Shawn Stokes of Luna: "I didn’t think that there would be public outcry about it," + Black Wall Street Plaza still needs our attention
Looking at the corner of Main and Mangum streets, where the southern end of Black Wall Street Plaza is today.
Date of the photograph is 1963. Note that Mangum Street is already one-way south.
Courtesy of Durham County Public Library
Photo owned by Rachel Middleton Brown, Robert Lee Middleton, Sara Middleton Mocrich
“What defines a character of a city is its public space, not its private space. What defines the value of the private assets of the space are not the assets by themselves but the common assets. The value of the public good affects the value of the private good. We need to show every day that public spaces are an asset to a city.”
-- Joan Clos, executive director, United Nations Human Settlements Program
The Luna proposal died before it was born.
Less than a week after a public meeting about the future of Black Wall Street Plaza — a quarter-acre of city-owned green space bordered by Parrish, Main, and Mangum streets — Shawn Stokes, the chef/owner of Luna Rotisserie, withdrew his inquiry into placing outdoor seating in a corner of it.
“Based on feedback from the public discussion last Thursday, and subsequent coverage and commentary, we've decided to end our inquiry into a public private partnership to revitalize the space,” Stokes wrote to me in an email on Tuesday.
Stokes opened his popular restaurant at 112 West Main Street last fall. Previously, he had served in the Peace Corps and USAID in South America. In rural Ecuador, he worked with organic-coffee growers to help them export value-added products, not just raw green coffee beans. He worked on environmental and social equity issues in Brazil and preventing gang violence in Panama.
“I had a skeptical view of business,” Stokes said. “I wanted Luna to be more than a successful business but to have another [social justice] aspect to it.” The lowest-paid worker at Luna earns $12 an hour, he said. Several line cooks earn $45,000 a year.
On Tuesday afternoon, after Luna had closed for lunch, Stokes and I sat in the park and talked about his plan, the public reaction, and his wish that the community come together to determine the future of the beloved space.
While we were there, the park did its thing: A man walked his dog along the path. A homeless woman, dressed in a winter coat and scarf on a summer day, lumbered by, burdened by her bags of belongings. She settled at a table, singing. Another man stopped at our table and gave Stokes and I each a peppermint.
Here’s a Q&A of our conversation. It has been edited and condensed for clarity. We also spoke to the building owners; that interview follows the one with Stokes.
Why did you want to put outdoor dining here?
The space was advertised with a patio. [The building is owned by Elaine Curry and Dawn Paige.] A tenant before us wanted a club but the people living across the street in the Kress Building didn’t want that because of the noise. Elaine and Dawn thought the city would be amenable not to a disco, but a restaurant patio. When I was looking for a space, I thought we have so much nice weather here, and I love being outside, I love dining outside, it sets a really nice environment. The patio would have been open to the public when we weren't open. I didn’t think that there would be public outcry about it.
The rental flyer for 112 West Main Street; the schematic includes a 560-square-foot patio.
A quarter-acre equals 10,890 square feet. However, Duke Energy has two large transformer
boxes that eat up plaza space. Time Warner Cable also has a utility box.
When did you first approach the city about the idea?
Late last year we introduced the idea, but it sat for a while. The second discussion with the city was more recent. We were being affected by crime. One of our employees left the back door unlocked and someone took some things. An employee had his bike stolen. We used to let people use the bathroom, but then someone shot up in there. After that, we stopped allowing that. We tell people to go to City Hall.
What were some of your ideas about the park?
We wanted there to be seating without the barriers. We wanted to provided charging stations for the homeless who have phones. We wanted to make improvements that would cater to people who use the park, including the homeless. We really did think a patio would be an added value for the park. It would allow for eyes on the park, seating for guests outside helps prevent crime. It’s a special little place, and even though our proposal is withdrawn, it’s exciting to see people passionate about it.
Nnenna Freelon, who attended the public meeting, had reservations about Luna’s proposal because it could have ousted homeless people from the space. She stops by the table with an “I Voted” sticker on her shirt. We invite her to sit and chat.
Freelon: I hate that you guys had to be flayed at the meeting. The way the city handled the meeting did not allow people to think creatively. People feel very protective of the this place. It’s the last green space in the neighborhood. But how do we build community around the park? There’s not enough investment in it, spiritually and economically.
Stokes: I hope that people continue to express their feelings about the park to the city and other stakeholders.
Freelon: There’s an opportunity here. Part of the problem is that there is not enough open free space. We’ve entered a new phase, and we can still create what we want. We need a water fountain, it could be a memorial water fountain to educate people about segregation. We need more places to sit in the shade. These tables say, “People have to know one another to sit here.” We want benches. We want public bathrooms here. No one wants to pee in the park.
Stokes: And there could be emergency buttons in there if someone gets into trouble. You can build the bathrooms so you can see people’s feet, to see if someone is using it. We also could have low terraced walls around the park [instead of the chains and wooden bollards].
BCR: In Chinatown in San Francisco, people do tai chi in the park. It’s beautiful to watch.
Freelon: Everyone is feeling possessive about this space. Things work better when there’s synergy.
Stokes: The business owners, people who live here, who hang out here, there’s a lot of potential. There’s a lot of momentum about the park right now. We need to keep it going.
Elaine Curry and Dawn Paige have owned the building for three years. BCR spoke with Curry on Wednesday.
Did you speak with the city about a patio?
Curry: We did speak with the city about the possibilities, including this option, but they didn't really have a process for it.
What do you think of the public response to Luna's proposal?
We think all of the public should have a voice in Luna's proposal. I was at the meeting, and there wasn't a broad spectrum of stakeholders there. Shawn never got to make his proposal. He's very community minded. He never wanted to desecrate the park, like some people have said.
What is your vision for the space, being its neighbor?
We're stakeholders. I've lived and worked in Durham 15 years. I patronize downtown Durham businesses. It's a beautiful space, but it could be more than that without changing what's important about it. We want it to be open, with lighting and bathrooms. We've donated money to the church that holds services for the homeless there [Bridge Ministries]. We like that it's a place for everybody.
To that end, Bull City Rising would like to co-sponsor a block party this summer in the park/plaza (with the proper permits, of course). There, the community at-large could informally discuss and brainstorm about how to improve and protect the space for everyone: lighting, public bathrooms, benches, other public amenities — and how much it would cost. Since the city owns the land, those suggestions would be forwarded to General Services, which maintains the space.
Contact Lisa Sorg at [email protected].