Durham’s Pinhook fighting for its life

The mechanical vice of debt and gentrification that threatens the Pinhook in Durham, NC is the same monster that wants to eat every American city alive. Their answer? Fight back, and buy yourself a drink.

January 8. 2016

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Durham’s Pinhook fighting for its life

The mechanical vice of debt and gentrification that threatens the Pinhook in Durham, NC is the same monster that wants to eat every American city alive. Their answer? Fight back, and buy yourself a drink.

Ask any resident of Durham, North Carolina about how the city has changed in the past five years, and the one thing they’ll all tell you is “fast“.  Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on on who you ask – the newer residents of Durham’s rapidly-gentrifying downtown district might be delighted by the fancy cafes and shiny streets, but a stubborn bastion of an older Durham can be found in the Pinhook, a queer-friendly dive bar right in the city center.

“It’s been interesting to me to see that there are less venues for music,” says Jessica, who left town about five years ago and moved back in late 2015. “I love Durham, I really love the art scene; and maybe it’s just because I’m coming back from [elsewhere] but it’s weird that there are only two places to go.”

The Pinhook was founded in 2008 by three friends, who had worked together at another bar before deciding to put their own together, one that could make room for radical activity and good music.  It didn’t take long to put together.  “We were kids,” says Kym Register, one of the founders and now sole owner of the Pinhook.  “We had an idea and we were like ‘hell yeah, let’s do it!’,” and two months later they were open for business.  Over the past seven years, the Pinhook has been one of the most important music venues in the densely-populated Research Triangle, a close network of conjoined cities that houses a quarter of North Carolina’s population.

Durham was a very different place just before Lehman Brothers collapsed in ’08.  “Downtown had been sort of dead since the 90s,” Kym tells me, “so just a bunch of empty buildings.  There was kind of a squat bar there.”  A business loan in a part of town considered ‘dangerous’ by the city’s white residents in the suburbs was seen as a pretty low-risk investment: a lot of the empty properties on Main Street belonged to the same financial interests, and having a new bar was only going to help property values rise, so if the thing goes under after a few years, what’s the damage?

Thanks to a recently discovered accounting issue, that situation now threatens the Pinhook’s future.  A bookkeeping error was discovered a few years too late, and the Pinhook now faces a tax debt of $80,000 that it didn’t know about until a month ago.

It’s not the only venue in Durham that has been caught off guard by unpaid sales tax, as the state of North Carolina, strapped for cash, is starting to crack down on unsuspecting businesses with simple accounting mistakes, to balance the state’s austere budgets and privatizations that have been going on since the financial crash.  Another famous example in town is that of the Carolina Theater, a stage venue that hosts international performers as diverse as guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani and flamenco legend Paco Peña, which has been surprised by a million dollar tax debt.  The Carolina Theater already receives a $650,000 annual subsidy from the city, but are currently negotiating for more aid upfront while city officials scramble to find out what went wrong.

The Pinhook, being far less tied to government money, can expect no such help.

Kym tried to engage tax officials personably at first.  “I was like ‘you’re a human, I’m a human, let’s talk about stuff,’ but it was all by the book.”  They managed to agree to a year-long payment plan, which meant that the Pinhook wouldn’t go under straight away, but whose hefty monthly payments meant that, at their current level of income, they might make it only as far as February.  “It’s the man,” Kym told me.  “They want to get their money, but they’re not invested in the Pinhook staying.”  As far as the state and the banks were concerned, the Pinhook had served its purpose.

So they turned to the people for whom the place still very much does count for something: their customers.  On the Pinhook’s 7th anniversary party they unfurled a banner behind the stage that reads ‘Damn the Man, save the Pinhook’, announced that they were in debt, and told the crowd that they’d started a crowdfunding campaign.  Within the first week they’d raised $17,000.

“It’s amazing, people will say to me, ‘do you need a fundraiser in Oakland?'” Kym tells me, “and then suddenly there’s a check for a thousand dollars in the mail.  It’s like a Christmas story or something.”

From the way the regulars talk about the Pinhook, the place inspires quite a strong loyalty from its customers.  “The Pinhook is a Durham institution,” says Rob, a customer from nearby Cary.  “It just feels a little bit like family round here, it’s a good vibe!”  Rob was telling me this on Christmas night, when the Pinhook was hosting one of its famous karaoke events.  The bar seemed pretty busy despite the strange choice of date – that is, until I asked the clientele about it, when they told me that it was because of the choice of date.

“I was gonna go home and watch some fucking Christmas movie, and instead I parked my car and saw everyone here, and I came here and spent my Christmas night with friends, and it’s incredible,” gushes Tessa, who lives nearby.  It takes a wry sort of genius for a bar to know that what its community needs after a long Christmas with family is a karaoke machine, a stage, and a crowd of people drinking their festive frustrations away.

