Ye Olde Archives » OPINION: Peter Eichenberger

Wrecking downtown in order to save it

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In order to properly celebrate the opening of Fayetteville Street to cars, it was necessary to close it and allow only pedestrian traffic. During the parade, swooning spectators were presented with a period Pontiac executing big, greasy burnouts where trees recently had been cut down and removed. Zero miles per gallon at 120 decibels! Woo-hoo.

Oh, the steady march of human progress. And as far as juvenile "first" status is concerned, shoot, we cruised Fayetteville Street two weeks before the opening, so nyaaaaaah.

Wreck, build. Wreck, build. What a skipping record! It's like hemlines on dresses. A torrid June morning in 1976, my brother and I toiled for Bill Wall, grading the 107 lot of Fayetteville with picks and shovels for the new Lawyer's Weekly building, site of Peter Casseau's 19th-century tavern and hotel. Suddenly, the pick flew out of my hand into a void under the shattered sidewalk. Gone.

"Kurt," I quavered, "problem." Hand excavation revealed a corbelled stone cistern of unknown antiquity. We wanted to contact the history museum. In the end, a backhoe came, crunched the antique stonework and back-filled the void. The mall project trudged along. "What a stupid idea," I said, a lad of 20.

"You're just being negative," was the response.

Oh, my Raleigh. Whither art thou? The Baptist Women's College, the Park Central Hotel, the Ashe House, the Tucker House, the First Citizen's building, the Catalano House, so many replaced by bland hideousities or parking lots. It's all about the money, honey.

Hey, I'm no naïf. Cities change. The Central YMCA, ripped to shreds as if by wild dogs? Well, Barney won't be needing that corner room at the Y anymore. The newly emptied lot on Morgan and McDowell elicited that familiar sick feeling. Then I remembered. I'd been in Charlottesville. Before I left, I saw All Saints Chapel levitating. I crept around like a badger until I found steel underneath the 1874 church. Moved! Here was another portent that something was actually steering Raleigh away from the same old Mickey Mouse crap, the sad, pine-scented wreckage amid taxpayer-financed boondoggle after boondoggle.

Field investigations induced utter dislocation. The Raleigh Times bar, so understated, so funky and authentic, I briefly thought I was in Austin or Santa Cruz, anywhere but this doink dump. Same for Riviera, cater-corner at Wilmington and Hargett. Yoo hoo! Here comes the cavalry! I don't have to fly to Portland, New York or Austin? Folks drinking beer and wine--on the sidewalk?

"Heretics! Sinnnerrrrrrrss!" temperance zealot Josephus Daniels shouted from Oakwood Cemetery.

One night I stumbled into an event at the Hudson, a solid mid-century commercial building saved from razing, one of a dozen or so condos extruding from the earth.

"Three-hundred K for polished concrete floors and no windows?" I told a city planner. "I could shoot you and get the same thing free with meals! Seriously, y'all are suddenly so danged interested in downtown, what's with the same old gravy train for Sprawlzilla. Let's go ahead, run lines to Norlina--shoot, Petersburg, why stop?"

"Where would you suggest we put
newcomers?"

"Well now, jeez, I guess you wouldn't want to go and do anything crazy like what Portland, Ore., has done. Everyone knows how bad that place sucks."

"Is the glass half-full or half-empty?" he asked.

"Half-full with sewage, last time I bothered to pick up a paper. Oh yeah, I've been hanging on the downtown mall in Charlottesville, Va. Weird! Stuff to do!"

"That's not hard with 10,000 new customers a year." Oops. My bad. Totally forgot. State, Peace, St. Aug, Shaw and Meredith kids don't spend money.

Do you people ever travel? June 23, we lingered over a fine lunch at Hamilton's, sharing the shady mall with skate punks, suits, alternakids, mommies, gnarly old academics and thoughtful lesbians strolling, shopping, strumming guitars and talking about the James Brown show at the pavilion.

