MLK Triangle paint colors raise concerns

Published 5:16 pm Thursday, June 13, 2024

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NATCHEZ — Joseph Smith of has continued his work to spruce up buildings and the area around the MLK Triangle at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and St. Catherine Street in Natchez, but his choice of paint colors is not sitting well with some in the city.

The Natchez Preservation Commission on Wednesday night discussed briefly photos it had received of buildings Smith and other volunteers have painted on St. Catherine Street at the Triangle.

“That’s an issue for the code enforcement officer,” said Andy Sartin, chairman of the city’s historic preservation commission.

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The commission said it had not been asked to approve the paint colors, which Sartin described as “Caribbean-like.”

By city ordinance, any change in paint colors or architecture or the like must be approved by the city’s preservation commission to make certain they do not take away from the historic nature of the property in the district. The MLK Triangle is in the city’s historic district. The City of Natchez, along with Zion Chapel AME Church and the Downtown Natchez Alliance, has plans to create a park-like area at the triangle known as Hiram Revels Plaza, honoring the first Black man to be seated in the U.S. Senate. Revels was also a pastor at Zion Chapel. Later, Revels also became president of Alcorn State University.

Smith said he is not being defiant of any city ordinance and has tried multiple times to be heard before the preservation commission.

Smith said he has submitted three applications over the last several years to the city’s planning department seeking approval for plans to beautify buildings in the area. Smith said he has never received a reply, response, or acknowledgment of any of those three applications.

“This entire project has been an ordeal,” he said. “I don’t own those buildings that have been painted. The Thompson family owns those buildings and has given up permission to spruce up the buildings at our own expense. Most of the public thinks they look fantastic. That’s the feedback I’ve gotten.”

Smith said he has submitted applications to the planning department since Rico Giani’s tenure as city planner.

“We are not intentionally defiant,” Smith said. On Tuesday, the city attorney called me, and I went to (city planner) Frankie Legaux’s office. The third application I turned in last September was still in a folder in a file in a desk drawer. In fact, I intended to go to the preservation commission meeting on Wednesday to talk with them, but I simply forgot about it.”

He said he thinks the rules and regulations in the city’s historic district are not readily available to people who need to know about them.

“I had concerns and expressed to the mayor, the city attorney, and Ms. Legaux that I should not have had to wait a year or longer for some kind of response. If there was a problem or something wrong with my application or if it was incomplete, why didn’t someone communicate that with me,” Smith asked. “When the young people painted murals on the wall about two years ago for MLK Day, no one even then gave me any rules or regulations or clarity. Even this week, the police visited me and brought me a text message to show me. Where is the paperwork? I am trying to comply, but this seems ridiculous.

“Earlier, when we had the meeting about the tire plant (Oct. 17, 2023), I shared with the mayor that we had made these applications, and no one called us. I sent him a screenshot of the latest application because I wanted him to see the dates on it,” he said.

Smith said he does not think he is being targeted. He thinks the problem rather is antiquated systems and government inefficiency.

“I feel like the process should be streamlined. I don’t think it is intentional. I think it’s inefficient on the part of the government. The form was in a file folder in a desk drawer,” he said. “Things could be automated. With the technology we have today … These applications could be in a queue waiting to be acted on.”

Smith said he is concerned the city is not open to progress, particularly the progress younger citizens seek.

“I’d really like to make the point that if the city were more open and collaborative in its embrace of younger people, many of its problems could be overcome quite easily. The city seems to be wedded to only the systems and ideas of the past, which puts it at odds with those in the community who are hungry for progress.

“We have had an overwhelming response from the public about the paint; people have donated money and benches and lights because they want Natchez to be a place where progress is evident. People have also stopped by and shared ideas they say have fallen on deaf ears,” Smith said. “I wonder if it’s possible for Natchez to be a place that preserves and honors history while creating space for innovation, vibrancy, and youthfulness.”