Update, Tuesday, June 7, at 12:50 p.m. We received arrived on what constitutes Black Wall Street Plaza: It is both the parcel with the gazebo along Orange Street (north side of Parrish) and extends to Main Street and encompasses what is colloquially known as Chickenbone Park.
At Chickenbone Park, a fleck of green space in downtown Durham, about 20 people have gathered in the shade, seeking refuge from the noontime sun under the crape myrtle trees. Grocery bags bulging with belongings rest on the grass.
“It may get better. It may get worse,” the preacher, an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, tells the crowd. “You know how things go. But the Lord will always be with you.”
Music for the church service and luncheon Photo by Lisa Sorg
They sing a song and break for lunch — pork sandwiches and sodas — and then disperse to the air-conditioned library, Five Points plaza, the bus benches along Main Street. A few stick around.
The life in this park — which isn’t technically a park, but instead a quarter-acre of city-owned open space bordered by Main, Parrish , Orange, and Mangum streets — largely keeps to itself. And there in lies its intrinsic value. The park, also known as Black Wall Street Plaza, is one of the last two public green spaces inside the Loop. It offers a respite from the concrete. It is one of the few places downtown where you can hear the birds sing in the morning. It is a place, a woman told city planners last week, where everyone can “just be.”
The city’s planning department had called the meeting at the behest of the city administration to gauge public sentiment on privatizing a portion of the park. Although no one has formally submitted a proposal, Shawn Stokes, who owns Luna Rotisserie next door, has been interested in carving out a piece for outdoor dining. In return, Luna would pay for improvements to the park, such as lighting. (However, a city ordinance prohibits the sale of alcohol in Chickenbone Park; City Council would have to amend the law to allow Luna patrons to drink there.)
“What we would propose would be a win-win. It would make the space more inviting and open,” Stokes said. He’s filed five police reports in the nine months his restaurant has been open, he said, including an incident in which “someone was shooting up in the [Luna] bathroom on the baby-changing table.”
Yet privatizing even a sliver of a public green space — at the crossroads of downtown, the parcel also faces historic Parrish Street — sets an uneasy precedent for Durham. Already the city has leased and sold easements and air rights to condo projects abutting Durham Central Park. If Luna is granted a lease on a part of the property — clearly one of the most valuable downtown — then who else will want a piece of it?
Most of what we think of as public space is actually private. American Tobacco Campus, including the lawn in front of the Aloft Hotel, is privately owned (only within the last few years has photography been allowed), with security to keep the homeless from loitering there. Brightleaf Square is also private.
One of the joys of erstwhile lawn adjacent to the Green Wall at Main and Corcoran streets was that the public took de facto ownership over a neglected private space; the city even mowed it. Now the grass is gone, replaced by is a gaping maw while a 26-story skyscraper is built there.
If there were private space in Chickenbone Park, it should be shared and unobtrusive: a coffee kiosk, for example, or a bikeshare program. However, cordoning off the space would likely alienate some park patrons the way velvet ropes outside trendy nightclubs separate the desired from the undesirable. The homeless who encamp there during the day could feel less welcome, said Nnenna Freelon. “There should be a direct benefit to the least powerful of the users,” she said. “This is one of the few places in Durham where the homeless can sit and feel they don’t have to move.”
From OpenDurham.org, courtesy Durham County Library
The first store in Durham was built on what is now Chickenbone Park. The spot was then known as Angier Corner, named for M.A. Angier, who operated a general store here before the Civil War. According to Open Durham, the city’s first post office was inside Angier’s General Store. And in 1878, Eugene Morehead, the son of the governor, opened Durham’s first bank next door.
Over time, Angier’s became the Haywood King drug store, and then in the 1930s a Walgreen’s.
Under the federal urban renewal program — the same one responsible for the destruction of the Hayti neighborhood and construction of Durham Freeway — the buildings were demolished in the 1970s. The land lay vacant, becoming green space, and in 2013 dedicated as Black Wall Street Plaza.
A black-owned business, Dell’z Barber & Spa, has operated off the park for 14 years. A sandwich board reading “Barber Shop” points to short set of wooden stairs that face a grassy alley, which runs from the pergola past the shop to Luna’s back door. Inside, two African-American women read magazines, their heads encased in hair dryers.
“We’ve had yard sales out here and the church feeds the homeless,” said Dell Pettiford. “I’ve never had a problem here.”
While it’s true that Chicken Bone Park is poorly lit at night, the solution is not to divvy up the space, a quite welcoming spot during the day. Although Stokes said he’s seen needles and human feces in the park, General Services grooms the space and has planted petunias. Public bathrooms either onsite or a block away at City Hall, could help alleviate the waste problem.
A few more benches would give people more places to sit; removing the wooden bollards and chains would eliminate an uninviting barrier. (In that spirit, former Raleigh Planning Director Mitchell Silver, now the head of parks in New York City, recently deployed a “parks without borders” program.”)
The difference between a park and open space is largely semantic. Being designated as park, said city planner Aaron Cain, confers no special protections to city property. Open spaces are maintained by General Services, parks by Parks and Recreation. However, the latter brings an expectation that there will be additional maintenance and public events to “activate” the area. But at the public meeting, the consensus was that the park should be “unprogrammed open space,” what one woman called “the beauty of happenstance.”
“It’s a little shabby around the edges, but that’s OK,” another woman said. “That’s who we are.”
The Downtown Open Space Plan calls for Chickenbone Park to remain open; the forthcoming Downtown Master Plan is expected to do the same. “Open space is purposely flexible and vague,” said Sara Young of the planning department, “because there are so many types of uses and users.”
Last fall, Kofi Boone, associate professor of landscape architecture at N.C. State University, deployed several of his students to Chickenbone Park to study how people used and felt about the space. (Earlier last year, Boone, who lives in Durham, also studied the racial and equity aspects of the American Tobacco Trail.)
Boone’s report lists responses that underscore the love of the space, but the need for more amenities. Respondents — tourists, professionals, residents, building owners, restaurant patrons and homeless people — agreed that more benches, tables, trash cans, and water fountains are needed. Many also requested public art, a community garden, and activities in the space.
The report lays out two scenarios that include Luna: one in which the restaurant would rent a art of the park, with the revenue being used for improvements. The second proposal is to allow Luna to have outdoor patio seating in the park, but that it could be used when the restaurant was closed.
Troubling, though were comments from a unnamed building owner, professionals, and restaurant patrons that there are “too many homeless people” and that there “are too many people on Wednesdays” — code for the weekly homeless church service and luncheon.
Photo by Lisa Sorg, December 2014
Yet great cities are built around egalitarian open spaces that nurture both body and soul. Here, people, regardless of race and class, cross paths. And by doing so, in the land of buildings and artifice, we have an opportunity to become more compassionate, more human.
“It’s one of the only places that’s democratic,” said Randy Hester, who lives across the street in the Kress Building. “What’s important about a place like this is that everyone in Durham can feel comfortable people interact who would not otherwise not speak. In many ways, it defines the best of Durham.”