Changing The Flava Of Charleston

By Barney Blakeney   

There’s a new flava in the house. There’s a brand new flava in the house.

I was reminded of those lyrics from some song, whose title I can’t remember, the other day during a conversation with a new friend. The guy grew up in the Upstate, but now lives here. His grandparents are from Colleton County, so he’s familiar with the Lowcountry. Charleston’s changed and is changing more each day, said the guy who’s a few years younger than me.

We started out talking about flooding, but the conversation evolved to include development, architecture and the people. My friend was lamenting the flooding on the peninsula. A Summerville resident who works downtown, he was saying how challenging it is to navigate the peninsula when it rains. As a peninsula native, I was telling him getting around downtown during flood conditions ain’t so hard if you know how to get around. Some streets flood, some don’t. And the ones that do only flood in certain places. Flooding today isn’t nearly as bad as it was in the past, however.

I was telling my man how flooding when I was a kid over 50 years ago, was an opportunity. For us little ones living on America Street project near Stewart Street, it was an opportunity to frolic in the pools of water that developed. A flooding rain in the heat of summer meant an opportunity to ‘wade in the water’. For older boys, thigh deep water on East Bay Street meant economic opportunity. The big boys would wait at spots where the water was deepest, for cars to stall out trying to get through. They’d earn money pushing the stalled cars to higher ground.

The older I got, the more I realized flooding’s nuisance. When my family moved uptown, one end of our block would flood. Walking home from school meant taking off shoes and rolling up pant legs to get home if I came from the wrong way. I often wondered how kids who attended Burke High felt. Flooding rain always created a nearly impassible moat around their school.

Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley sought to address flooding, years too late for the now defunct Ladson House Restaurant at Kennedy and President Streets. Those folks over there still are waiting for relief. The $154 million Spring/Fishburn Drainage Improvement Project is expected to be completed by 2021. My man was saying all the drainage in the world won’t do no good because global warming and climate change is real. Besides, Charleston is below sea level.

By the time the drainage project is completed, the flava of that community and others around the peninsula will be brand new as well. New housing, new structures, new architecture has changed the character of neighborhoods. And that will continue.

My friend, a White guy, seemed saddened that redevelopment of Charleston’s urban blight has meant almost total displacement of Black residents. We agreed that change was needed after White folks abandoned Charleston’s inner city. And we agreed that Black folks should have been a part of that change. What was left unsaid was former Mayor Joe Riley’s role in the gentrification that excluded Black folks.

I could tell my friend thinks a lot of Joe Riley. Heck, I think a lot of Joe Riley! I know, all in all, he was a good mayor for Charleston. Not so good for Black folks, though. I have a hard time figuring how a guy as brilliant as Joe Riley could not have seen the ultimate result of what he was recreating. He built this city – maybe not on rock and roll, but with a vision. Did not his vision include Black people? Could not his vision foresee the city’s retail commercial center becoming a raucous stream of bars and pubs? My friend lamented that the charm of Charleston has given way to box-shaped structures fronting main streets and hidden in interior spaces.

I said all that wouldn’t be so bad if Black people hadn’t disappeared with the city’s charm. Gone are the ‘Flower Ladies’ at the Four Corners of Law. And all that remains of the display of culture that reminds us of what Charleston used to be are the few basket weavers at the city market. Even the food, that Gullah cuisine, which draws tourists to the city like moths to a flame, has a new flava. I was dumbfounded the night I was served shrimp and grits in a flared cocktail glass. I never saw a shrimp and thought it was desert.

I know everything must change, as Donnie Hathaway sang so smoothly. Charleston today can’t be the same city as it was when I waded in the water on the projects over 50 years ago. And it wasn’t the same then as it was 50 years before. The old folks talk about trolley cars and railroad tracks on Columbus Street. I remember, as I grew up, seeing the remnants of those tracks covered by asphalt. Things had changed. That’s what time does. But through it all, Black folks were here. That didn’t change.

Maybe our new mayor, John Tecklenburg, will return some of that old flava. Affordable housing initiatives and development reforms should play a part in preventing the total disappearance of Black folks from the peninsula. Me, I’d rather see education and economic reform that allow Black folks to make the money they need so they can afford to stay on the peninsula. That’s the flava I’d like to see – the flava of minted greenbacks floating around the Black community. Then maybe some of us could live in those box-shaped buildings.

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