Gentrification hits home (and businesses) in Charleston 

A lack of concerted action is slowly changing downtown

You can tell a lot about a city by what its citizens prioritize, and while opposition to the demolition of a decaying, century-old edifice will whip some Charlestonians into a frenzy, the loss of an intergenerational mom-and-pop business or a low-income housing project is met with no more than a shrug of indifference.

Maybe it was around the time that Shoreview was being razed to make way for Longborough that the buzzword "gentrification" started making its way into the Charleston lexicon. It may have been earlier. But at some point during the Lowcountry's last real estate bubble, conscientious voices in the community began raising the issue of lower income residents being displaced from the peninsula by rising property values.

For the most part, those voices fell on deaf ears. After all, homeowners were selling their properties for record profits, and once-dilapidated houses were getting renovated, remodeled, and flipped. People were making money hand over fist, and downtown properties were getting beautified. Never mind that the peninsula was getting a whole lot less racially and socioeconomically diverse, a rising tide was apparently lifting all ships. Any displacement was simply a mild side effect of supply and demand at work, and market forces would eventually correct themselves.

Fast forward to the present day, and the prescience of those early community warnings now seems almost prophetic. With the sale of the building East Bay True Value hardware store sits in, and the closure of the Meeting Street BiLo, Morris Sokol Furniture, and Hughes Lumber, we see that the forces of gentrification are not limited solely to renters or homeowners. Small family-owned businesses are also getting squeezed out from the peninsula as their rents elevate to unaffordable levels or their owners sell out for record sales prices. And the exodus of lower income residents has only increased, making the peninsula much whiter and richer than even five years ago.

How the hell did we get here? In a city where short term rentals are micromanaged, bars are threatened with midnight closings, and termite-ridden shacks are blocked from being demolished, how did hotels, parking lots, and condos come to dominate the real estate food chain? Part of the answer lies in the battles we collectively choose to organize against and fight for as a community, and thus we are all partly to blame. You can tell a lot about a city by what its citizens prioritize, and while opposition to the demolition of a decaying, century-old edifice will whip some Charlestonians into a frenzy, the loss of an intergenerational mom-and-pop business or a low-income housing project is met with no more than a shrug of indifference.

I recently read with wonderment at how a city board has repeatedly denied a property owner the right to demolish his dilapidated Cannon Street property, in part, because of fierce neighborhood opposition. I have seen first-hand how passionate (and even belligerent) some community members were in opposition to the proposed Sergeant Jasper development. If this community put one-tenth as much passion into supporting affordable housing as it did for these issues, our peninsula would be as diverse racially and socioeconomically as it once was. But it doesn't.

The cities which have somewhat ameliorated the negative effects of gentrification have done so through proactive planning and by making a concerted effort to counteract the harshness of pure market forces. According to Next City, a research nonprofit with a mission to inspire positive social economic and environmental change in cities, that planning begins with maintaining a supply of affordable housing. The effort includes using policy tools to protect residents and preserve housing diversity, and by being proactive with developers throughout the planning process. Sitting on the sidelines and hoping the market corrects itself is not an option. When communities and local governments do nothing to stem gentrification, those changes only multiply and become more difficult to rein in. Renters, homeowners, and mom-and-pop shops are pushed out in short order. Hotels beget more visitors in cars, which in turn need more parking, hence the construction of more parking garages. Who needs a supermarket or a hardware store when the same land can yield much more in profit as a high rise?

The recurring loss of family-owned businesses, which had been around for generations, is simply the back end of the gentrification continuum. After that, the entire fabric of downtown becomes unrecognizable as high-priced developments inhabit what was once a diverse economic ecosystem.

As they used to say in Cleveland, we are all witnesses. The real question, as our community continues to change before our eyes, is whether we will work with one another to temper those changes, or whether we will be complicit in those changes by our inaction.


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