Downtown ‘Black Wall Street Plaza’ dedicated

Mar. 25, 2013 @ 04:14 PM

City leaders held a dedication ceremony on Friday for a plaza that was landscaped recently as part of an effort to recognize the history of downtown’s Parrish Street as Black Wall Street.

The street earned the title in history due to the location of African American-owned businesses there in the 1900s. At the newly named Black Wall Street Plaza, city leaders shoveled dirt on Friday onto a final tree in a ceremonial planting at the site, which is bounded by Parrish, Mangum and Orange Streets.

Working behind them, 10-year-old Aisha Bynum and other Morehead Montessori Schools students helped finish the planting job. Aisha said her work involved scooping up dirt, putting it around the tree, and then stomping on it.

“I just really wanted to help because it would help the environment,” Aisha said, when her job was done. “I think the celebration was really good to help the community come together,” she added.

On the plaza, trees and other plants have been planted, and paving work has been done and a pergola and arbor constructed, said Christian Austell, who designed the project for the City of Durham’s General Services Department.

The ceremony was also held to mark Arbor Day. Durham is in its 30th year as a Tree City USA, and holding an annual Arbor Day observance is a requirement of the Arbor Day Foundation Tree City USA program.

The ceremony included a performance by the Morehead Montessori Children’s Choir, a giveaway of free tree seedlings and the tree planting.

The landscaping was paid for with $40,500 remaining from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant and with part of a $10,000 donation from BP and Family Fare, according to a news release from the City of Durham.

The project was the second phase of an effort launched to commemorate the history of Parrish Street as Black Wall Street.

The first phase of the Parrish Street commemoration project, completed in 2009, was the installation of six markers recognizing the street’s history.

The street earned its title in history from the hub of African American-owned businesses operating there in the 1900s, including N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. and Mechanics & Farmers Bank, which still has a branch on the street.

The commemoration, an initiative of the Durham City Council, was coordinated by the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development and the Parrish Street Advocacy Group, according to the release.

The effort was started both to commemorate the street’s history and to help spur the revitalization of the street.

Arta Osmanaj works across the street from the plaza in the Rogers Alley building, where the venture capital firm SJF Ventures has an office. She said she’s been following the progress on the landscaping project for the past two weeks.

She said she was excited to see businesses operating on Parrish Street such as the new eatery Monuts Donuts, but she also said she’d like to see renovation of the empty “abandoned” buildings on the corner, and storefront improvements.

Chuck Watts, chair of the Parrish Street Advocacy Group, said he believes Parrish Street is at a precipice because of a proposal for a large-scale development for a vacant lot at the intersection of Parrish and Corcoran Streets.

In addition to the construction of a mixed-use tower on the vacant site, the proposal from Austin Lawrence Partners was to incorporate the renovated facades of neighboring buildings into the project, including the façades of two vacant buildings that front on Parrish.

Watts, an attorney whose firm is representing  the Colorado-based company that’s proposing the mixed-use development.

The firm’s plans were similar to those proposed by the Durham development firm Greenfire Development, which sold the vacant lot and additional property to a limited liability company connected to Austin Lawrence. Watts said if it weren’t for the downturn, he believes Greenfire officials would have executed their plan.

Watts said he and others have hope that the development proposed by Austin Lawrence – as well as another developer’s plan to turn the SunTrust tower into a boutique hotel --would bring more people to the street, and help support businesses there.

“The history of Parrish Street shouldn’t be like a museum - it should be reflecting the entrepreneurial background,” Watts said. “All these businesses would benefit from having more people down here every day.”