As you walk around the Charleston Rhizome Collective’s massive installation, “You Bet ‘N Me ‘N Me ‘N You,” you’ll find a lot of familiar storefronts. A representation of the peninsula’s tiny businesses, the installation features mini replicas of spots like Monarch Wine Shop, Fresh Cuts Barbershop, Veggie Bin, Poke San, Rose Florist. And of course there’s a mini Fast & French, the restaurant opened by Rhizome Collective members Gwylene Gallimard and Jean-Marie Mauclet (and currently owned by two former employees, Jennifer Bremer and Lawrence Mitchell).
“It’s all tiny businesses in town that we work with,” explains Mauclet as he walks around the large wooden structure housing all the businesses replicas. You can even step up onto a riser and look down into the businesses, perhaps peeping what’s going on in the offices of the Charleston Chronicle.
The Rhizome Collective is a grassroots organization — they describe themselves as “inter-generational and inter-racial by design” — currently focusing on conNECKtedTOO, a project of art and culture within in the community for economic development. If that sounds like an ambitious task, well, it is. And the Collective is happy to take it on.
“We hope that this is going to stimulate some thoughts about tiny businesses in Charleston and the importance of their presence in neighborhoods, which is dwindling now,” says Mauclet of the installation, which will be on display at the Cannon Street Arts Center throughout Piccolo Spoleto.
Rhizome Collective member and tiny business coordinator Theron Snype notes that there are still people in this city who want to make a living by owning their own businesses. “Everybody’s dream is not to become Bill Gates,” he says. “Some folks want to support their families or live out something that’s a passion of theirs. There’s one guy that has always wanted to have a place to sell pizza. As simple as that. He doesn’t want to be Pizza Hut.”
“We still have a choice between working for Publix and having the possibility of tiny business,” adds Mauclet. “We’re not all dependent on big business — we want to destroy that myth.”
The installation is just the tip of the iceberg (albeit a large tip) when it comes to conNECKtedTOO’s involvement with Piccolo Spoleto. There are a number of associated events, from a guided scavenger hunt of the MLK District to an interactive tour and performance in the alleys of Spring streets. There’s a knowledge walk, designed to provide high school students with info about growing as artists, athletes, and entrepreneurs. And, perhaps most intriguing, is conNECKtedTOO’s interactive map.
The map features street names and addresses and their associated businesses as of today, as well as in the years 1998 and 1968. The Collective is working on a mobile app where people can walk the streets of their city and learn its history, but for now you can snag a print version of the map at various businesses around town. If you can fill in a blank with your own knowledge, even better.
The map focuses on the MLK district in Charleston, centrally located in the Cannonborough/Elliotborough neighborhoods and on Spring and Cannon streets. In 1999, council member Wendell Gilliard established an ordinance to name Spring and Cannon streets the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial District, identifiable today via two signs hanging on either side of the district.
The Collective chose to focus on this particular area of town because of its historical significance for African American owned businesses. “Years after a lot of these businesses disappeared, the area is still significant enough to be designated the MLK corridor,” says Snype, who says that as a kid growing up in Charleston he and his friends would shop on these streets, passing by African American owned law offices and pharmacies.
In a recent conNECKtedTOO newsletter, Moore writes about the importance of the MLK corridor, referencing Neill Bogan’s work, Rehearsing the Past: “What does it take for African-American memory to find a physical space to show itself on the peninsula of Charleston? … The question soon transformed, what will space for African-American memory mean in a locale in which there is no more space for African-American life?”
The answer, perhaps, can be found in the work of conNECKtedTOO.
At the foundation of everything that the Collective does is a mission statement. “That wasn’t accomplished overnight,” laughs Snype, pointing to a swath of poster-size paper covering a wall in Mauclet and Gallimard’s home studio. And while Mauclet and Gallimard disagree on exactly how long it took to narrow down a mission statement (he says a year, she balks and offers “three months!”), the general consensus is that, at the end of the day, community comes first.
“Having those strong guiding principles is what attracted me to the work,” says Victoria Rae Moore, the Collective’s program facilitator and a local entrepreneur. “The project [conNECKtedTOO] is art in and with the community,” stresses Moore. “It’s not art for the community. The foundation is the people and the relationships and conversations we’re able to have.”
You Bet ‘N Me ‘N Me Bet ‘N You is on display throughout the festival at Cannon Street Arts Center, 134 Cannon St. You can find the full schedule of Charleston Rhizome events online at connecktedtoo.org.