Curtis Bowens remembers when his neighborhood was home to all the city's blacks - men and women who became financiers, educators, doctors.

"This really was the cultural center" for blacks, he said.As times changed, so did the neighborhood. Then the drug dealers moved in.

When the throng of young men on the sidewalk grew so thick his dental patients couldn't get to his office, Bowens started complaining to police.

On April 29, Bowens' office burned down in a gasoline-ignited fire that police believe was set by the drug dealers. He was able to start his dentist office over again - but lost in the ashes was his collection of artifacts of black achievements that he hoped one day to turn into a museum

Bowens dug through the burned rubble one day recently, pulling out the sooty leg of a couch made 160 years ago by Thomas Day, a famous black furniture maker from Caswell County.

"I tried to build something more that would add to community, bring some beauty," he said. "And we needed that."

Bowens, a veteran of the civil rights movement, moved here in 1964 from a teachers' post at Howard University to do his part for the cause. But it wasn't racists who burned down his dentist office.

Fighting drug dealers is harder and more tiring than battling for equality, he said.

"If you're confronting me face to face, I'm OK," he said. "But what frightens me is what's done behind my back, like burning my building."

If the arsonists hoped to run him out of the neighborhood, they figured wrong. Bowens, who has insurance, hopes to rebuild in the same spot. Police have stepped up their neighborhood patrols, he said.

In a showdown between the dealers and the dentist, Maceo Sloan, chairman of Sloan Financial Group, said he would put his money on Bowens.

"Curtis has always been stubborn, and when he decides that something is the right thing to do, that's what he's going to do," said Sloan, who grew up in the neighborhood.

Sloan's old neighborhood is a bit run down, the wood-frame homes badly weathered, most people renting. The more prosperous residents have left, he said, sometimes moving into neighborhoods where they once weren't wanted.

The city itself - part of the so-called Golden Triangle with Raleigh and Chapel Hill - has bloomed over the years. The area, home to Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has grown by nearly a third in the last decade. Blacks make up roughly a quarter of the population.

Bowens' battle has struck a chord.

"I cannot go anywhere without people expressing their anger," Bowens said. He has a stack of letters about the fire from supporters and $1,800 in donations.

"One lady from a little, small North Carolina town sent me a $5 check and a note saying she liked what I was doing," he said.

Since the fire, he moved his office around the corner to a vacant ophthalmologist's office.

Five weeks after the fire, he hasn't replaced all his equipment; he sees patients for quick checkups and emergencies.