Friday, September 2, 2011

At long, long last, a park for Romare Bearden

Bearden collage: Maudell Sleet's Magic Garden (1978)
It took years, multiple political strategies, a bond vote, patience, weathering a brutal and ongoing economic downturn, more patience, and – finally – a multimedia event under a tent on a hot asphalt parking lot. But Friday, ground was broken for a new park in uptown Charlotte: Romare Bearden Park.

It's notable for many reasons, including being the first significant honoring of  a major 20th-century artist, Bearden, who was born in Charlotte. It's also the first major public park built in the heart of uptown in years. I am not counting Polk Place at The Square because it's tiny and because I'm still hacked off that the city knocked down the oldest retail buildings downtown for a not-so-wonderful park modeled on what looks like the U.S. Northwest mountains. The late Al Rousso's fight against the city to save his store got him elected to City Council. But it didn't save his store. Nor am I counting The Green because it is private space. Lovely, but private. Just try standing and taking photos of the condos, and you may find yourself getting kicked out, as I hear happened to some architecture students.
 Romare Bearden Park is named for New York artist and Charlotte native Romare Bearden, born 100 years ago today about two blocks from the scene of Friday's ceremonies, in his great-grandparents' house at 401 S. Graham St. on the corner of what was then Second Street and is now Martin Luther King Boulevard. Bearden's parents moved North when he was a young boy, but he visited frequently and some of his later works evoke (and are named for) Mecklenburg County and the people he knew here, including Charlotte neighbor Maudell Sleet (above).

St. Michael's now-demolished church. Photo:
That "multimedia" part refers to the agenda for Friday's events. Of course you had politicians present and past, governmental officials and reading from ceremonial proclamations. But we were also treated to the choir from St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church – where Bearden was baptized. The church, founded in 1882, was formerly at South Mint and West Hill streets (where the Panthers' stadium now sits) and is the oldest traditionally African American Episcopal church in the state. (For more information about Charlotte in 1911, at the time of Bearden's birth, visit

After the pols came playwright/poet Ruth Sloane reading dramatic excerpts from her original play, "Romare Bearden 1911-1988," commissioned in 2003, and accompanied by flautist Michael Porter. Then we followed the Johnson C. Smith University drummers out to watch Mecklenburg county commissioners' chair Jennifer Roberts knock out a section of the back wall of a row of buildings that until now had, miraculously, survived on Church Street between Third Street and MLK Boulevard.

I chanced to sit next to Charlotte developer David Furman, who recalled, "When we started marketing the TradeMark [condo tower on West Trade Street] we were marketing this park." That was six or seven years ago, he said. The park site was part of a multipart, still controversial land swap deal that was expected to bring a minor league baseball stadium uptown, to a neighboring and larger parcel that was the original site for this park. That deal has been mangled by the recession and long-running lawsuits.


Anonymous said...

In classic Charlotte style, yet another block of wholesale demolition. And this razing even opposite the rare gem of Brevard Court. Then we wonder why there is so little street-level retail?

Anonymous said...

I also disagree with destroying the retail shops across the street. I would have been happy to see the buildings moved or incorporated. It's like history repeating itself. I had NO IDEA the city tore down the buildings for the crappy park at the Square. I guess I assumed they were just already gone.

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