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On Dilworth parkway, a public bench stirs neighborhood tensions

Twenty seven years ago, Allen Saxe wrestled a concrete bench onto the grass past the sidewalk in front of his Dilworth home.

It wasn’t for his kids – he had no little ones then – but “a public bench.” Over the years, kids rode their trikes to it, waited for the school bus on it and picked weeds from around it to take home to mom.

On Thursday, a community police officer emailed Saxe to suggest he move the bench: A neighbor had expressed concern “it could attract more homeless to the area.” The email said a man had been “found passed out and had to be transported to the hospital (a) couple weeks ago.”

Saxe, who founded the Dilworth Soup Kitchen in 2009, was not prepared to move the bench from the public right of way – the strips of land between sidewalks and streets that homeowners maintain but don’t own.

“The bench has been there for over 20 years and will remain,” began his email reply to police. It concluded with his view of the man found passed out: “I am pleased that someone in real need of a rest found it.”

That found its way onto Facebook, via daughter Talia – now grown and living in New York. By Friday morning, besides having 47 “likes”, that post (plus Saxe’s own, and email and phone conversations) had neighbors volunteering to do a “sit-on,” bring their kids over to paint their names on it, recruit a high school student to write a story for the Dilworth Quarterly and/or begin a movement by residents to put benches in front of their own houses.

The tensions of living in Charlotte’s oldest streetcar suburb – close to urban uptown, with some of the city’s more expensive homes and a history of compassionate ventures from soup kitchens to emergency housing for kids – are not lost on residents.

Missy Owen, an attorney who lives half a mile from the Saxe bench, said, “There are houses (here) that people might say are bigger targets for crime. We’re close to the city, we’re more exposed to homelessness. I do understand the police’s efforts. But in the effort to have a community … this (bench) is one of the many structures that welcome people, that make it a real, living, breathing community.”

Some are more straightforward.

“I’m going to throw up,” said Joal Fischer, who also has a bench – actually two – on the public area in front of his Dilworth home, half a mile down the street from the Saxes. “Come on. There are more important things to complain about. Go do something about homelessness.”

Owen said moving the bench from the parkway to Saxe’s property, as the officer suggested, misses the point, since it “would then be a bench for the homeowners, rather than me, the public.”

Anne McQuiston lives three doors down from the bench. “When we moved to Dilworth 40 years ago,” she said, “it was very important to be moving to a community that … embraced diversity.

“So to hear that you’re moving a bench because it might attract the homeless flies in the face of the things we believe in.”

Saxe, a retired anthropology professor married to Jessica Schorr Saxe, who writes occasional pieces for The Observer, said in his work with the soup kitchens, he has spoken with people who have had bad experiences. “That fear is real. I understand that.”

A follow-up email from the police pointed out to Saxe that the bench, being on a city right of way, was “subject to removal.”

Saxe said he has emailed both the officer – to ask “is there a time limit?” – and Mayor Patsy Kinsey, but has not received a reply. Both also had not replied to emails from The Observer.