Back in the late '90s, when City Councilman Robert Mitchell took his weekly walks through the Eastside neighborhood at night, his sister begged him to be careful. A slightly built, gentle-voiced man, Mitchell had a habit of walking up to young drug slingers who loitered at the corner of America and South streets issuing a warning: Move along, or I'll call the cops.
"I never turned my back," Mitchell says. "No, I walked away, but I didn't turn my back. You've got to be careful."
Those harrowing days are gone now. Councilman Mitchell still takes his Eastside constitutionals multiple times a week, often after dark, but today his concerns are more pedestrian: a litter-strewn sidewalk, a neighborhood softball league, a parking shortage near a new beer garden.
Once a bogeyman of downtown development, the Eastside has seen a real estate revival in recent years, largely fueled by the perception that the neighborhood has gotten safer. Starting in 2009, Charleston police rounded up dozens of members of the heroin-peddling East Side Posse, Romney Street Killers, and B-Mob gangs, winning lengthy federal prison sentences in court. Cops now patrol the residential streets on foot and in vehicles, sometimes with fewer than five minutes between them.
Charleston Police Lt. Charles Hawkins, who is commander of a team that covers the peninsula north of Calhoun Street, says he's seen major changes on the Eastside in his 29 years at the department. The Eastside saw a total of two homicides in 2013, down from eight the previous year. Police offered a limited amount of neighborhood-specific crime data, but overall violent crime in the neighborhood is down more than 50 percent since 2009.
"If you aren't buying drugs over there or involved in some drug deal, you don't have to worry about it," Hawkins says.
There are, of course, exceptions to that rule, like 22-year-old Don'ta Pringle, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in front of the Exxon station at 420 Meeting St. last July. Police gave no indication that Pringle was involved in a drug deal.
But to Hawkins, the Eastside's criminal legacy is in its death throes. He says incidents of witness intimidation, as happened recently in the court case of 2011 homicide suspect Tyrell Collins, are the last gasp of the neighborhood's violent element.
"I think with that area being cleaned up like it is, people are desperate over there now. You've got some hardened criminals who see the area shrinking, and they get desperate," Hawkins says.
In the past five years, College of Charleston students have flocked to the Eastside seeking low-rent housing. Realtors have snapped up vacant and dilapidated properties, and — echoing the story of so many peninsula neighborhoods — rents have begun to creep upward.
In 1929, the construction of the Grace Memorial Bridge required demolition of numerous houses north of Cooper Street and divided the southern Eastside from the northern part.
"The Eastside has had a bad rap for many, many years," says Jason Peé, a realtor with Dunes Properties who has lived on the Eastside since 2004. "We've seen the neighborhood change completely. We're getting a lot of young hipsters moving in, and a lot of homes have been bought and extensively rehabbed by some of my other clients who do high-end rentals."
Recently, Peé listed a new 1,560-square-foot house at 39 Aiken St. for $335,900. The intention, he says, was to "set the price bar" for the neighborhood. Another realtor familiar with the neighborhood said student rentals in good condition are now going for $800 to $950 per room, a price that has doubled in the last three years.
Peé says he recently sold an Eastside house to a family with roots in well-heeled South of Broad and Wagener Terrace. They expressed some reservations until one day when they went to check out the house. "They got stuck outside the house and couldn't get in and watched all the traffic go by, and they realized it's not just an African-American community anymore," Peé says. "It's a downtown neighborhood. I want them to understand that it's not a black neighborhood or a white neighborhood."
Inside Mary's Sweet Shop, owner Joseph Watson stands hunched over a Bible with a magnifying glass in hand, preparing for a class at Ebenezer AME Church. A boy walks in and asks for a Tahitian Treat, plunking down a fistful of change, and Watson slides the soda can across the counter as he counts the nickels and pennies.
Many tradespeople, including tanners, butchers, tallow chandlers, and dairymen, moved into the Neck in the mid-1800s "because they were unwelcome downtown."
If you don't live in the neighborhood, you've probably never heard of Mary's Sweet Shop, an unmarked convenience store at the corner of America and Amherst streets with black exterior walls and a metal gate over the door. But Watson and his mother Mary, whose framed portrait graces the wall by the counter, have been living and working at this location since 1958.
At first glance, the Eastside of today bears a strong resemblance to the Eastside of 10 years ago: the bustling corner stores, the neighbors perched chatting on stoops, the graceful old Charleston single houses in various states of repair and decay. On Blake Street, Hannibal's Kitchen still serves generous helpings of shark steak, fried pork chops, and okra soup. In community meetings, police officers still address residents as "my brother."
But look closer, and the first inklings of change become apparent. A flock of peacock-strutting young men beat the pavement in their Urban Outfitters threads, quietly commiserating about hangovers and college courses. The Cigar Factory, a historic site where striking workers sang the song "We Shall Overcome" in 1945, is slated to become an office building for the second time in its history. Little orange signs with QR codes have cropped up on dozens of houses, indicating renovation projects by a company called Luxury Simplified. Dive bars are opening up in former black social clubs.
At a City Council meeting in September 2013, councilmembers were already talking about expanding the enforcement overlay zone known as the Late-Night Entertainment District, proactively covering areas where late-night bars and clubs will soon be cropping up. First the bars shot north up King Street, then west into Cannonborough-Elliotborough. Who's next? The Eastside was on the tip of several councilmembers' tongues. "This will be an issue that raises its head each time an area of the city begins to get popular. It'll just move," said Councilman Aubry Alexander.
From his vantage point at America and Amherst, Watson says he's seen entertainment districts wax and wane. He remembers catching music at the D.P.O. Hall on East Bay Street, seeing neighbors patronize a private club on Cooper Street, and watching other bars and late-night haunts come and go while the old stalwarts hung on: the homes, the churches, the family businesses.
