An Introduction: How Bull City Summer Got Here

For more than a dozen years I studied a nondescript five-floor brick and wood plank walk-up in New York City’s wholesale flower district that was an after-hours jazz haunt in the 1950s and 60s. The work became known as The Jazz Loft Project. Over the years we documented more than 600 people that hiked the steep, dank stairwell of the loft building. The true number was probably twice that. In my old office at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke we maintained a dry-mounted map of the United States with pins for the birthplaces of people we documented in the loft. The pins were all over the map, including the edges to indicate international locations, and they represented all kinds of family and cultural backgrounds. The community in that loft included icons, underground figures, and ordinary people alike. Pretty soon we realized that this wasn’t really a jazz story, although it was a heavy and unique story about the behind-the-scenes craft of jazz—and it wasn’t just a New York story, either, although it was a quintessential New York story at the same time. There was something universal about it. The story had a full range of human activity, a literary range, an artistic range, framed by one building. It just so happened there was a feverish master photographer who documented it all in photographs and tapes, making a record of something that mainstream history usually misses.

Flash to the afternoon of Monday September 7, 2009. Labor Day. I was sitting down the left field foul line at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP). The place was packed. Kids were everywhere. At some point in the middle of the game I realized that every walk of life within a 30-mile radius was represented in the stadium that day: white people, African-American, Latino, Asian, and seemingly every income level and all ages. I wondered, what other buildings in the Triangle see this mix of people passing through and sticking around? The mall, perhaps, but the mall is a chaotic and crass commercial environment. This was different. There’s a retreat quality to baseball; its home is called a park for a reason. The game on the field is untimed, offering a more natural rhythm than other team sports. Unlike football, basketball, or soccer, baseball is not a struggle over real estate, not a sporting outgrowth of that time-honored kernel of human geo-political warfare.

I drove home wondering if there were ways to apply the documentary principles of the Jazz Loft Project to a season at the DBAP. I’d want top-notch photography and documentary writing. There could also be oral history elements, and audio and video. We’d make a record of what happens on the field but also in the stands and the back corridors of the stadium, the grounds crew, the fans, the parking attendants, everything. The art and craft of baseball would be the core, and the ballpark where it is played would be the frame, through which to glimpse Durham—a city with profound and conflicted history, and a burgeoning present and future—and the whole region.

I mentioned these thoughts to Duke Performances’ Director Aaron Greenwald, who responded, “Have you seen Adam Sobsey’s coverage of the Bulls?” I hadn’t. He said, “I think his work is unique. You should check it out.” Aaron’s tastes in the arts are refined, and he’s a sports fan, so I knew this tip was significant.

I sifted through Adam’s writing on INDY Week‘s website. What I found was a shrewd understanding of the craft of baseball in his work (the difference between “command” and “control” by pitchers, for example), a facility that has since made him one of the best writers at the prestigious site Baseball Prospectus. But there was also more. In one memorable post, he wrote about leaving the game and walking home through downtown Durham, seeing the crowd filing out of DPAC after a show, and then stopping in a bar for a drink. He also evoked writers such as Tennessee Williams, Henrik Ibsen, and more.

Adam and I met at Federal one afternoon in the spring of 2011 and began pondering and plotting this project. Later in 2011 and again in 2012 we put together two trial runs of this project, using a core photography team consisting of a longtime colleague of mine, Kate Joyce from Chicago, and two terrific local photographers, Frank Hunter and Leah Sobsey, to go along with Adam and me as writers.

Over the winter of 2012-13, with traction provided by the two trial runs, the Bull City Summer team grew stronger. The North Carolina Museum of Art, the Southern Documentary Fund and the Splinter Group came onboard as partners. We gained generous and critical support from Triangle Orthopaedic Associates, Capitol Broadcasting, WRAL.com and the Durham Bulls Baseball Club. My new organization, Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, is co-producing the project with Daylight Books of Hillsborough, but without all of these mentioned partners none of this could have happened.

We’ve added an esteemed group of artists to our roster, including photographers Alex Harris, Elizabeth Matheson, Alec Soth, Hank Willis Thomas and Hiroshi Watanabe, as well as film and video artist Ivan Weiss. Guest writers, so far, include Allan Gurganus and Randall Kenan.

The project launched with two pieces already posted on Paris Review Daily, the top literary website in the country according to Dwight Garner of the New York Times. And now we launch this website. Keep checking back for new photographs, new writing and news of events. The site will be updated often. In addition, there will be a Bull City Summer piece on Paris Review Daily every other Wednesday throughout the season.

Then in 2014, the results will come forth in a book published by Daylight and an exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art in late February 2014. We hope to add a documentary film component to the project, as well as a custom-made app. There will be other events and outcomes announced in the future, as well.

Before I go for now, I want to stress our gratitude to Triangle Orthopaedic Associates, Capitol Broadcasting Company, WRAL.com and the Durham Bulls Baseball Club for making it possible for Bull City Summer to reach this point.

From this beginning, we hope to do something unique. There are miles to go, but we’re off to a good start.

Photo by Kate Joyce

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