Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Wilmington to consider ‘Black Lives Matter’ display, but in a less prominent location

WILMINGTON — For the last month, several organizations have been asking the City of Wilmington to prominently display the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ in downtown. The city is taking up the request, but not quite in the central location some originally had in mind.

Last month, Wilmington received a request to join other cities around the country by painting a North Third Street near the 1898 memorial, where MLK Jr. Parkway enters the city, with the words ‘Black Lives Matter.’ The request was a collaboration between Councilman Kevin Spears and several organizers, including UNCW professor and artist Janna Robertson, Support the Port founder Cedric Harrison, and Glow Academy art teacher Greyson Davis.

The city worked with this group and has since modified that request, which suggests erecting a vertical sign in Jervay Park. Not to be confused with the housing development on the city’s southside, this park is tucked away in the northeast enclave of the Robert R. Taylor Senior Home development in the northside. The letters would be 4 feet wide and eight feet tall and would ” artistic images and would spell out ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER.’

The collective request asks that the sign be allowed to remain in place for at least three years, due to the effort expected to create it.

The city notes that the location “provides high visibility as well as pedestrian connectivity to the Freedom Walk, 1898 Memorial Park and the Jervay Memorial Park garden.”

The sign would be visible to traffic leaving downtown Wilmington, traveling east on MLK Jr. Parkway. Still, it’s clearly not as ‘highly visible’ as a mural on a major gateway road into the city.

In a report attached to the resolution, staff note that “[o]nce a community designates a public space, street, sidewalk or building façade as a free speech public forum, the community’s ability to regulate the content of those messages diminishes greatly. Consequently, messages that may be viewed negatively (public condemnation of governance, individuals, or entities) will be entitled to the same consideration as those messages viewed more favorably.”

While staff did not say so explicitly, the staff implied that a street opened up for a Black Lives Matter mural could then be used to paint ‘All Lives Matter’ or other slogans used to downplay or disparage the BLM movement.

Thus, as part of the request, city staff also reviewed two long-term options for creating a ‘designate public forum for all expression.’ Both of these focus on lightly trafficked or unused roadways. City staff noted that guidelines on how the use of these areas was regulated would have to be developed.

Location of the proposed ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign. To the south, a one-block stretch of either N. Front Street and Cowan Street could become a pedestrian plaza. (Google)

The first option is converting a block of North Front Street into a pedestrian plaza — this block is actually part of small section orphaned from the rest of Front Street, running along the northeast of the Taylor housing development. The second option would use a similar section of road, a one-block dead-end on Cowan Street.

If approved, the resolution would allow City Manager Sterling Cheatham to request the art installation at Jervay Park, negotiate an encroachment agreement to allow the installation, and direct city staff to review, consider, and make a recommendation on how to establish, operate, and maintain a so-called ‘city designated forum for all public expression.’

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