On a recent Sunday afternoon, Spring Street was mostly quiet. But if you listened hard and long enough, you could have heard the entire Good News for People Who Love Bad News album by the indie rock band Modest Mouse twinkling through the open windows of Sweet Radish, a new gluten-free bakery that just opened on the corner. Across the street, a man in paint-splattered pants who was renovating a house bummed a cigarette from a woman playing with her phone at a bus stop. Up the street, a body piercing parlor is about to open near the Continuum skate shop. A block further is First Class Cuts, a small barbershop made out of bricks with a spray-painted mural on its side that’s out-of-place nature has probably launched a thousand selfies. Behind it, a newish three-story modern town home with frosted glass and a roof deck is selling for $600,000. This is Cannonborough-Elliottborough, a diverse, high-density residential neighborhood that’s sometimes called the gateway to Charleston’s peninsula.
There’s a running debate in this onetime wetland that’s now a unique neighborhood home to corner stores, bakeries, yoga studios, hipsters, art galleries, older black families, religious institutions, and Charleston singles that run from the dilapidated to the decadent. Is it downtown? The demarcation lines are clear. The bustling Crosstown is its northern border, Morris Street boxes it in to the South with President Street its eastern boundary, and King Street to the West.
For Mary Miller, a retired science reference librarian who has lived on the 50 block of Bogard Street since 2005, it doesn’t feel like she lives “downtown.” She’s having a morning coffee with her friend Peggy Clement at Brown’s Court Bakery on St. Philip Street. The bakery is near Warehouse, a hip, new restaurant recently featured in The Week magazine. Clement grew up in the neighborhood and used to sell popcorn and ice cream at a five-and-dime store nearby. She had a hard time finding Brown’s Court that morning — the neighborhood looks so different each time she comes back. In the 1950s and ’60s she lived on Coming Street when it was a middle-class black neighborhood and the schools were segregated. Her family paid $6,000 for their house back then, and it last sold, Clement says, for more than half a million. She doesn’t live here anymore, but each time she comes through for a visit she’s taken aback.
“It’s just a whole different mentality,” she says. “It’s changing. I don’t like to come down too much. But what can you do? What are you going to do?”
Cannonborough-Elliottborough might not necessarily be changing as much as it’s already changed. And it depends on how far back you want to go when trying to notch a mark on its shifting demographics.
Take the story of Chris Maloney, a middle-aged businessman in a fedora who runs an online vintage clothing company among other ventures and says he was basically “the only white dude” when he moved into a house on St. Philip Street in 1997. Back then almost every house on the street was vacant or boarded up, and as a woodworker he didn’t have a problem fixing up his own. These days nearly every house on his street is occupied.
Cannonborough and Elliotborough are two neighborhoods that function as one in the Old City Historic District.
“They still call the neighborhood transitional. I don’t understand that,” he says in a coffee shop, scrolling through his iPhone for city emails about a proposed parking garage in the neighborhood that he’s not too happy about. “It transitioned. It’s transitioning again.”
Maloney is talking about the influx of college kids. This fall, about a dozen neighborhood residents sounded off during a Charleston City Council meeting, running a train on town leaders with personal anecdotes about the Animal House atmosphere of the neighborhood’s nightlife. Many attributed it to the proliferation of area bars staying open until 2 a.m. and the drunken hijinks that occur in the wild hours after last call. One evening during this fall semester a parade of young bros loudly marched to and from a house party dressed in togas. Beer cans often litter the street, and that ubiquitous college town “WOOO!” fills the late-night hours from Thursday through Saturday. One early morning in September, a police officer had to wake up a young man who was passed out in the middle of busy Spring Street and couldn’t remember where he lived. But there’s a subtext to such talk about what time local bars should close: more college students are living in Cannonborough-Elliottborough than in years past, and more of them are slowly making their way north as rental properties become available and affordable.
“When I was fixing my house up [in the late ’90s] people were buying the empty houses and fixing them up, and they were typically planning to live there,” Maloney says. “They planned on raising a family. Some had a kid on the way. That lasted for a few years — maybe five. Then college kids started moving in.”
Maloney, who is also the chairman of the neighborhood association’s livability committee, now has the only owner-occupied home on his entire block. And most of the problems he hears on the committee come from rental properties, he says.
Here comes a gentrifier
Cathy Spells, who has run the First Class Cuts barbershop on Spring Street for 17 years, says she remembers when the neighborhood was mostly black families. It’s a recent Tuesday morning and she’s leaning back in one of her hairstyling chairs, doing her weekly Bible study with two Jehovah’s Witnesses. On this morning their reading of scripture turns toward Spells’ feelings about the neighborhood.
“It’s just changed right in front of my eyes,” she says, adding that a decade and a half ago it seemed like everyone in the neighborhood was black, like she is. “Now most of my neighbors are white, and I have to make friends with them too. And there’s nothing wrong with that because now I have a combination of both.”
The little barbershop stands out on Spring Street. Its bright mural, bricks, and iron bars on the door and windows give it a gritty, old-school inner city look amid the slick new modern-looking shops. Tourists who make their way from Upper King will sometimes poke their heads inside or pose for Instagrams in front of the mural on the building’s side. Two furniture dealers on holiday from Finland recently popped in with cameras that never seemed to stop flashing.
When first developed, the area “became home to the ‘common Charlestonian’ — a diverse mix of immigrants, freed slaves, and lower-class workers.”
“What you were just talking about, the neighborhood changing, it goes back to the scripture,” says Spells’ friend DeLoris, quickly thumbing through the pages of a little Bible. “And now, as you said, you’ve got caucasians around too, and you’re getting to know them. This is just having the mind of Christ — of being friendly with everyone.”
That same morning, up the block in the coffee shop, Maloney’s face crinkles up at the term gentrification.