Kids? Gone.

Forgive me for detecting yet another circle-jerk for the consultants, planners, contractors, suppliers and the banks. How dare I speak such slander! Tell that to Pete Jarrell, second owner of the PR (Players Retreat, an old-school establishment, for the uninitiated). He and original owner Bernie Hanula wrote years worth of checks for a parking lot that was a city-owned right of way. Pete told McLaurin Parking to stuff it. Seemed like someone at City Hall would have uh-buh-duh noticed the "Private Parking" sign? Right before the Fayetteville Street parade, I asked an expert, a concrete finisher from Connecticut, "What do you think?"

"A waste of the taxpayers' money. But hey, [laughs] at least I'm getting paid, right?"

I understand the practical efficiencies in municipal corruption. I don't like it, but if we must have it, for God's sake, at least make it fun. I'm observing the sorrowful retrospection over the "failed" mall with sick amusement. It would take planning to make an urban environment more hostile and unpleasant. No street vending, apartments, bars, café seating, shops--nothing. I was ordered off one day for pushing my bicycle. Raleigh hospitality: "No lying down." (schliiik foo-flack--pump shotgun) "Now eat your f**king hot dog and go! Don't forget to pay that parking ticket. Have a nice day, y'heah?"

Whether dipped in spit stupidity, some freaky social control or old stinky money, the powers were too entrenched and interconnected to allow anything organic and real to prosper. Raleigh's vision of urbanity: plasticized marvels like Glenwood South. Safe! Clean! Predictable! "Cameron Village Subway? Hillsborough Street? Weirdos! Can't process! Must be crushed!"

But now there are rogue elements afoot, making real change, creating authentic habitat instead of the same old faux foolery and ritual fleecing of the public on the latest pie in the sky BS the city mommies never wanted to work in the first place, if they cared at all.

The new kids are the only ones I have seen who ever gave a damn about the mostly crunched architectural and social legacy of my little town. They are forcing progressive change instead of jumping through hoops. To those, I have nothing but respect, as I do for scorned eccentrics like the late Fern Winborne, who saved what they could; the Wilmington Street merchants who latched on like barnacles; those who resorted to guerilla tactics: Yancy, Slims, King's.

To harbor a thought that the holy vote actually changes anything is but the dream of a child. Watch Dix. The opposition to development is extremely robust, but trust me, unless people literally throw themselves in front of the machinery--Condo City!

"By the people" is an illusion. Amid constant reassurances of the sanctity of that hokum, the facts, favoritism, skewed results and endless scandals with no end in sight make a hollow mockery. Libercans/Repulicrats will save us--suck! Go ahead and embroil yourself in the pointless mousetrap dialectic of politics, I suppose. If you really want change, work instead toward a parallel system: None Of The Above Party or the Alternate State of America. Gwen, a black female business owner, said to me of government, "just stay out of my way."

Like the new kids, don't wait for permission. Just do things that make a positive difference. It starts with little things. When I grew up in Raleigh, if one passed a stranger on the street, it was de rigueur to nod, say hello, good morning--something. Try it. Then there's the disgusting, ubiquitous litter. If everyone picked something up every day, our world would be spotless. Do it. Just one piece.

Mr. Negative really, really hopes this version of Raleigh works. I could live anywhere, but have chosen Raleigh. I know the history. My family lives here. I want to have lived my life out in the same place. There is no way you can do that unless you do it.

Look, I don't mean to be a bother, busy as the city is with this rebirthing thing. But the sidewalk at Boylan Bridge seems to have gotten in the way of the Bloomsbury condo project being built on the site of the 1770 courthouse, leaving a muddy trench. It's not me so much, it's just we have some residents who are older, some blind and--oh, forget it. It's their fault. People without cars are failures. And you know, we need to save for other things. If there'd been two couches smoldering at the house next door last week, it would have taken 18 fire trucks to put it out instead of the nine that it took to put out one.

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