Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Sustaining the Beauty and Vitality of Charleston for All Its Citizens 

12-09-2015 17:35

This morning I will talk for a while about Charleston. As you know, Charleston is a very old American city; it was built before the automobile and the elevators. And people like you had the courage in the early 20th century to save Charleston’s built environment that the industrial revolution hadn’t destroyed, because we didn’t have any economic activity after the Civil War. Your work gave the future generation the remarkable beauty and human scale of Charleston. But Charleston is not a theme park, it is not a movie set; and it was filled with all the opportunities to make mistakes.

The main thing is to keep the bad things from happening. In the 1950s the city demolished the beautiful historic Charleston Hotel where the National Democratic Convention of 1860 met. It was demolished because community leaders knew that to be a great city you needed a drivein motel. Every great city had to have a drive-in motel. Thankfully the ugly motel is not there any longer either.

Affordable Housing

But what we have tried to do is not to make mistakes. When work started in poor sections of our community in the 1950s and ’60s, affordable housing was as ugly as sin, usually with a cyclone fence around it so you would know it wasn’t very safe, and you wouldn’t want to live there anyway. We were determined to build beautiful affordable housing. There is no excuse to ever allow anything to be built in our communities that isn’t beautiful. If it doesn’t add to the beauty of the community, it shouldn’t be built.

Years ago, when we got a grant for a new public housing project, I said to the housing director, no, we aren’t going to do any more “projects.” They don’t work. They ignore all the accumulated lessons of Western civilization. They ignore human feelings and neighborhood scale. We are not going to build these brick monoliths anymore. We are going to scatter affordable housing throughout the neighborhoods. Well, the housing department reluctantly agreed. So then we debated about where to put them. We hired architects, they came up with designs, they were ugly as sin. We fired them, we got some other architects to do it.

What we finally built didn’t cost any more than the ugly stuff. We scattered it in the neighborhoods; it looked like it belonged there. People who lived there had very nice homes.

When these opened, I was at a party, and a server came up to me and said, “Mayor Riley, I want to thank you. Because on Monday I’m moving into 7 Marion Street, and it’s so beautiful.” And I thought then, the word “beautiful” is not usually applied to public housing. Yet we must have a commitment to make everything beautiful.

One new affordable apartment building was in a neighborhood that was kind of run down. Market-rate housing soon followed, around the corner more housing went in. One building, good urban design, very poor people, well managed it became a catalyst for the restoration of the entire neighborhood.

We worked hard to keep the bulldozers out of our poorer neighborhoods. Every time we let something come down, we are forever taking away a memory. Communities need memories. People need memories. And so we worked hard to keep the bulldozers out. It cost money and it wasn’t easy.

In the regeneration of our cities we want to make sure that we have places that are affordable. And as we succeed in restoring our communities, we don’t want to lose the diversity. When we make our cities more beautiful, we want to make sure that people of all backgrounds and incomes have a chance to enjoy them.

Often people say, “It’s just housing for poor people, for crying out loud.” We said, "No, we are going to make it beautiful, as beautiful as we make anything in our city."

Corners are critical because they can become a virus. A vacant corner causes the virus to spread. Once you lose the corner, you lose the entire block forever.

Main Streets

The greatest and hardest challenge is to maintain our main streets, our public center. We need to remember what we keep fighting for. It is the buildings, the tax base and the jobs to be sure, but the public realm is what every culture needs. It is what towns and cities need; a public center, a democratic place where the richest, the poorest, people of all backgrounds and colors can come and renew their citizenship. When cities are restored, when they are healthy, when they are active, when there is eye contact, there is a civilization. We’ve got to be very careful that we don’t give up to the private realm. Otherwise we lose what we share together. That is why the restoration of our main streets is so important.

Our downtown was very difficult. It was dead. It was gone. We did it by the numbers. Our planning studies showed what the buildings used to be like. We put some money in and wouldn’t let them tear down buildings. We restored our buildings, apartments, and shops. We were making some good progress.

But you know, the downtown is an ecosystem. There are lots of unintended consequences of well-meaning actions. We’ve got to know exactly what we are doing. If the downtown isn’t doing too well, we say, let’s get a developer to do something. We’ve got to be sure and understand the reverberations of our actions.

People should not walk past vacant lots or harsh buildings or blank walls in an urban setting. Cities need lots of people on the streets. We had to add critical mass. We had to respect the scale of the buildings. For one project, we moved the street back six feet, acquired storefronts, and got a hotel conference center and retail. We changed the space to bring activity to the street. From the street you can see what is going on in the buildings, and the people inside can look out on the street.

When the plans for that new hotel/conference center in our downtown called for a blank wall on the side, I asked if they could put in some real storefronts. The response was that the sidewalk was too narrow. And I said, widen the sidewalks. Then they said the street would become too narrow. And I said give me two smaller lanes. They said that wouldn’t work. Why? Because if there is a beer delivery truck illegally parked, then the Greyhound bus that uses that street wouldn’t be able to pass it. So I said, what if we don’t let the beer truck park illegally?

So now we’ve go some real storefronts, and wider sidewalks. And we have some street trees. When it’s the mother holding the child’s hand walking down the sidewalk in a safe and attractive zone, celebrating the ownership of the public realm— that’s what is really important. (And the beer truck finds a place to park—legally.)

I ran into a friend one Sunday morning and he told me that he liked to come downtown and park his car and walk around because everything looked so nice and he was so proud of it. That is why your main streets are so important, to give our citizens a sense of pride in the heart of the city.


Parking is a challenge. Years ago when faced with a garage on a prominent site, I said to the designer, I want a parking garage that doesn’t look like a parking garage. The architect said “form follows function,” a building has got to look like what it is. I said, no, we will not use that theory in this particular location in Charleston. He was determined that you would see the car. So I took pictures from around town, where there are closed shutters, to use an example. Whoever said that to have a good city you need really ugly parking lots?

We give our streets every chance we can to get back to the pedestrian. The porte cocheres, the piercings, eliminating the blank walls. These buildings, you give them a chance and produce life on the street for the human beings that live in the city.

Public Places

Charleston, as you know, was built on the water. When faced with burned-out piers on the water we took the opportunity to build a public park. It belongs to everyone. It was beautifully designed. Every park is different and you’ve got to know the purpose. In this park, we have no events. Here is the place you can go. No one has rights superior to others. Its raison d’etre was “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” In bustling cities, people need places of peace and repose and inspiration.

Development followed it. We got the developer to build an art gallery behind the park. Don’t be afraid to create a great public realm; the private development will soon follow.

The visioning is so important. We came up with a vision for nearby Calhoun Street, which faced development pressures. Our planning study said no motels, we need civic buildings instead. We got the main library and school board headquarters built there. All this because the preservation organization demanded that we create a vision for that street.


Charleston is a delicate place and it isn’t very big. And we have a tourism industry that we worked very hard to develop. Tourism has changed from a seasonal event the azaleas in the spring to a year-round event. We had lots more people coming. We accepted the challenge of organizing and managing our tourism industry. We wanted to be in control of how our city would be and how people would use it, and positively use the benefits of our tourism industry. We turned an old railroad building and yard into a visitors’ center. We encourage visitors to use our trolley. Visitors use the city as we want them to.

Every detail is important. Our cities are family heirlooms that we have inherited and that we are to hold in trust and pass on to future generations more beautiful than we found them. Our culture desperately wants beauty. We’ve got enough hardness, plastic, and thinness in our culture.

There is a moral imperative here. Our towns and cities must be places where every citizen’s heart can sing.

Publication Date: Winter 2005


Author(s):Joseph P. Riley