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].



When public becomes private: Luna Rotisserie interested in leasing part of Chickenbone Park

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.

We contacted Aaron Cain, who is on the city planning staff, about this. The plaza on the north side of Parrish Street was dedicated as Black Wall Street Plaza a couple of years ago. Since then, improvements have been made to the parcels on the south side of Parrish Street, including the pergola, that mirror those on the north side. So, as part of a rebranding effort, the City administration has asked city staff to start referring to the open space on both the north and south sides of Parrish Street as Black Wall Street Plaza.
Here is the lowdown: The city used the term "Chickenbone Park" in its press release so that only to make sure that those reading the press release would know which area we were addressing, again because it's the name that many people use. However, it's a term that City staffers avoid.


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.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.39.10 PM

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.”


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Council recap: Road diet win, BCBS hangs in, 539 Foster risin'

By the end of Monday night's City Council meeting, some of the dais-holders seemed nearly giddy at the prospect of a meeting ending three hours sooner than many had expected.

Indeed, the Council quickly dispatched with a number of controversial items -- with that expected to be most divisive perhaps, the 15/501 Business road diet, sailing through unanimously.

See how the sausage got made after the jump.

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What would it take to make a revitalized CenterFest great?

Yesterday's announcement that CenterFest would be taking a year off to refocus, regroup and retool its mission seemed to me to be a great step towards making North Carolina's longest-running street arts festival a signature draw for a revitalized downtown Durham.

We may get more details in a press conference today (BCR's Matthew Milliken will have coverage), but what's known from yesterday's press release and media coverage is that CenterFest's pause is intended to allow the festival to be expanded with a goal of making it what organizers at the Durham Arts Council are calling a "national caliber signature event for Durham."

And while a visioning process is needed, a range of possibilities is evident; "edible arts" (presumably focused on Durham's burgeoning and nationally-known food scene), local beers and wines, craft and art demonstrations, and "showcases" for technology, gaming and design are all possible. 

So too could be higher-profile musical performing acts, including the possibility of major artists performing at the event.

It's a welcome change, and one that couldn't come at a better time.

The complaints about CenterFest in recent years have been pointed, focused in part on the banal, hot surface parking lot on Foster St. where the festival has moved in recent years. It provided a much-simpler logistical configuration for the DAC than was seen when the festival filled the inside-the-loop City Center district before, or took to the West Village area for a brief decampment during downtown streetscape work.

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A Leaf comes to Durham: N.C. State students adding to Central Park

A $30,000 Leaf should soon be alighting on the Great Lawn at Durham Central Park

“I think it’s going to energize the east side of the park,” said Ellen Cassilly. She’s a Durham Central Park board member and an advisor to a dozen North Carolina State University master’s of architecture students who have designed and will build the structure. 

It will double as a shady seating area and a performance stage, and it may also allow a projection screen to be hung from or mounted on its eastern side. The object will feature built-in wooden benches and a foundation and steps that can double as seats. The structure can also accommodate a canopy to block the sun; the canopy can be adjusted or removed as needed. 



The object measures approximately 37 feet long by 17 feet wide. The upright wooden fins that define but don’t enclose the “building” will stand some 14 feet tall. 

It’s been dubbed the Leaf due to the shapes mimicked by the collection of fins as well as the by concrete pad around which they will be arrayed. 

“Sculpturally, this thing is absolutely beautiful,” said Erik Mehlman, another advisor to the N.C. State class. 

“I’m still completely enamored of this,” he added. 

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New park course lets Durhamites get in on a high-wire act

Author’s note: This post was updated May 29 to add one area high ropes course and to mark hyperlinks clearly. 

The city Parks and Recreation Department is about to enable Triangle residents to taste adventure in an otherwise sleepy neighborhood. 

Construction of the new Discovery High Ropes Course at Bethesda Park wrapped up this spring. The amenity graces a 21-acre facility that already featured covered and lighted tennis and basketball courts, a disc golf course, a playground, an open play field, walking trails and restrooms when it debuted just last fall. 

The park is located at 1814 Stage Road, its entrance tucked between homes on a quiet residential street. But the new feature is noteworthy. Google indicates that Bethesda Park will have just the third second high ropes course in the Triangle to be open to the general public. (The other is others are at Cary’s Fred G. Bond Metro Park and Efland’s Chestnut Ridge Camp and Retreat Center. In addition, at least one area Girl Scout camp has a course.) 

While the official opening of the ropes course is scheduled for June 8 at 4:30 p.m., staff and visitors have been trying it out for some weeks. The department recently let a few reporters test the course’s towering array, which exceeds 50 feet. 

Kim Oberle manages adventure programs for Parks and Recreation. She’s climbed high ropes courses on and off for more than 20 years, and she helped bring the new course to Durham. 

“Some like it because they have this little thrill bone that likes going up high, because you don’t really get to do that,” Oberle said. 