I started to ask around to find out why customers felt like the Pinhook deserved being voted Best Karaoke in the Triangle several years in a row.  “Everybody claps no matter what!” says Anne, who rarely misses those nights.  “Everybody gets up there and shows their heart to the audience and everyone appreciates that, and so it’s a very supportive environment because lots of people have performance anxiety and you don’t need to have it here.”  She continued: “I think everybody gets the idea that getting on stage and signing is really hard and even if you’re a complete failure in terms of performance, just getting up there is worth something.”

Everyone I asked had something similar to say about it: people here are just nice.  After I finished my own number (Space Oddity) I noticed outside the glow of the lights that people had actually been paying attention to the stage, and were applauding me as warmly as the last person.  Having a crowd of strangers high-fiving you after a pretty lousy Bowie impression is a powerful feeling.  This attitude, of a crowd who gives so generously towards the stage, is true of the Pinhook’s other gigs, which often draw dense crowds from all around the Triangle.  Punk, hip hop, metal, pop, folk; whoever’s playing, the Pinhook has a level of safety and kindness that sets it apart from the shiny, more expensive bars popping up around town to please the new gentrifying set.

Tessa tells me, “I never worry about coming here and not feeling like I can be myself.  It’s special.”

Lurking at the edge of the fundraiser story and the threat to the Pinhook’s existence is Durham’s much longer history of hostile takeovers: this is not the first time downtown Durham has had its social fabric torn apart by the powerful.

In the early 20th century, Durham was home to the famous ‘Black Wall Street‘, perhaps the most significant hub of African American commerce in the entire country, back when the city’s economy was still powered by the tobacco industry.  The thriving business activity of Black Wall Street was especially significant for the harmonious nature of its prosperity during the Jim Crow era, where the local white population were far more willing than many other people in the South to create a space for black commerce and prosperity to thrive.  W. E. B. Du Bois wrote of that era of the city “I consider the greatest factor in Durham’s development to have been the disposition of the mass of ordinary white citizens of Durham to say: ‘Hands off — give them a chance — don’t interfere’.”

But in the 1960s and 70s, when the tobacco industry in North Carolina lost its subsidies and began to move its operations overseas en masse, Black Wall Street was offered no investment from the rapidly downsizing tobacco capitalists.  Over a number of years the center of the city was effectively gutted out thanks to ‘urban regeneration’, which was described in 1999 by Lawrence Ridgle, a local who had been born in Durham during the Great Depression, like this:

“And what they did, they concentrated all [the new investments] in a little area.  And one of the things that they destroyed by that was they put them so far apart from each other. And now you are centrally located.  And like today they’re putting fences around these places.  They took our—I think they destroyed esprit de corps. You know, I want to fix my house like I want and then let everybody have the same type house.  They know exactly where you are.  They tore up your businesses.”

The staff at the Pinhook are well aware of this history, and the destitution that has been wreaked on Durham’s different generations once the ruling class deemed them to be expendable.  The city’s biggest development yet is about to be built just across the road from the Pinhook: a 26-storey glass structure of expensive apartments with a swimming pool on the roof.  Standing out front on Main Street, one of the bar staff, Roxy, gestures to the empty lot from which the monstrosity will rise.  “This is the peak of gentrification in Durham, this is the pinnacle.”  There are enough big new developments on display nearby for you not to need to imagine the new building, overshadowing the historical red brick terraces below.

“My fear is that they’re not gonna try to integrate with what we’re doing here.”

I asked the people running the Pinhook what would happen to the scene if the place were to go under, but nobody wanted to entertain that notion.  “It doesn’t seem like an option,” says Kym.  “This community that we have here in Durham is tired of getting pushed out, of not being listened to because they don’t have deep pockets.  It’s a place for people who have been here forever.”

So they’re standing their ground, and raising the money they need with the sense of humor and stubbornness for which the Pinhook is known – for instance, if you donate $10,000 to their cause, they’ll name a toilet stall after you.  On last week’s movie night they wryly chose to play cult film Empire Records because it’s kinda like what they’re going through right now.  And they’ve booked a load of shows for January, with a Save the Pinhook concert series at the end of the month describing itself as ‘Super Secret Luscious Line-Ups’.  The Pinhook is coming out swinging.

It’s that character that is so appealing to imagine when the apartment giant across the road is finished: a glittering tower of boring capitalist cleanliness having its shiny image blemished by having to rub shoulders with a grubby little pirate ship just over the road, whose very existence cheerfully says “fuck you” to the sleek financial machine that can’t quite kill it.



You can donate to the Pinhook’s crowdfunding campaign here.

January 8. 2016