"Clubs and things like that, their life span ain't that long," Watson says. "The music changes, the population in the area changes, and they go away. But what the people really need is food, clothing — those things are going to come."
At a recent meeting of the Eastside Neighborhood Association, held in the street-level corner office of the Eastside Community Development Corporation, the specter of change floated over the proceedings. The neighbors who packed the folding chairs, more than half of whom were white, scrutinized parking arrangements at the upcoming Cigar Factory office building and asked a city planner to help ensure that local contractors get a piece of the renovation job. Joseph Watson, who filled in while the president was running late, extolled the virtues of S.C. State University's 1890 Extension program, which the city recently granted land on the Eastside to build a community center.
In perhaps the most literal collision of Old meets New, Nassau Street resident Carolyn White complained of ongoing damage to her home from heavy equipment that was used to build the Holiday Inn on Meeting Street. She said she could feel the house shake during construction, and now the kitchen floor and the first-floor ceiling sag like worn-out trampolines.
One of the neighborhood's newer residents, a 25-year-old Coast Guard sailor named Cory Humak, sat quietly and took it all in. Humak bought a house at the corner of America and South streets in July 2013, and he now raises rabbits and chickens in the yard. When he moved to Charleston from Gulf Port, Miss., he says he was struck by the friendliness of the neighborhood.
"It's one of the last places in Charleston where you can own a place and have a relationship with your neighbors above and beyond what a wealthier neighborhood would have," Humak says. "I know most of my neighbors, I talk to them, and whatever I want to do to my house isn't frowned upon, as long as I communicate freely."
Humak has been stationed in Charleston for two years, and he says he scoped out the Eastside before moving in. "It's definitely a transitional neighborhood. Looking at the crime statistics, the crime is falling off dramatically, so these days you're more likely to get mugged on the Market," he says.
Other newcomers aren't so sure. "It's still on the edge of sketchy, but it's being taken over at lightning speed now," says Taylor Grant, who has lived on Amherst Street for two years. It's midday on a weekday, and he's walking up Hanover Street holding a bleached deer skull by the antlers — his idea of decor. As he speaks, his wispy hair keeps getting caught in his prickly beard.
"You come down here when the restaurants on King Street close at 12 or 2 o'clock, and it's just flooded with professionals and students walking into this neighborhood to go home," Grant says.
The Eastside still bears a scar where the ramps of the Silas Pearman and Grace Memorial bridges once stood. Cooper Street homes that once looked out on bustling bridge traffic now have a view of a grassy no-man's land, vacant since the bridges' demolition in 2005.
Shelia Fields has lived on Cooper Street for 58 years. She claims that explosives from the demolition damaged her house. In a 2007 joint lawsuit against the S.C. Department of Transportation and the demolition company it hired, several homeowners in the area claimed that the detonations caused cracked foundations, structural damage, and sinkholes on their property. The suit was ultimately settled out of court in April 2013.
"We just had to let it go," Fields says.
Today, Eastside residents are faced with a different sort of boom: the post-recession explosion of new construction and development on the Charleston peninsula. Looming large is the matter of affordable housing, which can disappear in a hurry when lower-income neighborhoods start to gentrify.
The main architectural styles of houses on the Eastside are the Charleston Single, Greek Revival Single, Freedman's Cottage, Adam Style, and Queen Anne Style.
Some of the affordable housing is more or less protected. The Charleston Housing Authority still lists over 500 publicly subsidized housing units on the Eastside, including the low-slung 216-unit Cooper River Courts along upper America Street. And the Star Gospel Mission is in the process of building transitional studio apartments on its property, renting them out for $500 a month in what could soon become prime real estate.
But for the modest freedmen's cottages and Charleston singles that make up the rest of the neighborhood's housing stock, rent could skyrocket soon. Councilman Mitchell says that escalating rent has been pushing African Americans out of the Eastside for years, with many younger residents relocating to North Charleston.
"My problem is that all of these hotels are being built, and we need people to work in those hotels," Mitchell says, pointing toward the Meeting-King corridor where thousands of new hotel rooms are in the works. "So now when they work in the hotels, where are they going to live? They have to come all the way from North Charleston or wherever they come from, and all the little money they're making is going to transportation."
Mitchell says the city needs to find a way to ensure affordable housing stays on the Eastside, but New York-style rent control is probably out of the question. He laughs when the topic is even brought up. "I mentioned it on Council one time," Mitchell says. "It would have to come through the state, and they said [state lawmakers] would probably try to kill me. No, they're not going to do rent control, not in South Carolina."
He adds, however, that not all African Americans who've been edged out of the Eastside are victims. "People get angry, but some of it is their own fault. If your parents owned it and you didn't take care of it and you lost it, nobody took it away from you; you gave it away ... Fix it up. Pay your taxes on it. That's all you've got to do," Mitchell says.
Rising rent could price people like King Grant-Davis out of the Eastside. A well-known member of the Charleston running community, he has rented a bright-yellow cottage on Nassau Street for the past nine years, and he has watched what he describes as "a constant influx of well-to-do whites" moving into his neighborhood over that time period. Not that he minds: "This community should have a variety of races, ethnic groups, and economic statuses," he says.
Grant-Davis pays his rent with partial disability benefits and odd jobs that he picks up around the neighborhood, and since he usually can't afford the entry fee at races like the Cooper River Bridge Run, he pays his way by volunteering at race expos and handing out information packets. He says that his rent, like many of his neighbors', still falls in the $375-550 range. If it rises above that, he'll have to move.
"Gentrification in itself may not be bad, but the part of pricing racial or ethnic groups out, making accommodations too expensive for them because of their economic status, that's bad," Grant-Davis says. "Certainly that troubles people, and it changes the fabric of this community."