Only historians or Charlotte residents of more than half a century know why Stonewall Street became Brooklyn Village Avenue last year. But anyone pausing at the corner of Brooklyn Village and College Street may soon understand.
Duke Energy has hired a resident of another Brooklyn, in New York City, to create a 70-foot, three-dimensional mural for the garage wall at that corner. The mural symbolizes the history and cultural heritage of the former Brooklyn neighborhood and will commemorate the 1,007 Black families driven out in the 1960s and ’70s urban renewal.
Duke Energy kept history in mind when designing the building, said Brandon Lane, Duke Energy vice president of corporate real estate. The mural also reflects the company’s commitment to a diverse and inclusive work environment.
“We identified a blank canvas adjacent to the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture that we felt was a wonderful fit for public art and decided to approach the center about collaborating,” Lane said. “We felt it important that this piece be the work of an African American artist. LEk’s concept left an impression on the evaluation team due to the striking visual nature of the piece, as well as his intention to thoughtfully highlight the Brooklyn neighborhood.”
During segregation, Brooklyn became a thriving African American community with the city’s only Black high school, Second Ward High, YMCA and library. A study in 1958 determined that 77% of the residences were blighted, meeting the criteria for urban renewal.
Two structures that remain – the Mecklenburg Investment Company Building and adjacent Grace AME Zion Church on Brevard Street – are depicted in Jeyifous’ mural.
In 2022, the city of Charlotte changed the name of streets honoring Confederate veterans and others. Stonewall Street, named after the Confederate general, ran through Brooklyn. The street was renamed Brooklyn Village Avenue.
Andrew Marco, Duke Energy workplace strategy program manager, met with Gantt Center leaders and Lauren Harkey, owner-director of Hodges Taylor art gallery and consulting firm. They started a national search for artists in late 2020.
“One benefit of working with The Gantt was their connection to the community,” Marco said. Gantt leaders helped Jeyifous interview residents and get feedback on his ideas at a community engagement session.
Harkey was struck by the Nigerian-born Jeyifous’ use of freedom quilts and Adire textile art in his work.
“We had a lot of conversations around symbolism,” she said. “He took memorable buildings and notes from historic Brooklyn – the church and barbershop and row houses – and knocked it out of the park.”
Jeyifous said he took what he learned to create “a kind of collaged tapestry … to illustrate a larger story about the historic arc and everyday lives of the Brooklyn community and how it might reverberate throughout the present and the future.”
He hopes the mural will commemorate the history and values of the community to teach younger generations about the past while “encouraging reflection, contemplation and curiosity about such an important and tight-knit neighborhood and its impact on the region.”
Since there is a glass illuminated frieze at street level, Harkey said, “it was important to complement this existing public art. If you’re standing by that glass, LEk’s piece will tower above you, roughly 70 feet tall by 40 feet wide. It will be backlit at night and clearly visible.”
Though Duke Energy first envisioned a flat panel, the planners embraced Jeyifous’ idea of layers made of laser-cut, brightly painted aluminum. Because the property line extends only 8 inches past the wall, the piece won’t project far off the building but will clearly have three dimensions.
“Ultimately,” Marco said, “I hope this mural will provide the community inspiration for the future. This piece recognizes an important, culturally relevant part of our community’s history. While we can’t change the events of the past, I hope people will be proud that one of the community’s larger corporations recognizes the spirit and diversity that makes Charlotte special.”
Art at Duke Energy Plaza
Other public art installations will join Olalekan Jeyifous’ mural at Duke Energy Plaza.
Two illuminated sculptures by Charlotte artist Ivan Toth Depeña will catch the eyes of passersby at the main South Tryon Street entrance. They’ll embody photons, the smallest particles of light and the basis for solar generation. Behind the sculptures, the building’s façade will feature a six-story panel with a silhouette of Depeña’s interpretation of a photon.
Inside the plaza’s Experience Hall, a sculpture by the Chicago-based duo Luftwerk will hang from the ceiling in a figure-eight curve. “Journey of the Sun,” 85 colorful translucent glass discs, will represent the sun’s path over a year. Nearby, an AV wall nearly 60 feet long will display motion graphic animations. Together, they’ll capture constant changes of light over time.