How do you judge a park? Most of us love to say we love parks. But not all parks win our hearts, or our visits. The question for uptown Charlotte’s new Romare Bearden Park is whether it will become a place people love in actuality, or one they claim to love but don’t visit.
Do you just announce that because Romare Bearden Park exists, it’s a success? Or do you focus on design intricacies – the proportions of buildings and the placing of plantings and the café roof that evokes a witch’s hat?
The park’s design memorializes the late artist Romare Bearden, born in 1911 in a long-gone house at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Graham Street. Although Bearden moved North as a child, his art depicts Charlotte’s African-American community as it lived in his memory.
The park’s charm relies on more than the existence of grass, as it invites us to walk through and enjoy the features.
Decorative pillars at Third and Church streets describe Bearden’s life and work. The café and tables along Church Street evoke Paris, where Bearden spent a year.
The plantings pay tribute to two women in Bearden’s work: Maudell Sleet (“Mecklenburg County: Maudell Sleet’s Magic Garden,” “Sunset & Moonrise with Maudell Sleet”) and Madeline Jones (“Madeline Jones’ Wonderful Garden”).
A waterfall fountain utilizes the grade change, as it beckons people to drench themselves, a particularly welcoming notion on hot days. The “Childhood Muse Plaza” has an interesting set of pipes that squirt mist. A curving, sloping sidewalk, “The Evocative Spine,” connects upper and lower sections of the park.
Although the thematic programming is a bit heavy-handed, I was charmed to spot cabbages, chard and broccoli growing in Maudell’s Garden.
But judging whether the park will succeed means looking beyond the size of the boulders (why can’t you climb on them?) or whether the gazebo roof is too flamboyant (it probably is).
Will we love it?
A better measure, as it matures, will be how well used it becomes.
Will it be as beloved as Freedom Park on East Boulevard or as forsaken as Marshall Park on McDowell Street – an Urban Renewal-era assemblage of concrete, grass and shrubs that replaced an intricate African-American neighborhood called Brooklyn? Most days Marshall Park attracts a few tourists and office workers and flocks of Canada geese. Its forlorn existence proves a park is not automatically the best use for urban land.
In fact, the urban analyst Jane Jacobs skewered the flawed thinking that led many cities to build versions of Marshall Park. In her view, a green space doesn’t by itself improve a neighborhood and it’s not the cure for every urban ill. “People,” she wrote, “do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners or designers wish they would.”
To improve a neighborhood, a park should be lively – and thus safe. It has to be near many different activities that build foot traffic around the clock: offices, shops, schools, homes. Without them, a park risks becoming a dead zone, overtaken by vagrants or criminals.
That’s been my worry about Romare Bearden Park. Its uptown quadrant for years was dominated by two uses: offices and parking, either bedraggled surface lots or grim concrete decks. Even today a large proportion of the park’s perimeter flanks parking dead zones. Not helping is its proximity to Bank of America Stadium, filled with people only a few dozen days a year. Similarly, BB&T Ballpark, opening in April across Mint Street, will sit idle more hours than not. Can the area produce enough foot traffic to keep the park from a forlorn future, punctuated only by special events?
A vibrant park?
Several visits convinced me the park’s prospects are good. Uptown is still gaining residents (example: the Catalyst apartments going up across the street), and more shopping (we can always hope). New museums and a theater nearby have helped erode some of the previously dull surroundings. And to help boost visitors, the county Park and Recreation Department plans a lively schedule of events.
My most recent visit was a cloudy, windy afternoon, too late for the lunchtime rush, too early for nightlife. As dusk fell, I was afraid I’d find a deserted park. To my delight, I didn’t.
People sat under the arbor. A middle-aged couple ambled past, holding hands. A boy climbed atop a granite boulder until a park worker shooed him off. A girl cartwheeled across the lawn. People walked dogs. Two young men played in the grassy field. A woman pushed a baby carriage. A man in white jacket and chef’s pants strode toward Tryon Street.
They were people doing ordinary things that people do in parks. They, more than the most elegant or elaborate designers’ plans, were bringing Romare Bearden Park to life, and ensuring its future.
Mary Newsom is associate director of urban and regional affairs for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. The opinions expressed are hers, not necessarily those of the institute or UNC Charlotte. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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