The sun rises on Gadsden Creek.
A cardinal flits from a juniper branch to land on a cedar. Spartina grass sways in the breeze. Fiddler crabs scurry from their homes tunneled into pluff mud, the fecund sediment that buffers Lowcountry tidal creeks. A blue crab patrols creek bottom. Wide-mouthed mud minnows feed at the surface.
This is Gadsden Creek, or what is left of it. Seventy-five years ago, 100 acres of healthy marsh flanked the Ashley River next to the Westside neighborhood nestled just north of the Crosstown. Now, 4 acres of wetlands remain. Cranes tower nearby in a daily frenzy of vertical construction, part of the multi-phased WestEdge development, a conglomerate of mixed-use buildings including luxury apartments with rooftop pools, boutique salons, sushi restaurants, office space, and facilities yet to be determined. Developers seek to fill what remains of Gadsden Creek, arguing that the creek is too polluted to be saved. But the citizen group Friends of Gadsden Creek calls bullshit. Passions run high, as they should with the fate of wetlands and habitat at stake.
Forever marred by Charleston’s past and at odds with its future, can Gadsden Creek be saved?
A history lesson: cash in the bank
The Friends of Gadsden Creek are a motley crew: water quality advocates, scientists, hydrologists, a prominent estuarine ecologist, activists, politicians, writers, environmental engineers, biologists, educators — in short, a growing number of concerned citizens determined to speak for a creek.
The proposed WestEdge development abuts one of Charleston’s largest remaining African-American communities downtown, Gadsden Green, known a century ago as Fiddler’s Green. At the turn of the 19th century, residents of “the Green” enjoyed autonomy and a close relationship with the waterfront. Houses and apartments dotted the creek, with docks for fishing and crabbing, a lumber wharf, working slaughterhouse, and accessible waterways for traditional baptisms. The tight-knit community had everything it needed to be self-sufficient: navigable water access, job opportunities, a school, and majority private ownership of land. The area looked much like any 19th century block in Charleston, with storefronts, modest single-family homes, and freedman cottages.
From the 1930s through the 1970s, the city seized parts of the Green, first of a large swath of privately owned homes, then of its waterfront. In the late 1930s, using federal funds for the creation of public housing, Mayor Burnet Maybank announced what was termed a “Slum-Clearance Project.” Was Gadsden Green a “slum” to be “cleared”? Not according to its residents, who wrote a letter in March 1940 imploring the mayor, Henry Lockwood, not to seize their property, 80 percent of which houses were said to be in good repair.
“We the undersigned Citizens and Free-holders … are respectable, honest, hard-working people … mechanics, artisans, school teachers, and others who have definite ways of supporting themselves. This is the largest group of Colored property owners in any single area in the City of Charleston. If we are forced to give up our homes at this time, it will be the greatest tragedy to befall an unfortunate people. … There is not another single area in Charleston available to Colored people where so large a group can purchase or build homes, and the few places that are available to our group are prohibitive in the purchase price. ….”
In the end, the city seized the property to build housing projects, constructing tenements in 1941–42, then seizing more land in yet another “urban renewal project,” adding a brick extension in 1968. Over that time, the city turned the community’s marsh into a municipal dump. Children who once played in creeks now played on trash heaps. Truckload upon truckload filled the marsh with construction debris, bottles, bricks, boards, tires, and other bulky refuse. The “land reclamation program” ramped up in 1956, praised by Mayor William Morrison as “splendid progress” and “a ready and liquid asset.” Adding salt to the community’s wound, Morrison then terminated the African-American annual agricultural fair on nearby Harmon Field, referring to the cultural gathering as “unsightly,” and insisting that it “should no longer take place in this improved area.”
By 1958, the landfill was going strong. Thrilled, Morrison told the city’s Ways and Means Committee: “We are reclaiming more than 100 acres of marshland in the area between Spring Street and The Citadel on the Ashley River waterfront. Numerous suggestions have been made as to the uses to which these properties should be put … We are now producing through landfill development an average of 15 plus acres per year, when converted into cash means one-half-million dollars per year in city assets which, as I have said before, and I say again, is cash in the bank.”
