Last week, I speculated that Charleston Mayor Joe Riley Jr. might accept President Barack Obama’s challenge to raise the minimum wage, something that other municipalities have done. After all, Riley is a loyal Democrat, and the president is the party’s leader. But when it came time for Riley to deliver his annual State of the City address, he didn’t mention a wage increase. Instead, the mayor’s speech was nothing if not the epitome of PR-governing and a clear indication that what the mayor and his fellow South Carolina Democrats call “progressivism” or “liberalism” is very different from the definition used by Democratic leaders across the rest of the nation.
In his speech, Riley delivered the expected accolades, listed his accomplishments, and took cheap shots at his political enemies. But there was very little in the mayor’s speech that addressed the common people of Charleston, you know, the ones who work hard to make the lives of Holy City elites comfortable.
Instead, the mayor talked about the transformation of Charleston into Silicon Harbor. It bothers me that anyone is even using “Silicon” this way. After all, the term “Silicon Valley” came about at a time when that part of the country actually made physical products (semiconductors) out of actual silicon; today they just make IPOs. If Riley wanted to sound “with it,” perhaps he could have chosen “Thinkfluencer Harbor” or “App City” instead of an outdated and ripped-off name. But I digress.
In regards to Silicon Harbor, Riley touted the successes of several local tech companies who made substantial gains last year. While these success stories deserve the mayor’s attention, it’s rather odd that Riley, who over the years has been portrayed as an evil progressive by the detractors seeking to dethrone him, was more or less content to repeat a host of IPO numbers. He didn’t speak about the pitfalls of transforming the Holy City into the next San Francisco, a place with sky-high rents where private buses — not the public transit system — take loads of microserfs to work.
But these weren’t the only pitfalls that Riley chose to ignore. He also failed to adequately address the rapid growth of our city, a town that is already struggling to deal with the number of people who live, work, and visit it.
As anyone who has tried to get around downtown knows — whether by car, bicycle, or foot — Charleston is a city designed primarily for the 19th century; it simply cannot accommodate the needs of the 21st century. The fact that Riley’s speech did not touch upon this shows a reckless disregard for forward thinking. Instead of addressing the Holy City’s traffic woes, the mayor went on to talk about “modernizing” the city’s drainage system, a problem that has been with Charleston since well before Riley was born. Forward thinking, indeed.
Throughout the speech, the mayor discussed the millions of dollars that had been spent on this project or that initiative as if somehow the numbers themselves justified the expenditures. One of the multimillion dollar projects the mayor spoke of — the proposed International African American Museum — strikes me as misguided. It’s hard to even know where to begin with this project, so I will just relate what Samuel L. Jackson recently told an interviewer: “America is much more willing to acknowledge what happened in the past: ‘We freed the slaves! It’s all good!’ But to say: ‘We are still unnecessarily killing black men’ — let’s have a conversation about that.” If the City of Charleston wishes to truly acknowledge the horrors of the past, let it work on solving the ones affecting the African-American population in the here and now instead.
While Riley eventually mentioned a few matters that didn’t involve making the upper-middle class feel inspired, he managed to give it only the barest of attention. In less than 90 words out of a nearly 3,600-word speech, he mentioned “affordable housing,” but he spoke of it only in connection with one development. Even worse, he took twice as long to discuss the recent rejection of the Coastal Conservation League’s lawsuit against Carnival Cruise Lines. Clearly, there is a lesson to be learned here.
The City of Charleston, the most progressive city in South Carolina, might be on the verge of becoming the next great Southern metropolis, but it’s a ride you can take only if you are one of the lucky few. If you’re poor, you will be, at best, marginalized by the powers that be. More likely, you’ll be completely ignored by Charleston’s future mayors who’ll choose to speak only about a cherry-picked list of successes and not the Holy City’s very real problems.