Published: Aug 27, 2006 03:55 PM
Modified: Aug 27, 2006 03:55 PM
Whatever else the Dancing Man issue may or may not reveal, it does illuminate the precarious nature of private property that comes to be widely regarded as public space.
The controversy, as everyone surely knows by now, erupted after the management of Carr Mill Mall informed a local man named Bruce Thomas that he must cease the solo freestyle dancing he's made it his habit to engage in on the mall's lawn.
Nathan Milian, the mall manager, knows Carrboro well, so the resulting howl of protest couldn't have come as a great surprise. The Orange Politics online forum lit up. A petition was drawn up. Letters to the editor came in, almost all of them expressing shock and dismay. On Wednesday evening, 150 people or so gathered on the lawn for a hastily called "dance-back," intended to reclaim the lawn for free expression.
Behind the outrage lies the perception that the lawn belongs to the people, in spirit if not in letter.
It has long been known as Carrboro's community gathering place, and the mall itself has encouraged that sentiment by generously making it available for countless community events. Pleasant, shaded and comfortable, it's been used for a long time essentially as a de facto public park. The people who regularly hang out there have come to feel a sense of ownership of the lawn -- perhaps in part because many of them are members of the Weaver Street Market co-op, in which they do share ownership.
Even calling it, as everyone does, "the Weaver Street Market lawn" carries the subtle suggestion that it is a part of the market and therefore cooperatively owned.
Problem is, the people don't own it. Carr Mill Mall does, and the mall has the same property rights as any other business owner.
The owners or their manager decided to exert those rights recently by telling Thomas he couldn't dance on the property any more. In response to the resulting uproar, the mall, along with Weaver Street Market, then announced a new program whereby anyone wishing to "perform" on the lawn must sign up in advance for a one-hour time slot.
For Thomas and other lawn regulars, the management's imposition of more restrictive rules seemed to come out of the blue and with no apparent provocation.
After keeping a hands-off approach to the lawn for years, the management has now put hands on -- and any school teacher will tell you it's a whole lot harder to impose order after the class has gotten accustomed to ruling the roost.
The reason for the mall's change in approach hasn't been clearly articulated, beyond a few vague references to complaints about certain unspecified activities.
Whatever spurred the management to exert more control over the lawn, targeting Thomas seemed an ill-conceived way to go about it. If panhandling is the problem, deal with panhandling. If public consumption is the problem, deal with that. Thomas just, well, dances.
In a town such as Carrboro, where free-spiritedness and artistic expression are regarded as high virtues, you could hardly have crafted a measure more perfectly designed to generate vehement and vocal opposition.
All of this serves as an important reminder that the Carr Mill lawn, that much-loved place at the heart of Carrboro, is not really public space. It's subject to being sold, altered or regulated as its owners see fit.
The town has benefited enormously from Carr Mill Mall and the lawn's presence in the center of town. But it's a finite resource, and in planning for the future Carrboro ought to start thinking about whether, where and how it might establish a similarly central and attractive community gathering place that truly belongs to the community.
If you have a comment on this's editorial, please contact Dave Hart, associate editor, at 932-8744 or email@example.com