Commentary

Saunders: Respect needed among Moore Square's old and new

bsaunders@newsobserver.comAugust 22, 2012 

When I first moved to Atlanta for college as an unworldly weed-bender from Rockingham, I couldn’t believe my luck. Within two days I’d found a cheap rooming house mere blocks from campus. It was in a quiet, pristine, middle-class neighborhood.

That’s what it was in the daylight.

At night, it became something else.

Remember that touching wedding ballad by Whodini called “The Freaks Come Out at Night?” That was the neighborhood where they came out.

After a week of navigating my way through lamppost-leaners, con artists, pimps offering “solid gold” watches for $25 and hookers – male, female and some of indeterminate gender – for less, it became clear one of us had to split. The landlord, who never bothered to learn a tenant’s name – she knew me only as “third-floor rear,” as in “Third-floor rear, I’m not gonna tell you again to turn that music down” – let me know that if I left, I’d be leaving without the month’s deposit I’d already paid.

Cool. Keep it. I’m outta here.

That’s my advice for the business owners around the Moore Square Transit Center who are so bothered by the people waiting – for buses, for life to begin or end, or just waiting – near their precious businesses. Judging from a News & Observer story Wednesday, the people at the transit center are viewed as nuisances at best, vexations at worst, who should be gotten rid of by any means necessary.

Avoid gratuitous hassling

In that story, Raleigh Police Capt. Kevin Craighead told business owners, “This is one of those situations where we cannot arrest our way out of (the problem).”

They shouldn’t even try. If you see someone breaking the law, by all means call the law and have ’em locked up. None of the people I saw waiting at the transit center, though, looked as though they need to be gratuitously hassled just to keep some glorified hash-slingers happy.

The people in my old Atlanta neighborhood were there before I got there, and it would have been the height of presumptuousness – not to mention suicidal – for me to wax indignant and say, “Can y’all take that noise someplace else? I’m trying to study here.”

One business near Moore Square had several signs in its windows announcing that its outdoor seats and indoor toilets were for paying customers only. I was offended not by the message – any business wants to reserve its seating and toilet for paying customers – but by the number of signs.

Wouldn’t one, two or three signs have conveyed the same message less antagonistically? Another sign of antagonism: a couple of armed security guards walked continuously through the center, walking through but not among the people, looking at them but not seeming to see them. There was never a hint of a smile or interaction with the people they were there presumably to protect.

Nothing threatening

During 90 minutes of walking around, sitting, talking and observing Wednesday, I saw nothing that should cause the business owners such consternation as was expressed at that meeting this week.

So what, precisely, is scorching the business owners’ lattes and making them offer suggestions for thinning the crowds, ranging from adding a police substation to limiting access to the center by putting up a gate or fence?

I tell you what: the latter suggestion would be like declaring war not only on people hanging around the transit center and those who use it as a convenient shortcut, but on anyone who cares about the hoi polloi, the lumpenproletariat, regular folks.

By no means was everyone at the center waiting to be transported someplace else. For some, it’s clear, the transit center is a destination in itself, a place to hang out, kill time or catch you with your guard down and pounce. But you’ll find that in any group, anywhere.

At the transit center, nobody except those armed guards looked menacing to me, nobody was hummin’ and bummin’, nobody was doing anything but minding their own business. I saw a very young mother pushing her child in a rickety stroller with three wheels and a rim, and I overheard a dude on his cell phone pleading with a college to figure out when his financial-aid loan would come through so he could return to class.

I also spoke with LaVerne O’Neal as she sat patiently waiting for her bus under a dirty canopy and a cloudy sky.

‘People have a right to be’

O’Neal catches the bus at the transit center three or four times a week. “I was catching it six times a week before I lost my job as a cook. It’s my only means of transportation,” she said.

In all the years she’s been catching a bus there, I asked, has anyone ever bothered her?

“Every now and then, but not enough to aggravate me,” she said. “Somebody might come up and ask me for spare change, but the police patrol through here often enough that it’s not a problem. ... Some businesses think it casts a negative light on them and keeps people from coming in.

“Maybe they should re-evaluate what they’re doing” if their businesses are suffering. “People,” she said, “have a right to be.”

Period.

Here’s my advice to the business owners who are so dismayed that a city’s downtown transit center has people occupying various rungs of the social ladder: go out and meet them and talk to them. You may find that they are just like you, except they don’t have a car.

Tell them to respect your business.

And you respect them.

Did you try that before you called the law?

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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