In 1975, crime and unemployment plagued Charleston. The peninsula was hemorrhaging due to white flight. King and Meeting streets were ghosts of their former glory.
Whoever won the '75 election for mayor of Charleston, change was on the way. Community leader Nancy Hawk, a Republican, would have been the first female mayor in city history. A much-buzzed-about petition candidate, Deputy Coroner George Fuller, would have been the first African-American mayor, and another petition candidate, former state Sen. J. Kenneth Rentiers, was calling for a police crackdown and helicopter surveillance to quell the crime wave.
And then there was a 32-year-old attorney and former Democratic state legislator named Joseph P. Riley Jr. Like the other candidates, he cited crime as a top concern, but his approach was different. "A major cause of crime is the idleness created by our inadequate recreational facilities and programs and our increasing unemployment," Riley wrote in his platform statement for the Evening Post. Riley said he wanted to expand the city's summer job program, build more parks, write special safety codes for commercial districts, and set up storefront police headquarters in neighborhoods — particularly on the historically black Eastside, where he said residents felt "a tremendous amount of alienation" from city police.
It's impossible to say for certain what would have happened if Riley had lost in '75. But imagine how the landscape would look if no one else had adopted the pet projects Riley chose over the course of his career, which is set to end after 40 years in 2015. The Charleston Place Hotel would not have been built to anchor the tourism boom on or around the City Market. Daniel Island would have never been annexed. Blackbaud might have put down roots elsewhere. There would be no S.C. Aquarium, no Crosstown drainage improvement, no Gaillard Auditorium renovation, and (of course) no Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park. And the Town of James Island, whose incorporation was thrice challenged by Riley, might have broken off from Charleston decades earlier.
Reporter Edward Fennell joined the staff of the News & Courier in '75 and joked with the then-newly minted mayor that they'd have to see who lasted longer. Fennell lost. He retired from the Post and Courier in 2012.
Before taking the newspaper job, Fennell worked as a security guard at a downtown office supply store, where he saw the city's crime problem firsthand before spending 20-plus years of his journalism career on the police beat. "It was well known in 1975, nobody was outside on the streets of the peninsula unless you were up to no good," Fennell says. "There was no nightlife downtown. There was nothing going on at the Market ... There were drug dealers and prostitutes operating openly. Shootings were common."
Fennell says the turning point came when Riley hired a new police chief in 1982. "The smartest thing Riley ever did was hire Reuben Greenberg," Fennell says. Greenberg, the city's first African-American police chief, set up bike and horse patrols and made foot-patrol officers switch out their leather-soled shoes for running shoes. He served as chief until 2005, using innovative (and at times controversial) policing tactics overseeing a dramatic turnaround in crime rates. In a prescient moment, Fennel says Greenberg once told him, "I don't stop crime. I just run it up to North Charleston."
In the mid-'80s, Riley pushed city government to allow a developer to build a new hotel, the Omni, in the heart of the peninsula. He invoked the wrath of preservation groups by allowing builders to knock over historic structures in the process, but the resulting hotel — now known as Charleston Place — helped start a new wave of tourism.
"From what I saw, Riley is a very friendly guy," Fennell says. "But behind scenes, he can play hardball."
Even Riley's former political foes say it's hard to imagine Charleston's dramatic turnaround without Riley at the helm. Jimmy Bailey, a commercial realtor and founder of Youth Entrepreneurship South Carolina who ran for mayor in 2003, describes the 1975 election as a coup for young people in Charleston. At the time, Bailey had just graduated college, and his mentor had advised him not to return to the Holy City. He says a young man with no family money or political connections simply didn't have a chance at success in mid-'70s Charleston.
"I think Joe was certainly the right person at the right time. The politics of the country were changing, and Charleston obviously was a little bit slower to grasp the changes in civil rights that were occurring," Bailey says. "But Joe and the young people that were around him understood that. You've got to remember, Joe was 32 years old. It was a changing of the guard."
Riley, the son of a Broad Street insurance magnate, was never exactly a Charleston outsider. Still, his progressive leanings sometimes rankled the old guard. He made headlines in '75 for getting endorsements from black leaders and earning the majority of the black vote. And long before he called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse in 2000, Bailey says Riley detractors were calling him "Little Black Joe" behind his back.
Local NAACP chapter president Dot Scott, rarely one to mince words, chooses her words carefully when she talks about Riley's time in office. With the redevelopment of blighted parts of the peninsula came the gentrification of black neighborhoods, and with the glut of service-industry jobs came the demise of many minority-owned businesses. Still, she commends the Riley administration for its "level of respect" and open-door policy.
Without Riley in the mayor's office, Scott says, "I think that we wouldn't be as much of a tourist city as we are now. Having said that, I would also say that I don't know whether gentrification would have been accelerated because of the goal to build the city with a tourist agenda. I don't know. It's really mixed with me and Riley."
Today, crime is down and high-tech industry is on the way, but Charleston still faces some old demons. Old money still holds sway. Eastside community leaders fear their neighborhood could be swept away in the next wave of development.
But take a bike ride up King Street, catch a RiverDogs game on a hot summer night, and consider, these are the twilight days of the Riley Era.
"My children can stay in Charleston now and get a pretty decent job or start a business and make money," Bailey says. "That just didn't exist before Joe Riley."