By Barney Blakeney
The West Ashley area of the City of Charleston has been called the key to the city’s future development. It has the city’s greatest concentration of Black residents. For the past several years city officials have focused on its redevelopment – quality of life, commercial and residential development. City council representatives say Black residents West Ashley must become more engaged in that process.
As the demographics of the city that once was contained exclusively on the peninsula realigned, many Black residents sought home ownership opportunities West Ashley where newer housing developments offered affordable housing. Today, approximately half the city’s Black residents live West Ashley where its residents elected a new mayor based largely on promises to focus resources on the rapidly changing community. West Ashley representatives Dist. 7 Councilman Keith Waring and Dist. 2 Councilman Rodney Williams were asked to share their thoughts.
Williams, in the last year of his first term on council, said the city has spent $60 million-$67 million for infrastructure and to purchase properties West Ashley, not to mention an expansive Tax Increment Finance District that runs along the Savannah Highway and Sam Rittenburg Boulevard corridors which will provide millions more dollars for improvements. But he’s greatly disappointed more Black residents are not becoming engaged in the processes that will determine how those dollars are used. The city’s conducting community information session, but too few Black residents attend them, he said.
Redevelopment means new jobs and business opportunities. Getting in on the ground floor as information about those initiatives are discussed puts residents and others in position to take advantage of the opportunities. Williams pointed to the March 25 grand opening of West Ashley native Krisalyn Gleaton‘s Focus: Meds Pharmacy and Wellness in the Harrell Square Shopping Center at 200 Sam Rittenburg Blvd. as a standard to be followed by Black entrepreneurs.
The train is leaving and Black business should get on board, Williams said. As city officials develop strategies for increased mass transportation that must begin to move people more safely and efficiently around West Ashley communities, opportunities for affordable housing also must increase. That will happen when more residents become engaged, he said.
Williams noted city officials are poised to propose a bond referendum that could raise up to $20 million for affordable housing. All of that translates into business for Black contractors in a building environment where already $1.4 billion in construction permits have been issued, he said.
Waring agrees that Black residents need to be more engaged in the process. And that process has to include some internal housekeeping. Redevelopment, by definition means change. West Ashley communities will change, but that change doesn’t necessarily equate to displacement. In West Ashley where many residents, especially those in older neighborhoods are property owners, there are opportunities for housing development that maintain the traditional integrity of the neighborhood. Everything can’t be left up to city officials, he said.
West Ashely residents must heed lessons learned from experiences on the peninsula. When improvements come, we’re uprooted, he said. The key to West Ashley enhancement as opposed to displacement will be information, Waring said. The information is available, people just have to make themselves aware, he said.
“We have to help people, especially our young people, realize the value of the property where they were born and how to reinvest in it. Some of our communities don’t even have neighborhood associations. And just like neighbors have to cooperate, our entrepreneurs have to cooperate and form corporations that can take advantage of large business opportunities” he said.