Others find these courses rewarding in other ways. In Oberle’s words, some older climbers say: “I really can do these things still. I’m not old.” 

Purveyors also promote so-called challenge courses for team-building. And there’s evidence that high ropes facilities and their cousins do improve self-esteem and group dynamics. A 2005 survey by N.C. State professor Aram Attarian found that challenge courses can boost self-esteem, decision-making, group cohesion and family dynamics. 


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Pouring rain, hail, American Tobacco Trail out to bid: all signs Harold Camping was one week off on rapture pick

The pouring, dousing, heavy rain outside with hail bits flying, and flooding on local roads like University Dr., Alston Ave. and the like?

By itself, nothing to worry about. An isolated moment of nature's fury, nothing more.

Add to that breaking news today that the American Tobacco Trail's Phase E is going out to bid on Tuesday, May 31?

Truly, taking this news in toto: a sign of the apocalypse!

Yes, the long, long, long delayed "missing link" in the ATT -- which will connect from the trail's current end at NC 54 down to I-40, cross I-40 at the Streets of Southpoint Mall with a pedestrian bridge, and then provide a smooth surface to the Durham-Chatham Co. line, joining up eventually with regional trails all the way to Cary and Raleigh -- is moving forward after nearly a decade's time has passed since the first segment opened.

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Expanded exercise-oriented event promotes pedestrians and pedalers

A coalition of local officials and community organizers are collaborating to get Durhamites moving in a safe, family-friendly environment. 

Bull-city-open-streets Their initiative, introduced last year as a one-off event called Bull City Summer Streets, is expanding this year under the new moniker of Bull City Open Streets. This Sunday, and on three other occasions, organizers will close some Durham streets to automobile traffic so bicyclists and pedestrians can enjoy fresh air and exercise without safety concerns. 

Robin Michler is a UNC-trained transportation planner who works as a transit education specialist for Clean Energy Durham. His predecessor, Jessalee Landfried, was a key planner of Summer Streets, which drew more than 1,000 people last May. 

“The pilot event in 2010 was such a success that I wanted to try to help institutionalize the event in Durham ... to help make biking and walking part of the city’s consciousness,” Michler said. 

The event is modeled after the weekly ciclovía that apparently originated in Bogotá. Each Sunday, the Colombian capital bars automobiles from more than 70 miles of streets, freeing the pavement for walkers, runners and bicyclists. Former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, a Duke graduate, helped promote pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly policies in the city. 

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Bark in the park: Collaborative efforts give dogs room to roam downtown

Man’s best friends will soon have a new local spot for taking in fresh air and stretching their legs. 

The Cleveland-Holloway Neighborhood Association and the Durham Parks and Recreation Department have formed a novel partnership that will result in the opening of downtown’s first play space intended especially for canines. The Downtown Durham Dog Park will be located on vacant city-owned land at North Roxboro and Elliott streets. 

The site is west of Queen Street, north of the Scarborough Nursery School and across Roxboro from First Baptist Church. A community cleanup day has been scheduled for the morning of April 23; the park should open to the public by early May. 

Dragana Lassiter, 30, is pursuing a doctorate in cultural anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill. For nearly two years, she’s lived in Cleveland-Holloway with Asa, a mixed-breed male dog. 

“I think it will benefit not just Cleveland-Holloway but the whole downtown community,” Lassiter said of the new recreation space that she helped create along with a team from the neighborhood association. “Obviously we don’t have a dog park, and many people have dogs, and many people don’t have back yards.” 

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Come out to Trinity Park on Sunday for luminaria night, food trucks and more

Luminaria_dp After last week's rainy Sunday, most downtown neighborhoods that had luminaria nights scheduled have postponed until this weekend -- and though as a TP'er I'm biased, it's hard to imagine a better place to spend the night of lights than in Trinity Park's eponymous community spot at the corner of Watts and Main.

The Trinity Park Neighborhood Association is sponsoring the annual event, but this year is moving it beyond front yards to the community green. From 4pm to 6pm, hot cocoa and cider will be available -- and so will treats from local food trucks including OnlyBurger, Rubio's taco truck, Farmhand Foods and Joey D's hot dog food, er, push cart.

Santa will make a visit, and since his sleigh's in for repair (he wasn't expecting icy roads this far south this early in the season), he'll be riding in on a different red wagon, this one a fire truck. There'll be caroling, too; scout's honor your blogger won't be singing, thank goodness.

To light up your front yard with the sandfilled bags with a candle, supplies are available for sale at the porch of 302 Watts St.; $1 per set, with proceeds benefitting a local family through the Share Your Christmas program.

Organizers will be collecting cash donations at the park as well for Share Your Christmas, and accepting unwrapped presents to be donated to Toys for Tots.

Photo: 2002's Duke Park gathering, by Andrew Preiss; posted at Dependable Erection