area' per se; dodginess can vary wildly within a few miles (I lived in a house which if you went a few blocks one way, it became really dodgy, but if you went a few blocks the other way, it was all golf courses and stuff).

There is a Durham Crime Mapper. I would urge you to visit any house before buying it, as it's always best to see the places in person, given the ... well distributed nature of crime in the city.

Generally, Durham has a low cost of living, and OK weather (you get one perfect month in Spring and one perfect month in Fall). I've found it to be pretty car centric; public transportation is not good. I like it.
posted by Comrade_robot at 3:28 PM on May 30, 2011


Oh, and I might suggest renting for a year, to get an idea of what neighborhoods suit you best. I wish we'd done that when we moved here -- we've since moved again, but for those first 5 years in our 1st house, I always envied my friends in cooler neighborhoods!
posted by statolith at 3:29 PM on May 30, 2011


Just to get myself out there as a potential person to contact, since i don't have time at this second to make a lengthy comment! I second everything statolith has said. I used to live in Old West Durham and liked it a lot, when renting. When I bought a house I went slightly farther out north of town (just a few miles) in order to be able to afford something nice and safe on a nonprofit salary.

Comrade Robot is right about the dodginess varying wildly. I used the crime mapper to select where I bought.

For those of you following along, Colonial Village is the neighborhood that's across Roxboro from Northgate Park.
posted by Stewriffic at 5:12 PM on May 30, 2011


I live in Durham, NC and like it most of the time. As statolith mentioned, the Wednesday and Saturday Farmer's Markets are great.

What is it like to live there? What would an average day be like?
There's almost always fun stuff to do outside during Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. We have some great breweries with free music on the weekends. All summer there is a great free concert series on Friday nights where seemingly all of Durham gathers with lawn chairs and babies.

How is traffic/commuting?
Coming from a larger city, commutes here are ridiculously light (unless you work in Raleigh). For most people, a 20 minute commute would be longish.

What does the weather feel like, really?
Today the weather sucked. 92 degrees, high humidity. On the bright side, snow is rare in the Winter and we have a lovely Spring and Fall.

What kind of people hang out in which parts?
There's a ton of fun restaurants and bars downtown. There's also Southpoint Mall about 20 minutes away, which is filled with teenagers on the weekends.

Where would I go for weekend trips?
DC, Asheville, the beach.

How hard is it to find a job?
I haven't looked in awhile but, especially in the tech sector, there are lots of jobs. Are you a graphic designer by chance?

What are the best things?
Great community, awesome restaurants with an emphasis on locally grown food, lots of free activities, a wonderful minor league Baseball team (Go Bulls!).

What are the worst things?
Durham Public Schools pale in comparison to Chapel Hill. People with young children freak out here when it comes time to send their children to kindergarden because there are not enough spots at the "choice" elementary schools. Plus, the majority of middle schools are not good. And, I say this as a former middle school teacher in Durham.
Summer also lasts a long time here. If you are used to humidity, it might not matter to you though. I am a bit of a weather wimp.

What things would I normally not find out until I'd been living there a few months?
Like Comrade_robot said, neighborhoods can be great on one block and terrible on another. I would recommend renting before you buy because of this. Also, I think you'd be really happy in Old West Durham or Northgate Park. Both of those neighborhoods have a lot of queer couples and families. If you like dogs, Northgate Park has a great dog park.
posted by JuliaKM at 5:36 PM on May 30, 2011


Given what you say, there are few places more perfect for you than Durham. I third everything that statolith has said, she pretty much has it covered. My partner and I live in Duke Park (also known as Dyke Park for its large lesbian population), I also commute to RTP, which is an easy ~15 minute drive with little traffic. I lived in Atlanta before moving here. Well, to be specific, I moved to Chapel Hill for grad school, moved to Carrboro halfway during grad school, and then eventually ended up in Durham.

Weather-wise, summers are a little cooler than in Atlanta, and we definitely get more snow than you guys, although it's still not very much. Sprawl and traffic in Atlanta are horrible. You still need a car here, but commuting and getting around the city isn't anywhere near the pain it is down there. Personally, I love the size of this area. Lots of parks and green, open spaces very near to the cities. Job-wise, the economy is great, although I'm not sure about design jobs specifically.

If you're thinking about kids in the near future and are thinking about buying for the long term, then you definitely need to check out school districts. My partner and I bought a smallish bungalow near downtown, which is great, but is in a horrible school district. For us, though, it was always in the plans to move as our family outgrew our house.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 5:36 PM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thank you everyone for the great answers so far! I am really excited about Durham's possibility and we've decided to come visit in August for the LGBT film festival.

