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City Council

Whiteness, Wealth, and Bureaucracy Conspired to Kill Charlotte’s BLM Plaza

The injection of Black lives into white, wealthy space proved too much.

So Charlotte City Council voted last week to allow cars and trucks to grind our Black Lives Matter mural into oblivion.

On South Tryon Street between 3rd and 4th Streets, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we had made a promise to our Black neighbors, colleagues, and fellow citizens.

It was partly symbolism, but nonetheless real.

The Black Lives Matter mural on South Tryon Street will be ground into oblivion after City Council’s decision to reopen the block to vehicles.

Now, reopening the street-turned-pedestrian-plaza has created another symbol: Automobiles barreling over Black Lives, again and again and again, erasing them from public space.

The suspected crime that prompted the city to close the block to vehicles this summer — someone defacing the length of the newly-installed mural with tire marks — now stands as municipal policy: destroy at will, as a matter of course and as you please.

“We know when we open this, in the current environment, it’s going to likely be vandalized almost immediately,” Councilwoman Renee Johnson said before voting to reopen the street.

And she was right: Vandals struck at once.

But even without the sort of malicious destruction Johnson foresaw, the same ruin will occur with time, a slow, torturous death instead of an instantaneous, violent one, the result not of crime, but commerce.

As the city’s planning director, Taiwo Jaiyeoba, told elected officials, the mural will eventually just fade away. (A consolation prize for Council, if not the community: framed prints of the mural.)

For city staffers like Jaiyeoba, the imperatives of bureaucracy prompted the recommendation to reopen Tryon Street.

“Nobody expected the closure would be permanent. That was never the intention. It was meant to be a pilot,” he explained.

The mural, along with the pedestrian plaza that protected it, wasn’t primarily a social justice project or a work of art or a statement about the value of Black lives; it was an experimental government program the value of which was to be found not in the thing itself, but in the ability of technocrats to study the thing.

With the city’s examination complete, Jaiyeoba said, there was “no more reason to close the street.”

In the bureaucrat’s mind, with his results in hand, the project could no longer serve a useful purpose. So it should conclude — because the mural and plaza were not ends unto themselves, but only means, a view that transforms a vital space centered on Black lives into a quantitative data set subject to social scientific inquiry by experts.

Councilman Malcolm Graham agreed. “We’ve got the data. We’ve collected the information,” he said. Besides, Graham added, “[The mural] is really small in nature.” And now growing smaller by the day.

Wealth, too, animated Council’s decision to reopen the street.

Two restaurants on the block led the charge: Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, a half-billion-dollar company, and McCormick & Schmick’s, owned by Landry’s, Inc., whose CEO, Tilman Fertitta, is worth about $4.1 billion, owns the Houston Rockets, and has earned the lowest possible philanthropy rating from Forbes.

David Urbanek, general manager at McCormick & Schmick’s, described to Council the declining revenues he attributed not to a worldwide pandemic and the resulting, hobbled economy, but the mural. He said the BLM pedestrian plaza inhibited “free and clear access to our property,” and he expressed concerns about “safety.”

A representative of McCormick & Schmick’s, whose CEO is worth more than $4 billion, told City Council the restaurant’s patrons feared for their safety because of the adjacent BLM mural.

While no one from Ruth’s Chris spoke, Jaiyeoba said both restaurants experienced difficulty with the loss of their valet parking stations on Tryon Street.

As noted by Councilman Braxton Winston, who cast the lone vote to keep the street closed, “We are saying McCormick & Schmick’s valet matters more than Black lives right now.”

Graham retorted by invoking the restaurant’s laborers to advance the prerogatives of the restaurant’s owners, saying that reopening the street was not really about the businesses, but their workers — a twist on the strategy by which rich white people seek to inhibit working-class solidarity by advancing anti-Black racism among poor white folks.

