"As little as possible."
That, former Durham Mayor Bill Bell told me recently, is what he's been doing since leaving office last year after 16 years.
That's cool, because what he did while in office still reverberates throughout the Bull City.
Bell, more than any other single person, is responsible for the changing landscape of Durham.
Surely, I'm not the only who's discovered in recent months that if you haven't driven through certain formerly sketchy parts of Durham in a while, you're likely to think you're lost when you see the new apartments, houses and businesses that weren't there a minute ago.
Bell still serves as executive vice president and Chief Operating Officer of United Durham Incorporated/Community Development Corporation (UDI/ CDC) and serves on the boards and committees of various organizations, so it's not like he's just sitting back sipping pina coladas and basking in the glow of his accomplishments.
Former mayor Bill Bell when he began his public life, looking like a member of The Main Ingredient, and as he looked after becoming the main ingredient of Durham's renaissance.
Those accomplishments, achieved with the help of progressive council members, a proactive business community and involved citizens, have been significant.
Check this out: The Durham of the early 1990s was viewed so negatively that realtors tried to steer newcomers to other Triangle municipalities. The only national attention the city seemed to receive was when parents disrupting school board meetings were broadcast nationally on CNN and friends from other parts of the country would call and ask "What's going on in Durham?". (I always took the protests to mean they were passionate about their children's education.)
Many Durham residents I knew reveled in its reputation, primarily because they knew it wasn't true and because that helped keep down home prices and keep out undesirables, i.e., those people who didn't appreciate Durham's diversity and funkiness.
No more is Durham faced with the problem of no one wanting to live here. The problem now is that everyone seems to want to live here. Drive down formerly infertile, neglected streets and you'll see building cranes and “For Sale” signs sprouting like mushrooms after a strong summer rain. Houses that you once could get for a song – you didn’t even need to know all the words, either – are now in the mid- six figures.
When Bell took office in 2001, downtown Durham became a ghost town after 6 p.m., County and city workers hightailed it home with alacrity and left downtown to people who, in some instances, had no home. Asked of what he was proudest, Bell noted several housing developments that have resuscitated formerly moribund neighborhoods.
Those include the combination of 40 condos and single family homes off Austin Avenue near Eastway Elementary School and the Rolling Hills development across from Hayti Heritage Center.
"We really made big strides in addressing the affordable housing issue, compared to what we'd been doing prior to my coming into office," he said. "This is no dig at previous administrations, but previously, affordable housing... had been tasked to the Durham Housing Administration, as opposed to the city council directly, as opposed too the city council directly...
"When I first came into office, one of the first projects we undertook was over on Barnes Ave in NE Central Durham... an area with a lot of poverty, absentee landlords, drug dealers... We were able to buy 2 blocks of those houses, tear them down and replace them with affordable condos and single-family homes. That was the first time the city had taken up anything of that magnitude. Usually, it had just been onesies or twosies, but I figured that if we were going to make a difference, you had to do it on a larger scale.
"The next project was Rolling Hills, which was about 20 acres. It was in jeopardy of becoming a ghetto in plain sight, so we were able to convince the city council to go in and buy up that property. In neither case did we push anybody out or use the powers of eminent domain... I wanted to focus on mixed income development, not where you put all the people of minimum income in one unit.. That had sort of been the modus operandi of the Durham Housing Authority because that was the population they required to serve."
Of the Eastway development, in particular, he said, "We were very successful in changing that whole environment and providing quality housing."
More than for anything else, Bell should be remembered for his political courage, his willingness to take a risk. While a member of the Durham County Commissioners, when the picture above was presumably taken and he looked like a member of The Main Ingredient, he led the merger of city and county schools. As mayor, he pushed through a one-cent property tax to go toward affordable housing.
Imagine - a politician calling for a tax hike for anything - but especially for affordable housing - instead of telling voters they can have everything they want without one.
Yes, he has a few.
"I didn't make as much headway as I would've liked in the program we had to reduce poverty," he said. "We made some progress, but I wish we could have made some more."
As the interview wound down, I asked if he is enjoying his new status as a private citizen.
"I really am," he said enthusiastically. "It's not that I didn't enjoy being mayor, because nobody made me do that. I enjoyed that, but it was just time for me to make another change in my life, away from the political arena. I appreciate where I am now in my life."
I'll bet most Durham residents appreciate where the city is now in its life, too.