After roughly 96 percent of the wetlands were filled with garbage, the feds came knocking, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers outlining procedures to cap the dump and the Department of Justice threatening action over violation of the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act. Running out of space for the city’s trash, Mayor Palmer Gaillard is said to have requested permission to continue dumping on Gadsden Green’s doorstep.
When the Crosstown was built in 1968, the city chose not to connect its new drainage tunnel to the Gadsden Green community, leaving what was left of the creek to serve as a drainage basin. The landfill was capped in 1971. Over time, streets that were built over the former marshland settled by as much as two feet, and now when heavy rains coincide with high tides, the neighborhood floods badly enough that some intersections become impassable. Gadsden Creek, or what remains of it, does its best to absorb runoff and flush it into the Ashley River. But it needs help.
WestEdge developers first proposed to fill Gadsden Creek in 2015. Outcry among local environmental groups was immediate. Andrew Wunderley, Charleston’s current Waterkeeper, worked to classify Gadsden Creek’s wetlands as a “critical area,” ensuring that any attempts to alter or fill the creek would be subject to intense scrutiny and a robust permitting process. The Coastal Conservation League explored restoration and mitigation opportunities and championed both a new drainage system and new Crosstown intersection to benefit Gadsden Green residents. Cyrus Buffum, Charleston’s past Waterkeeper and a co-founder of Friends of Gadsden Creek, has attended public hearings, met with city officials, engaged in conversations with scientists, engineers, activists, congressmen, and residents, met and debated with developers, lobbied for the removal of obstructions to water flow, and determined to fight for the creek’s restoration.
Initially, every environmental group on the peninsula seemed hellbent on protecting and restoring the creek. But by 2018, both Waterkeeper and the Coastal Conservation League had grown silent on the matter. Their lack of opposition to the filling of the creek coincided with WestEdge’s revised application to mitigate onsite environmental impacts by pledging $1.5 million toward the conservation of wetlands seven miles upriver.
Per Wunderley, Waterkeeper’s change in tune did not come quickly or easily. On the one hand, he explains, it’s important to differentiate between a naturally formed tidal creek and, in this case, tidal influence that “reclaimed” a poorly constructed and ill-maintained drainage channel in a former landfill. Wunderley cites three environmental water quality assessments that showed evidence of contamination, including pesticides and toxic metals that could impact adjacent waterways and taint the species that swim or feed in the creek.
Friends of Gadsden Creek argue that although the creek has indeed been altered and choked, it is a resilient wetland in need of help and protection. WestEdge developers’ assertion that the creek is polluted beyond repair does not hold weight for Friends co-founder Joshua Robinson, a hydrologist and environmental engineer. “I have yet to see a detailed water quality analysis proving any toxicity. Furthermore, Brittlebank Park and the Joe [baseball stadium] were both built on the same landfill. If it’s that bad, shouldn’t we be worried about levels of toxicity leaching into the Ashley River? I think the pollution claim is just a convenient way to create alarm.”
Robinson specializes in restoring or “daylighting” urban creeks, many of which were dumping grounds. “The first tidal ecosystems to be restored were in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1950s, and those were all city dumps,” says Robinson. “In many cities along the coast, especially New York and Boston, land was created by filling in marsh ecosystems with trash, and now cities are excavating that trash and restoring ecosystems. It can be done.”
So, could developers spend the money it would take to funnel the creek into a buried, boxed culvert, plus that $1.5 million for mitigation, to clean up the creek and create an urban greenway, resulting in a beautiful feeder creek that would wind through proposed buildings?
“In order to restore a tidal system on the creek,” Wunderley says, “You would have to destroy what’s there now, excavate the entire area, install an impermeable barrier [to block pollutants] with a proper support structure underground, then engineer a tidal system on top. Really what you would end up with is a facsimile of a creek: some kind of canal with hard structures on either side of the bank interspersed with transplanted spartina grass. It would have aesthetic value, but not a lot of conservation value.”