“It’s re-gentrification,” he says of the neighborhood. “From the 1850s through the turn of the century, this neighborhood was basically people of German, Polish, and Jewish ancestry. And then during the Depression and after World War II, you had people moving out of the city, and it went to largely African American. Now it’s just changing back to something similar to what it was 80 to 100 years ago. I don’t understand the term gentrification. That says you’re taking something and changing it from what it wasn’t.”
Claire Xidis, a local lawyer and past president of the Cannonborough-Elliottborough Neighborhood Association, is on one of her evening walks, pushing her newborn daughter in a stroller. She moved to the area 10 years ago this week. She’s a real booster for the place. Pointing to two houses on a corner near her home, she says back when she and her husband first moved in they were boarded up vacant husks. Now one is a nice-looking single family home and the other is Trattoria Lucca, a high-end Italian restaurant well known throughout the Lowcountry.
“People say gentrification is a big issue, but I think what we’ve seen in our neighborhood is boarded up empty, and now it’s a really great contribution to the neighborhood, and that’s because of people investing, but in a careful, caring way,” she says. “They really take their time. They’re not flipping it. They’re investing but are in it for the long run.”
Bogard Street is a good example of the current atmosphere in this part of the Old City Historic District. It was settled in the mid-1700s and boomed when immigrants from the Northeast came down to work in the commercial shipping industry after the rice trade started to dry up. Now, many houses are undergoing some kind of renovation along the tree-lined streets. George Gallery recently opened on the corner of Bogard and Ashe streets in an old building that used to house a corner store that had basically been falling down for a decade. These days in the evenings the art gallery brightens up the corner with soft light through big glass windows. When the gallery holds events the whole block comes alive.
Vacant or dilapidated buildings in the neighborhood can be traced to “white flight” that took a toll on the neighborhood the ’70s and ’80s.
“Everyone knows Spring and Cannon are going through this big commercial revitalization, but I think what’s really special about our neighborhood is on a street like Bogard you’re seeing the mixed use really come back to life,” Xidis says. She pauses at Porter’s Court, a kind of hidden little brick-road alleyway that dead-ends off Bogard and features a small, whimsical garden. Some of the homes on the tiny street are part of an affordable housing initiative sponsored by a nonprofit where buyers must make less than a certain income cap. The initiative helps retain middle class residents. Some of them have planted lettuce under little greenhouses in their side yards, and you might notice the citrus smell of orange trees nearby.
A few years ago, Xidis was getting worried as the real estate bubble was still growing. Investors started coming in and buying houses in the neighborhood they could flip and fill with college kids, she says. But after the housing bubble burst, a silver lining emerged: young couples started buying again because they could.
“It’s still relatively affordable,” she says. “You can buy a fixer-upper or buy a lot and build something small and modest but efficient and make it work.”
There will be leeks
About four years ago, the the City of Charleston hired an Atlanta firm to study Cannonborough-Elliottborough and conduct what’s called an Area Character Appraisal. Released in August 2009 and financed in part with federal funds from the U.S. Parks Service and the Department of the Interior, the report attempts to nail down the physical characteristics of the neighborhood, as well as the cultural aspects of its community and its historical and architectural context within Charleston. Basically, the ACA was one form of a development study.
As part of the background of the neighborhood, the report noted Cannonborough-Elliottborough’s history was in blue-collar workers and ethnic groups, “rather than famous historical figures, premier families, and high-style mansions. It is a history of the common Charlestonian, rather than the elite.” And it’s an area of the the city, the ACA stated, that is not well documented.
Local industry in the neighborhood was shipping, rail, lumber, tanneries, and foundries.
One of its recommendations was to add more park space, especially to the neighborhood’s interior. Because most of the houses are on small lots, many don’t have much yard space. Those who do tend to take care of them, and instead of public parks, what the neighborhood has are private little hideaways that can kind of make a passerby looking for green space a little envious.
Maloney, who has a 12-year-old, says he’d love to be able to go somewhere in the neighborhood where they could kick a ball around. They usually have to go to Marion Square. He’s afraid the city has been ignoring the ACA’s recommendation — and how to handle vacant lots — which brings him back to the proposed parking garage on St. Philip.
Residents say one of the gems of the neighborhood, though, is Elliottborough Park, which opened a few years ago after some locals, including Xidis, met with the mayor’s staff about what they could do with a space formerly occupied by an old city truck garage that borders the Crosstown. They got some grant money, and now it’s a small park with swings, a slide, monkey bars, and a wooden stage. Behind it are several plots, part of a community garden. On a recent Tuesday a young couple were bent over with their hands in the soil, planting arugula, mustard greens, fennel, and bok choy. In the coming days, the man said, beaming as he stood up, there will be leeks.
Back at Brown’s Court Bakery, Mary Miller and Peggy Clement are lamenting the decline of the American middle class. They worry what’s happening in Manhattan — a widening gulf of the very rich and the very poor — is also happening in Charleston. And, to bring it all back around, to Cannonborough-Elliottborough. They’re afraid the South of Broad mentality, where some houses are occupied just a few weeks a year, is creeping north. What kind of community does that leave? Miller asks rhetorically.
“I look at it maybe as a contrarian,” she says. “This is the number-one tourist destination in the world. There’s only one other way to go, and that’s down. And how long will this, I’ll call it a fad, continue?”
Clement, a retired school teacher, says that might take a while. But she jerks a thumb toward a new modern townhome development next to the bakery where units sell for more than half a million dollars.
“I don’t call those middle class,” she says, adding that the sight of them next to the small Charleston singles can’t help but annoy her.
“I want some familiarity,” she says. “Charleston’s becoming high end … when I moved back I couldn’t afford to move down here.”