JuliaKm, I'm not sure exactly what I am yet, but I am hoping to be somewhere in the fields of graphic design/art direction/advertising.
posted by ohsnapdragon at 7:01 PM on May 30, 2011


I might not have the most broad perspective regarding what Durham has to offer, but here's what I can tell you after living there for the past 5 years and 2 of the summers.

Durham has a liberal vibe and historic charm. The traffic isn't bad at all--I've never had to sit and wait in my car anywhere, but then again I also stay in one corner of town. If you're taking 15-501 or the Durham Freeway, you'll hit a rush hour jam, but it's not hours long traffic by any means. The cost of living isn't bad, and you can usually find a research job due to the Research Triangle Park and the academic institutions concentrated in the area. Not sure about the arts sector in terms of job availability.

The local food culture is rich, with some fine regional specialties to be found at places like the Farmer's Market, co-op (if this still exists?), and Magnolia and Watts Grocery (fine dining). There are museums and art galleries in the area (check out Nasher at Duke, and the America Tobacco district) to fulfill your cultural appetite. If you're into sports, there's the Durham Bulls (baseball) and of course Duke basketball in Cameron to get excited about. Places like the Duke Gardens display the best of NC's gorgeous flora. It's a beautiful place, albeit a bit less tolerable than coastal towns during the summer. It's freakin' humid, but you're probably quite used to that being from GA.

The people in Durham, NC are mostly friendly when you're interacting out and about. I always felt like I was greeted by a smile more often than not in the shops and on the streets. There are certainly some more run down areas of town, but I've never had problems with the crime. You just can't go walking around by yourself after 10 pm on a place like LaSalle street, where the crime rate is high. You also can't leave your bikes chained out front of your condo, since there's a high theft rate. Definitely check out the crime map like someone recommended.

I didn't get any sort of shallow/commercial feeling from the residents I interacted with. I saw more people who fit my idea of a creative activist type than I expected to. HTH!
posted by sunnychef88 at 9:24 PM on May 30, 2011


What is it like to live there?
Durham is great! I was born in, grew up in, and went to college in Chapel Hill (so of course my basketball polarity is reversed from most others in Durham), and after college I got a job in Durham, so I moved here. I feel like I spend a lot of time defending my choice to Chapel Hillians- Durham is not that bad! I mean, okay, there is some crime, but it feels pretty confined, and I never feel unsafe in my neighborhood (near Woodcroft). Since others have suggested Chapel Hill, I'll say that Durham is much better than Chapel Hill as a resident; lower taxes, better art/food scene, lower cost of living, better commercial districts. Also, unscientifically, the residents seem more grounded.

How is traffic/commuting?
Compared to Raleigh, it's heaven. They've finally finished construction on 15-501 around Garrett Road (which was horrendous), and it can get backed up there, but it's really much better. 147 now has sporadic construction, but still, not bad.

What does the weather feel like, really?
It's perfect, as far as this Southerner is concerned. It snows maybe once per year,
bookended by a perfect spring and fall. Summer is sweltering, but you know.

How hard is it to find a job?
It was finding my job in Durham which led me to move to Durham, and once I got here I had extra time on my hands, and I promptly got two pretty decent part-time jobs in a row. I don't have a link to back this up, but I've heard that the unemployment rate in the Triangle is around 7% right now, almost 2% less than the country's average.

What are the best things?
My favorite parts about Durham: the Farmer's Market, as many above have mentioned, is amAzing. The DPAC (only been twice, but they attract so many different acts, it's crazy). The lovely American Tobacco Trail where I trained for a half marathon and see tons of people of all shapes and sizes, walking, running, stroller-ing, roller-blading. Duke Gardens. And, of course, the restaurants!! Toast. Dame's Chicken and Waffles. Guglhupf. Taqueria La Vaquita. We were the foodiest small town in America!

What are the worst things?
There are only two parts of Durham that I hate: 1) that dark blue abomination of a basketball team that people here inexpicably fawn over, and 2) this never happens to me ANYwhere else, but in Durham, people turn left out of side roads, across traffic in front of me, heart-stoppingly close.
posted by heyheylanagirl at 8:19 AM on May 31, 2011


People have said most of what I came on here to say, but I'll add that my experience was largely positive (I lived in Durham for a summer and on most breaks from uni). The weather sucked, but I hate hot weather anyway.

Also, seconding the recommendation of Duke Gardens - I went there all the time and it's awesome.

Good luck!
posted by guster4lovers at 11:18 AM on May 31, 2011


Something I just came across that looks like a great resource: Durham Hoods. It defines where the neighborhoods are, and it also has a place that links to the neighborhood listservs. These are an excellent way to get to know what's available and what's going on in the 'hood.
posted by Stewriffic at 11:36 AM on June 5, 2011


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