City builds on the success of Black Lives Matter mural, tests pedestrian plaza pilot program on Tryon Street
Brittany Clampitt
City builds on the success of Black Lives

The City of Charlotte and Charlotte Center City Partners announced on Thursday, July 9, that the closure of South Tryon Street, between Third and Fourth streets, will remain in place through Sept. 30. The new pedestrian plaza pilot program comes one month after Charlotte’s Black Lives Matter mural was painted in Uptown and the block was closed to traffic.

The overnight success of the Black Lives Matter mural in Charlotte demonstrated what is possible when a community thoughtfully reimagines how people interact with the built environment, a process known as placemaking. Using placemaking to strengthen connections between place and identity is a passion for urban planners like Taiwo Jaiyeoba, who initiated the creation of Charlotte’s mural. But even he could not have predicted its success.

When Jaiyeoba, assistant city manager and planning director for the City of Charlotte, read the news that Washington, D.C. had painted the words “Black Lives Matter” across two blocks of a busy street, he reached out to city staff and took to Twitter to celebrate, heighten and localize the idea.

“I’m reposting again...imagine for a few minutes that we can ‘art-ify’ the intersection of Trade and Tryon with ‘Black Lives Matter!’” Jaiyeoba tweeted, sharing a video of the Washington mural.

Local nonprofit Charlotte is Creative seized on the idea, responding to the tweet and asking how it could help make it happen. Within days, the city, Charlotte is Creative, local arts groups Brand the Moth and BLKMRKTCLT, and the nonprofit Charlotte Center City Partners, had mobilized to allow 17 lead artists to paint 16 letters in the street. Each letter would include a unique design that expressed an artist’s perspective on the statement in the street.

With design concepts submitted, supplies purchased, meals provided, and Tryon Street closed to traffic in a new location – between Third and Fourth streets, where the street is straight and the aerial view is unobstructed – the 17 artists, supported by a crew of fellow creatives, set out the morning of Tuesday, June 9, to trace and paint the letters that now stretch across two lanes. Their goal: In less than 12 hours and under the threat of rain, complete a block-spanning mural in time for the street to reopen to traffic at 7 p.m.

"At a time when change in the world seems to come too slow, the speed at which this project was successfully executed – despite its many moving parts, players and complexity – shows us what's possible when there's enough will, passion and creativity behind an idea,” said Charlotte is Creative co-founder Matt Olin.

Following a teaser from the City of Charlotte’s Twitter account, word got out about the mural and the installation process evolved into a full block party. People began pouring into the block, offering encouragement, asking about the work, taking pictures and watching the mural unfold. The community shored up organizers’ efforts – taking care of the artists, support staff and spectators by passing out water, pizza, ice cream and more to ensure everyone stayed hydrated and healthy in temperatures that climbed to nearly 90 degrees.

“The most powerful aspect of the day was watching the emotional reactions passersby had – hugging, crying, high-fiving, calling friends to join them or just standing still and watching,” said Tim Miner, who co-founded Charlotte is Creative with Olin. “Visual art has a power to move people, to bring them together and convey in moments complex emotions and perspectives that might otherwise take thousands of pages or hundreds of hours of discourse to explain."

The Black Lives Matter mural is a symbol, a small step that acknowledges the value of each member of the community and the racism and injustice that persist in systems and institutions, especially toward Black people and people of color.

When asked about what the mural meant to him, artist Dammit Wesley, owner of BLKMRKTCLT, painter of the mural’s B, and a key player in identifying and organizing the mural artists, told Andy Goh with the Biscuit CLT podcast that it was a step forward for the city to acknowledge that Black lives exist.

“It’s beautiful to be out here, you know, kind of like leaving my mark on the city, literally on one of the busiest streets in Uptown – to not only have support from other great black artists but from a lot of white allies, just like [people of color] in general,” Wesley said. “I think the message is loud and clear, I just hope the city puts action to the mural and follows through.”

