On Sept 3, 1997, the Charleston City Paper published its first issue with a cover story written by yours truly entitled "History vs. Progress: Charleston faces the future." The article briefly chronicled Charleston's post-Civil War history, focusing on Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr.'s efforts to revitalize a downtown that had deteriorated after decades of white flight to the suburbs. At that point, Riley was 20 years into his 40-year stint as mayor of Charleston, and current mayor John Tecklenburg was working as the city's director of economic development. I interviewed both for the article.
Riley expressed ideas that proved to be the cornerstone of his reign: "My vision for Charleston is that we adhere to high standards of quality in our development of suburban parts as well as in the restoration of the central district. The desirability is high to live here and to work here. That's irreversible. What we must do is adhere to high standards so the livability of the city is not diminished but enhanced."
A pragmatist, Riley's record shows that he believed development could be good for the city, and he strived to negotiate terms with developers that benefited the public, most specifically providing access to the waterfront downtown and requiring affordable housing stock. Of course, many would argue that he sold us out, as one letter writer contended, calling him "Pack-Em-In Riley."
In the article, Tecklenburg echoed his boss: "Charleston is very special. The heritage and history of the city provide a special challenge in making sure projects are right for the community." And now, as mayor, Tecklenburg is struggling with the many of the same challenges as Riley.
By December of that first year, we had tackled Charleston's McJob market, profiled the causes of the Coastal Conservation League, followed a tattoo legalization bill's progress in the legislature, spent a day in the life with a parking enforcement officer, and once again addressed growth in a cover story entitled "The Livable City: Charleston's Growing Dilemma," which examined the impact of tourists, students, congestion, and noise on livability and chronicled how citizens worked with the city government to address big problems.
That year, City Councilman Richard Hagerty sent a letter to the city's Tourism Advisory Management Committee addressing problems that continue to echo today. In the letter, he requested a limit on hotel and inn accommodations, a phase out of all tour buses by 25 percent over the following 10 years, a limit of walking tours to fewer than 12 people, a limit of motor vehicle access to local traffic only, a formal request submitted to the state to freeze property assessments, and an increase in parking, shuttle services, and restroom access to tourists.
Those issues sound very familiar, and some have even been addressed. It may have taken 20 years, but the city finally opened a bathroom South of Broad, where it had gotten so bad that tourists, unaware of the lack of facilities, had been relieving themselves behind bushes and in building lobbies.
Back in 1997, Radcliffeborough residents were struggling with student life and the "College that Ate Charleston." A resident at the time said, "The types of people in the neighborhood right now are the people who are urinating or throwing up in front of my house. I have at almost any hour of the day, someone screaming outside while they are walking down the street."
Today, the students have pushed farther north and the residents of Cannonborough-Eliottborough are the ones struggling with epic keg parties, passed out students, and general mayhem. Just check out that neighborhood's Facebook page for a litany of complaints.
In 1997, the College was promoting its efforts to educate the students on how to behave in an urban environment. This month, CofC has made the top 20 list for party schools and President Glenn McConnell has banned alcohol at Greek parties.
By March of 1998, we'd delved into the dark world of school board politics by covering the $350 million school bond referendum that would be used to build and maintain Charleston County's deteriorating and overcrowded schools. At the time, deferred maintenance costs were estimated to be north of $600 million and crumbling schools were threatening children's health with asbestos and lead paint. Then-superintendent Chip Zullinger summed up the district's problems, "We are developing some of the most identifiable class differences you have anywhere in America. Until we start cutting into that class distinction, we are a society at risk. ... We need to get more white children back into our system. ... Many of our richer citizens have gone to the private sector and are just not invested in and don't prioritize public education."
Back then, after years of refusing to raise taxes to adequately fund the school system, the new school board — infused with new blood — was starting to address the inequities of Charleston's school facilities and the challenge of educating children who live in poverty. Today, our reigning school board seems more interested in getting back to that no-new-taxes policy and are failing our poorest community members yet again.
We also spent time that first year on happier topics, like the burgeoning food scene when the Bobs — Bob Carter of Peninsula Grill and Bob Waggoner of Charleston Grill — were the leaders of the food world along with Frank Lee, Donald Barickman, Hoppin' John Taylor, John Zucker, and many others. We went to Wavefest. We looked at trends like swing dancing, webcams, and yoga.
One controversy that we waded into early and stuck with for years was the 2 a.m. bar closing. In the late '90s, the late-night bar scene was more of an all-night scene with many places located in the King-George-Burns (KGB) area staying open until sunrise. The heart of this was A.C.'s — yep, the same dive that eventually moved to Upper King Street when that part of town came back to life. A coalition of business owners eventually lobbied hard enough to win a 2 a.m. bar closing, but it took many years with lots of fun battles among bar owners and the city, which we covered closely.
We also wrote about gentrification, laws governing strip clubs, pollution in the Neck, mercury in rivers, the gun debate... Ah, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
As the City Paper marks its 20th year in existence, we'll be digging back into the archives and taking a look at the modern history of our city. Today, Charleston struggles with many of the same issues it has always struggled with: a limited job market, unsatisfactory schools, socioeconomic inequality, unprecedented development, water pollution, an influx of new residents, a raucous College of Charleston student scene, not enough parking spaces, and millions of tourists clogging the streets and sidewalks. But what has changed? How are we doing as a city? And what do we need to do to keep Charleston a livable city?
1997: 3 million tourists per year
Today: 5.15 million
1997: $6 parking fine
1997: 4.6 percent unemployment
Today: 5.1 percent
1997: 11,000 CofC enrollment
Today: 11,619 total enrollment
It's fun to look back at issues from 1997 and see what advertisers were there back in the olden days, businesses that are still alive and well today:
Earth Fare, Planet Follywood, Skin Therapy Center, Art's Bar & Grill, King Street Grocery, Charleston Farmers Market, Sticky Fingers, Peace Frogs, Chateau Adult Theatre, Alpha Dog Omega Cat, South Carolina Federal Credit Union, the Windjammer, The Griffon, the Kickin' Chicken, Taste of Charleston, Utopia, Gilroy's, Grace Episcopal Church, Wild Wing Cafe, Music Farm, Terrace Theatre, McCrady's Tavern, Med Deli, Carolina Ice Palace, Palmetto Brewery, Hominy Grill, Blind Tiger
RIP: Tobaccos, Teas, & Spirits, The Library at Vendue, Acme (now 5 Faber St., a special event rental venue), the Serenade Show (now Charleston Music Hall), Bubba Slye's (now Black Tap Coffee), Isadore, Cumberland's (continues to be an empty space on Cumberland Street), Jack the Ripper (the Brick), The Bubble Room (AC's), Sonoma Cafe & Winebar (King Street Grille), Silk Stockings by Amber, The Chef & Clef, Red Hot & Blues Room (now-closed Restaurant Gigi), Charleston Pizza Grille (Wasabi), Granny's Goodies (Apple Store), Big Edna's (283 Meeting St.), Wavefest, Cat's Music, Putumayo, Vincenzo's (FIG), The Ceramics Cafe, Pusser's Landing (rental space at city marina), Arizona Bar & Grill (Bay Street Biergarten), King Street Palace (senior housing), Pete Banis Shoes (shoestore, 393 King St.), Vickery's (La Farfalle), King Street Skates (O-Ku)
The newly renovated American Theater had a virtual reality game room upstairs.