Cannonborough-Elliotborough: From Blight to Bright 

A downtown neighborhood turns an old garage into a community garden

click to enlarge Students from Earthforce's Youth Action Board spent their MLK holiday prepping a long-ignored plot of land to become a new downtown green space - STRATTON LAWRENCE
  • Stratton Lawrence
  • Students from Earthforce's Youth Action Board spent their MLK holiday prepping a long-ignored plot of land to become a new downtown green space

The neighborhood running parallel to the Crosstown may be run-down in parts, but Cannonborough-Elliotborough is probably the most diverse residential area in Charleston. Blue-collar workers, college students, and young families live side-by-side, and the streets are typically full of people on their porches and mingling on the sidewalk.

What the area doesn't have is a park or central gathering place, so in the summer of 2006, the idea of converting the overgrown lot and City of Charleston-owned garage on Line Street arose at a neighborhood association meeting.

"This is a huge, densely populated area, and every open space is quickly getting bought up and filled in with condos and buildings," says Claire Xidis, an attorney and the chair of the neighborhood's Cleanup and Beautification Committee. "We started looking around at our options for creating a positive, community open space and found this lot with a big tract of land that the City owned that's long been kind of abandoned."

The building was once a storage space for Charleston's sanitation vehicles, and the crumbling brickwork over the large garage doors still show the effect of heightening the entrances when horse-drawn carts gave way to gasoline-powered trucks. It's since been used to store stages for Spoleto Festival U.S.A. and the random piles of bricks and other material that the City doesn't have immediate use for, but doesn't want to throw away. A massive monument to the fallen soldiers of World War I faces the building, waiting for a garden to surround it.

By spring 2007, the neighborhood association demonstrated that they could acquire the human capital to make the project work, and the City's Planning Department gave them a commitment and the go-ahead.

Xidis envisions a garden that includes ornamentals and some edible veggies, framed by an attractive walkway, light posts, and art. Last week, they received a $2,000 grant from Palmetto Pride to build a gate and entryway, which will replace the chain-link fence with a gate wrapped in vines. On Martin Luther King Monday, a group of EarthForce-led volunteers spent the day painting over graffiti on the building, in preparation for a mural they plan to design this month.

"I think that having a mural will be key to the green space," says Anna Richardson, executive director of the environmental service-driven EarthForce. "You can make the garden nice, but having something visually attractive will really draw people in."

About 12 high-school and college students volunteered their time, brainstorming ideas for the mural as they painted the walls bright white. Depictions of different habitats like tundra and rainforests were among the suggestions, as was a giant "Where's Waldo?"

"I wasn't really thinking of sending a message," says Charleston County School of the Arts senior Ally Bing. "I just want people to walk by and say, 'Oh! It looks so much brighter already.' Hopefully this will be something nice to live around."

click to enlarge STRATTON LAWRENCE

When the time comes to paint the mural, Richardson plans to incorporate Mitchell Elementary and Burke High Schools, possibly with a "paint-by-number" plan so everyone can take part. "This is their space," says Richardson. "We want the community invested in it."

Although the final plan includes landscaped rooms and manicured hedges — giving the whole thing the romantic feel of an English garden — planners recognize that the potential for crime in a long-ignored plot of land still exists. Heather Wilson, a local architect, volunteered to draw up an interim plan that will allow the space to grow as more resources become available. Eventually they hope the City will provide lights, and the old garage may someday house nonprofit offices that will double as an extra "eye" on the park.

"To get started, we needed a plan that kept the spirit of the idea, but could be put together with basically no money," says Wilson. "We're using a patchwork of different seeds, rye grasses, flowers, a community garden, and a space for kids. It'll be attractive, accessible, and secure."

The plan leaves space at the back of the lot for construction vehicles and will ready the soil for more extensive planting in the future.

Charleston's government knows the value of greenspace and public land, and has shown enthusiasm for the initiative. "We're thrilled to have the neighborhood's involvement and are really excited to work with them as this develops," says Jane Baker, coordinator of the Office of Neighborhood Services. "There's no definitive plans for the garage, but we have ideas we're starting to flesh out."

By this spring, the planners hope to have flowers planted, a crew of volunteers, and programs like a Saturday morning gardening program for area children up and running. After that, community programs and picnics will commence, and residents will have a relaxing place in the heart of downtown to sit, read, or just watch the birds.

"It's been a long process, but we're really turning a corner," says planner Xidis. "It's been such an eyesore, and it's great to see that graffiti cleaned up. We're really excited to see it become a positive point in the community."

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