The last time consultants and city staffers working on the Downtown Master Plan met with the African-American community, in late July, it was a tense affair, with residents lobbing criticisms and pointed questions. As the Rev. John Grant of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church put it, they have “planning fatigue” and want to see action to revitalize the area, rather than still more words.
Both the format and the feel were markedly different at the Sept. 15 meeting, however. While some had criticized the absence of Mayor Terry Bellamy or any other City Council members in July, this time Bellamy gave the opening remarks, asserting: “The point here is to see how we can be a better city. We want to hear what you all have to say.”
After that came presentations by the YMI Cultural Center, which is based on The Block; the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corp. about its attempts to renovate the Collette Building for both residential and commercial use; and from Grant about the various offers his church is considering to renovate buildings it owns in the area.
Instead of keeping the audience together with individuals coming up to speak, the attendees were broken up into small groups, each moderated by city staff, who wrote down their ideas for improving both The Block and downtown as a whole. Bellamy made her way among the tables, listening in.
Those ideas included: a central gateway to help funnel foot traffic to the neighborhood; full community involvement in planning for future revitalization; help for incipient entrepreneurs; an all-purpose grocery convenience store; daycare for working families in the community; and historical markers showing landmarks destroyed during “urban renewal” in the 1970s. One common concern was the need to preserve the area’s culture and avoid wholesale gentrification.
But a frequently heard statement coming from the various tables, emphasizing the need for The Block to be a central part of any downtown plan, was, “We shouldn’t be an afterthought.”