Still, would a restored creek be preferable to a completely subverted one? Wouldn’t a greenway, even if reengineered and relocated, eventually become critical habitat for aquatic species and migratory birds? Couldn’t a tidal channel, with walking and bike paths, be an asset to residents of a new development, one that could also be used by the Aquarium for interpretive programming or by education experts like USC’s Dr. Merrie Koester, who has developed multiple curricula using Gadsden Creek as an outdoor classroom?
“I personally can’t bear the irony,” says Robinson, “of the fact that I’ve been working for several years in Columbia, South Carolina, to resurrect a creek that was put in a pipe in the 1950s, yet here in my hometown of Charleston, which is supposed to be one of the most progressive and forward-thinking communities in the Southeast, we’re actually thinking of putting a tidal creek into a pipe, on our historic peninsula no less.”
Who speaks for the creek?
Right now, WestEdge’s application to fill the creek sits before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and DHEC’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM). Multiple agencies have filed their opposition, including South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through its National Marine Fisheries Service. Recently, the Army Corps mailed letters to Westside property owners inviting additional public comment, but many residents feel this is a hollow gesture to mask a done deal.
Hesitant to “stir trouble,” Gadsden Green residents interviewed for this story declined to give their names.
When asked for a reaction to the idea that Gadsden Creek may soon be filled and built upon, one matriarch living across from the creek said, “The city’s plans didn’t happen overnight. Now they’re coming to reality. With the size of a project like that, and with as much money as they have, my comments won’t mean much. Whatever they’re gonna do, it’s going to be done whether we disagree or not.”
A corner-store owner echoed this sentiment, “If we think there’s anything we can do to slow down the locomotive, we are being foolish.” A young mother said, “Go ahead! Let them build!” But her husband interrupted, “Wait a minute. What about the loss of habitat? I saw a grey fox on the edge of the creek just the other day. What would happen to him?”
Gadsden Green residents seemed mostly concerned that, with large-scale development, much of what is currently low ground will become high ground, exacerbating current flooding issues. Barbara Gathers, who grew up on Allway Street, says that streets never flooded when she was growing up, “but now the teachers at Charleston Development Academy have to park their cars and practically swim to school.”
There’s also concern over gentrification. “I think of all those new apartments and offices they want to build,” says Gathers, “and those people who will not want to look out their windows and look down at public housing. What is going to happen to Gadsden Green? That bothers me a whole lot. Several years ago, the city removed public housing on the Eastside, claiming then that the soil was contaminated, and now they’re talking about the creek being polluted. I’m thinking history is repeating itself. This is just another hoax to get rid of residents in a predominantly all-black area.”
Buffum, the Friends of Gadsden Creek co-founder, is one of the people fighting to have people’s voices heard. “What’s been proposed is a continuation of the city’s pattern of taking from this community. As real estate becomes more valuable, there’s a land grab, in my opinion. If DHEC/OCRM and Army Corps grant this permit, the creek becomes upland real estate to be developed on the backs of a public resource. Nothing they are doing here warrants the destruction of the invaluable ecosystem that WestEdge has the hubris to call a ditch.”
“This is a symbolic opportunity, as a city, for us to take another path,” says Buffum. “How do we address past wrongs and begin to make right? How to we stitch back together the relationship between communities and the natural world? What could happen if we gave the natural environment the energy that we’re putting into construction right now? Those are the kinds of conversations we need to be having. But I fear that, in my 10 years of working in conservation, I’m waking up to this realization that much of environmental advocacy in the Lowcountry exists to further protect already privileged populations.”
Meanwhile, the sun hangs low over the Ashley River. Sea oxeye daisies bloom at the high tide line of the creek. An egret swoops in to stalk the shallows for juvenile fish. A diamondback terrapin turtle surfaces for an instant, spooks, then dives back down to safety. Swallows crest overhead, and a brown thrush preens on the branch of a live oak.
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