Joining these wealthy restauranteurs in their fight against BLM were the residents of the block’s luxury condo building, 230 South Tryon, where the twelfth-floor penthouse is currently listed for $2.15 million. (Three beds and three-and-a-half baths spread over more than 3,800 square feet, including 700 square feet of covered terraces with what are described as the best views in uptown.)

“We empathize with the restaurants that are on our block and who are concerned,” said Kit Philips, who spoke to Council on behalf of the building’s homeowners’ association. Their empathy runs not to Black men killed by cops, but to wealthy businesses.

In a report prepared by city staff, some of the condo’s residents, using racially-coded language, expressed similar opposition:

“The mural needs to be recreated in another location without residents that would be impacted.”

“I support the cause but please move the mural to a street without residential.”

“Move it somewhere else.”

“Please understand while there are many residents of S. Tryon who are supportive of the concept of the mural and recognize the need for public displays of support for all members of our community, we strongly feel that the mural should have never been sited on a residential block.”

Black lives matter — somewhere else, but not in my backyard.

Some residents of 230 South Tryon complained about the BLM mural and pedestrian plaza as a source of noise, disruption, and danger. The building’s penthouse (above) is currently listed for $2.15 million.

Other residents — again, speaking in code — described Black people, and any space dedicated to them, as loud and dangerous.

“SAFETY FOR WALKING TRAFFIC, NO LOITERING.”

“There’s no need to make this a constant festival atmosphere.”

“It is the beginning and ending point of many ‘protests’ which means it does not feel safe. Nor are they ‘peaceful.’ Bull horns and yelling are absolutely not acceptable. It is no longer a place one can live and we will be leaving as soon as possible. Charlotte is no longer the friendly and welcoming place we have always loved.”

“Open the roads back up. People will not have an Instagram reason to come to uptown, they should stay away from the area and stop causing trouble and keeping people up all night with fireworks, yelling and allowing businesses to feel safer without the extra external visitors to the city.” (No word on whether this resident objects to the many “external visitors” who, until the pandemic, poured into uptown’s skyscrapers from the suburbs surrounding Charlotte, crowding the streets and eating at places like Ruth’s Chris and McCormick & Schmick’s.)

Other businesses on the block made the same arguments as these residents:

“I’m all for doing something like this, but feel it should have been approved for another location.”

“The activities and noises coming from the street have almost stopped all business for us due to the constant activity on the streets.”

“My concern is for the safety of our customers and our staff.”

“This isn’t our normal clientele and our regulars won’t come here until this is over.”

“Our normal clientele will not come out until the streets are reopened and things go back to normal.”

Keep in mind, these were dissenting views.

The same city report that recorded these comments also included others supportive of the mural and pedestrian plaza, backed up by survey data.

The report found that nearly two-thirds (65%) of respondents to an online survey said using the mural as a pedestrian space was important and that the mural made them feel more welcome uptown.

Almost half (48%) said the mural made them more likely to visit uptown. More than half (52%) said they patronized uptown businesses while visiting the mural, and about two-thirds (63%) said that if more businesses had been open, they would have visited them, too. A substantial majority (70%) said they felt safe on South Tryon Street.

Those who opposed the mural and pedestrian plaza, and those who thought both negatively affected uptown, were in the minority, and significantly so.

For example, only about one-quarter (28%) said the mural made them feel less welcome uptown or said the mural was unimportant to Charlotte. Less than a quarter (21%) said the mural made them less likely to visit uptown. And fewer than two in ten (19%) felt unsafe on South Tryon Street. (CMPD reported an uptick in the number of 911 calls during the pedestrian plaza’s life, the most frequent reason for calls being “disturbance.” Indeed. As Councilman Winston explained generally, “No change occurs without disruption.”)

The tale our experience tells is that of the creation of a lively public space visited and celebrated by many in the community, especially people of color, but opposed by the dissenting power and privilege of whiteness and wealth.

The story has ended for now as it usually does in America.

By Michael F. Roessler

Charlotte citizen. Husband. Lawyer. Dog dad. Book worm.

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