By Julian March
UNC Staff Writer
The Durham VOICE
The building on the corner of Driver Street and Angier Avenue doesn’t look like much yet. Brown paper and paint covers the windows, masking what is behind the glass. Inside, holes in the ceiling and walls expose pipes and wires.
But if you look closely, there are three hearts taped to the front door, perhaps representing the love Joseph Bushfan is bringing to the forgotten corner of Northeast Central Durham. He is remodeling the building into three sections that will be home to a grocery store, an Internet café and a sandwich shop.
“I don’t want to treat people like a number,” he said. His businesses are designed to serve the needs of the community. He says the only nearby grocery store, Los Primos, is threatened by the proposed widening of Alston Avenue. For people who may not have computer access at home, his Internet café will have a free wireless connection and computers.
Although Bushfan now works with investors and city officials, his journey begins in Roxbury, the rough Boston neighborhood where he grew up.
He said he learned, “just because you came from a poverty-stricken area doesn’t mean you have to be negative.”
Bushfan left the neighborhood and became a bodyguard. For 20 years, he protected musicians, sports stars and celebrities, including Bobby Brown, Whitney Houston, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Allen Iverson and Yao Ming.
Guarding the famous earned him access to a world far from his roots. He walked on red carpets, had special access to the Grammy awards and sat near kings and queens.
But that world changed when he met the woman who would be his wife at a California concert. In 2007, he married Elaine O’Neal Bushfan, Durham’s chief district court judge.
She grew up in Durham, went to schools here and had made a name for herself. Bushfan decided to move to Durham to be with his new wife, but he didn’t just want to retire.
“I was riding around, looking for something to do,” he said. He wanted to start a business, and when he saw the building on Angier, he knew where he wanted it to go.
People told him he picked the worst corner to do business. But city officials recently told Bushfan that crime was down by over 50 percent in the area.
Bushfan smiles and says it’s because he’s big and has a concealed weapon permit. But there’s more beneath his talk and his bulging biceps from his days as a bodyguard.
The work Bushfan is doing is making a difference, said Earl Phillips, who works with the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Services.
“His business has really played a major role in getting things started,” Phillips said. “I think his store is really going to be a godsend for that area.”
Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, or TROSA, will manage the grocery store, giving people who have come through the substance abuse recovery program an opportunity to work.
“We believe it will benefit the community and the folks in our program,” said Keith Artin, the chief operating officer of TROSA.
“There’s a need for healthy, affordable food in that neighborhood,” he said.
And Bushfan has an idea of what the neighborhood needs. Because his front doors open to an intersection, he speaks to people by name when they walk by.
“I’ve met everybody,” he said. “I play chess with them. I teach the kids to play chess.”
He wants people to feel comfortable stopping by, even if they aren’t looking to buy anything.
“There’s a lot of good people, they’ve just been getting a bad rap,” he said. He mentions that within two miles of downtown, his neighbors struggle with joblessness and unpaved streets.
“Somebody’s just got to give them some faith and teach them,” he said.
More and more, he’s had to fill that role.
“At first the community didn’t understand where I was coming from,” he said.
But now, people in need come to him. He’s given shoes to those with none. He’s working to enroll a 17-year-old who just dropped out of high school into a program so he can get his GED.
As Bushfan loads supplies into a pickup truck, Chris Winston is close behind him. The eighth grader rides his bike to the corner to help out with odd jobs.
Winston lost his father, but now spends time working for Bushfan, who sells hot dogs on the Duke University campus.
“I took him under my wing,” Bushfan says.
Winston watches him load supplies and occasionally brings something to him. He says he loves working with Bushfan and is looking forward to the day the shops will open.
“I can’t wait,” he said.
Shortly after he bought the building, Bushfan had a scripture party. People from his church came with their favorite verses and scrawled them on the walls of the 3,300 square foot area that will be a grocery store.
The early morning sun lights up one from Habakkuk 2:2: “Write the vision, and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it.”
Soon, a fresh coat of pain will cover the words.
Bushfan looks around at them, as if committing the verses to memory. He’s ready for the new paint.
“You know they’re sealed in there” he said.