Before the day was out, it was clear the mural had established itself as a point of community pride. The hour to reopen the street came and went but crowds still lingered. Even after the street eventually reopened to traffic later that night, like a magnet, the mural drew people in to admire, celebrate and take photos. Community interest remained so high throughout the week that on Friday, June 12, the City of Charlotte and Charlotte Center City Partners announced the block would be temporarily closed to motorized vehicles to allow people to enjoy the mural safely.

Having met and exceeded the goal of sharing a true and vital message, uplifting people and building community, the pedestrian plaza in uptown Charlotte is now poised to create lasting change as a placemaking project. The goal is to create a people-centric rather than car-centric space in Uptown that is more sustainable and equitable for all, in accordance with the unfolding priorities expressed in the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan and the Center City All in 2040 Vision Plan. These community-driven plans are setting the vision for how Charlotte and its center city will develop in the next 20 years.

The pilot program encourages non-motorized transportation, enhances pedestrian safety in Uptown, and promotes patronage of adjacent businesses by increasing foot traffic in the area. Throughout the pilot program, the City of Charlotte and Charlotte Center City Partners will explore additional ways people can experience the street mural and pedestrian plaza, maintain social distancing and improve their physical and mental health through exercise. Organizers will continue to have open dialogue with area businesses, property owners and residents to identify and address needs, and find new opportunities for establishments, residents and visitors to benefit from the closure. For instance, the city is working to help adjacent businesses become familiar with resources available to curb the economic impact of COVID-19, including the city’s programs to extend restaurant dining in the right-of-way.

The duration of the closure, through the summer and into the fall, will allow the city and its partners to assess the pilot program’s success over time, particularly if or when schools reopen in some capacity and impact traffic volume.

“The city’s mission for placemaking is to transform underutilized public spaces into vibrant places that people celebrate and enjoy. The mural on Tryon Street accomplishes that beyond our expectations,” Jaiyeoba said. “I am thrilled by its success, which stems from the successes of past placemaking projects like Five Points Plaza in the Historic West End and the Green at Prosperity Park. Thanks to our hard-working city staff, community partners and artists, the future of placemaking in Charlotte is bright as people look to this mural and the pedestrian plaza to reimagine the space between place and race.”

​The closed street should be used in the same way the adjacent sidewalks are used. In addition to being closed to motorized vehicles, including cars and motorcycles, the pedestrian plaza is closed to bicycles and scooters. Emergency vehicles, delivery vehicles and collection services will continue to have access to the road.

​Street users can detour around the closure using the surrounding streets, including Third and Fourth streets, and South College and South Church streets.

​Visit the Charlotte Center City Partners website for maps and information about parking in uptown Charlotte. 

The city used savings from the Fiscal Year 2020 Placemaking Program budget to pay participating mural artists $500 per letter, purchase supplies, and coordinate installation and preservation with Brand the Moth, Charlotte is Creative and BLKMRKTCLT.

​The city uses pilot programs like the one on South Tryon Street to understand and evaluate public spaces – how the space is being used, the types of programming and events people want to experience, and whether that space is the best location for the desired use. Pilot programs also allow for collaboration with business and community partners, ensuring they are key parts of the implementation process. 

​We can learn a good deal about public space in one block. We can test ideas, see how the space is used and get feedback from local businesses. If this pedestrian plaza pilot program is successful, we can look at extending it to other blocks as well.

​Charlotte is a city of neighborhoods and we believe in investing in the identity and community spirit of those neighborhoods. As part of its Placemaking Program, the city consistently works to create vibrant, people-centric places from underutilized public spaces in all corners of Charlotte. Learn more about how you can work with the city through the Placemaking Program.

That is what we want to understand through the pilot program. The City of Charlotte and Charlotte Center City Partners will be communicating with adjacent establishments throughout the pilot program to assess the effects of the pedestrian plaza. We are also working to familiarize businesses with available resources in place to curb the economic impact of COVID-19. These include the city's programs to extend restaurant dining in the right-of-way.

We will share our findings with the public as they become available. 

The City of Charlotte and Charlotte Center City Partners will continue to explore ways people can view the Black Lives Matter mural and enjoy the new pedestrian plaza while maintaining social distancing guidelines intended to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. We ask that mural visitors wear face coverings as recommended by public health authorities and stay at least six feet away from others.