In the 40 or more years I’ve been a downtown resident, I’ve seen the peninsula change a lot. My generation has lived through segregation, integration, and now gentrification. I think those three things are all the same. They each promote superficial rather than substantial change.
Like everything else in my day, downtown has remained very much the same through it all.
During segregation there was separate housing, businesses, schools, churches, restaurants, hotels, you name it. About the only thing blacks and whites did together was work. But even that was segregated since there were separate work, lounge, and lunch areas for the respective races.
Birth and sickness were segregated things back in the day. Blacks either were born at home or in old Roper Hospital, which sat at the current site of the MUSC parking garage on Barre Street. Black patients were on one floor, white patients on another. I got sick from eating lead paint once and had a brief stay at old Roper. We couldn’t even go play with the white kids.
Death, on the other hand, has remained constant through all three phases of the evolution of equality downtown. White folks still get buried by white-owned funeral homes and black folks still get buried by black-owned funeral homes.
The first home I remember downtown was the Cooper River Courts housing complex on America Street. Public housing was segregated — blacks lived in Cooper River Courts or the Gadsden Green housing complex on President Street and whites lived in either Kiawah Homes on Mount Pleasant Street, Meeting Street Manor on Meeting Street (across from the Crisis Ministries homeless shelter), or Robert Mills Manor on Beaufain Street.
Integration, unfortunately, did nothing to bring people together downtown. Actually, it did just the opposite. Integration in this deep Southern, ultra-conservative community was legal segregation. It manifested itself through white flight.
Communities, for the most part, remained pretty much exclusive. Downtown was actually split in half racially, with most whites living south of Calhoun Street and most blacks living north of it.
Many white residents who lived north of Calhoun Street moved to West Ashley or Mt. Pleasant, forcing change in traditional communities like Maryville, Ashleyville, Avondale, and the Old Village in Mt. Pleasant.
We’ve made substantial changes in how we live, if not where.
Today, just as many black kids are born at Roper Hospital as white kids. They are all cared for in the same pediatric unit. Of course, we still face a segregated death.
Blacks downtown go to segregated schools, though kids in communities West Ashley, North Charleston, and some neighborhoods of Mt. Pleasant go to school together. What is it about downtown that resists change so stubbornly?
About the only thing that has changed downtown is how its residents spend their money. We can go to the same restaurants and hotels now, if that’s any consolation.
Like its predecessors, gentrification is fostering change, but I think many blacks downtown see gentrification as a continuation of integration.
The failure of integration and now gentrification is that they have each maintained the upper class/lower class status quo on the peninsula.
For my money, both should have facilitated economic declassification. Until that happens, there will never be a homogeneous peninsula, West Ashley, North Charleston, or Mt. Pleasant community. That, I think, should be the case.