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Leaders envision green space in Charleston's historic black neighborhood

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Anthony Kinzer overlooked a gray, barren parking lot along Lewis Street and imagined an emerald-colored park complete with markers explaining the area's historical significance.

Kinzer, director of the West Virginia Center of African-American Art and Culture, met with reporters and locals in front of the proposed park Thursday.

The park would be located at the corner of Shrewsbury and Lewis streets and would be the first step in revitalizing the area known simply as "the block."

In 2011, Kinzer successfully campaigned for the city to designate the block as the city's first local historical district. Officials created the Block Historic District to be bound by Washington, Capitol and Smith streets and Leon Sullivan Way.

The block is important to Charleston because it was a staging point for black travelers going north from the south looking for work, he said. The block became known as a safe stopping point for thousands of black travelers coming from the south.

Since its heyday, the block has been ripped to shreds thanks to interstate highway construction, urban renewal and just plain neglect.

The area already has five historic buildings registered, but those are separated by empty parking lots and spaces.

Kinzer's goal is for the park to begin linking the historic building and provide a place where locals can take a load off or come learn more about history. The park could eventually attract outside conventions and other businesses, he said.

"We could repurpose this land to be more useful," he said. "We are just in the beginning phases now."

Students at the Garnet Career Center and St. Mary's Hospital employees are the only ones who use the parking lot now. Part of the lot is owned by the city, he said.

Kinzer said the park's details and the area's overall concept would be unveiled when Imagine Charleston completes its comprehensive plan and downtown redevelopment plan.

After that, he said he'd like to install antique streetlights such as those along Capitol Street and wheelchair-accessible sidewalks.

Chlorine Carter, 77, said she graduated from the former Garnet High School in 1953. She joined Kinzer at the proposed site Thursday and said she hopes the park would provide a meeting place for those wishing to reminisce.

"We need a place to remember the way it was," Carter said. "This used to be an exciting place, a lively place. I'd like to see it that way again."Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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