Residents in the south end of North Charleston and surrounding areas have been without a major retail grocery store for almost two decades.
Pinehaven Shopping Center on Rivers Avenue, once considered the largest retail complex in South Carolina when it opened in 1958, has seen better and busier days. Later known as Shipwatch Square, it was built before there were any outdoor shopping centers in the city or surrounding area and was a hub for sailors, longshoremen and Navy base workers.
Although North Charleston became its own entity from the city of Charleston in 1972, Black freedmen created the North Area’s first neighborhoods, transforming them from the rice and indigo plantations to predominantly African American communities. Some of those communities — including Liberty Park, Union Heights, Winslow, Silver Hills, Rosemont and Accabee — thrived through the 1960s when neighborhoods touted sporting fields, movie theaters, houses of worship and neighborhood grocery stores.
Now the neighborhoods north of the neck of the Charleston peninsula look a bit different than the days when the old Navy base brought thousands of jobs to the area. With more than 117,000 residents, North Charleston is the third largest city in the state with African Americans making up the majority of the population and Latinx communities quickly on the rise.
In the Union Heights and Chicora-Cherokee neighborhoods, residents have gone without a major chain grocery store after Winn-Dixie in Pinehaven closed in 2005 when the retailer declared bankruptcy across the state. Since then, many area residents have largely relied on local food drives and grassroots organizations for food, and while many say they are grateful, they often get items that aren’t healthy or can’t make full, well-rounded meals.
When nonprofit Fresh Future Farm (FFF) took over a space on Success Street near the old Chicora Elementary School in 2016 and created a neighborhood grocery store, residents had already been struck with the debilitating blow of living in a food desert for a decade. FFF told the City Paper it’s expanding operations to an additional rural location, but will remain on Success Street as long as possible on a month-to-month lease.
Many residents live on a fixed income and often don’t have transportation, relying on the bus system or ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, which can be expensive — if a driver accepts the ride in the neighborhood at all.
Outside of the urban farm, residents have to travel at least three miles to the nearest Save-A-Lot on Durant Avenue, or even further for better options in West Ashley or further up Dorchester Road for Food Lion and Rivers Avenue for a Walmart.
According to North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson, the problem lies therein with grocery retailers. He said the city has offered incentives to many grocery chains to move into the unoccupied spaces, but stores refuse.
“We’ve offered them the land and even offered to pay them to come, but they go off of the income of the residents and a few other metrics, and they just don’t see it as an opportunity,” he said.
Neighborhood residents and community workers believe there’s more at play, however, and see the lack of a grocery store as an intentional act, a distant echo from the past coming back to loudly haunt them.
In 1962, the construction of Interstate 26 began. It was built directly through Union Heights and other communities in the area, displacing Black families in the neighborhood and all along the full stretch of the highway. Now, North Charleston residents who were taken advantage of decades ago feel they’re being pushed out once again thanks to the planned billion dollar widening of Interstate 526 and the rise of costly new housing and businesses being built in the area alongside the revitalization of the naval shipyard.
“The [interstate] cuts totally through Black areas in the entire state,” said one resident who wished to remain anonymous. “It was an artery for the state that cut directly through Black communities. As the surrounding industries leave as the highways are built, the areas become more depressed.
“The Navy base pulled out and once again, showed how Charleston has historically put too many eggs in its one basket. For example, agriculture and slavery: Once slavery was abolished, there was no longer an economic drive. The same thing happened with textiles next, and then the port and bases with contractors right behind them.”
When trade jobs came and left, so did the opportunity for building generational wealth in those Black communities. Now in these areas there are only a handful of fast food spots and low-wage jobs, exacerbating poverty and crime, perpetuating a stereotype that makes it easy for developers to move in and take over the communities under the guise of revitalization.
But nearby in Park Circle, there has been massive reinvigorating efforts in the past few years, bringing in new residents, businesses, apartments and condos. The neighborhood has also received $45 million to revamp Danny Jones Gym and build a new inclusive city playground.
While residents of the Park Circle community see positive change with action and money from the city, their neighbors aren’t seeing changes or similar benefits. What they are seeing are rapid increases in their rent and residential displacement.
Nathalie Purnell has lived in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood for more than 20 years, and has seen the changes of gentrification. She primarily relies on Fresh Future Farm for her fresh food, but also for other household goods and resources that it provides.
“Even though we had Winn-Dixie, at some point the food stopped being good quality,” Purnell said. “And a lot of it was sold in bulk.”
Residents question why there aren’t more convenient lower-priced stores like Aldi, Lidl or IGA.
Johnson in the mayor’s office said the lack of a grocery store has been something the city has been working on for years. He said it hopes by building affordable housing, a major retailer will come to the area. However, only about 20% of the affordable housing that would be built would be for low-income residents, meaning that 80% of the current residents would have to find a new place to go.
It also leaves residents wondering how affordable the housing would actually be — most of the housing being built for sale in the areas that are being considered affordable, are upwards of $200,000, nowhere near what people can actually afford. Residents who have literally built the communities from the ground up, just want to be a part of the growth and change that is happening in their communities and have access to not only necessities like grocery stores in their neighborhoods, but conveniences and a better life that they’ve been working toward for years.
“We’re not trying to take something that’s reprehensible,” said the anonymous resident. “We should be proud of where we are from and we should be able to demand more.”
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