What’s the secret sauce that helps create a great city? An engaged and diverse populace? A dynamic business community? A vibrant arts community?
Or, how about a mayor who takes stock of every highway and byway, every nook and cranny of his city by casting his eye from a point six feet high down to ground level and then asking if that space represents the best possible relationship between the people and their city?
In the case of Charleston, South Carolina, all of the above have been part of the not-so-secret sauce that transformed the city from a down-on-its-heels position in the early 1970s to its vibrant status today. The mayor, Joseph P. Riley Jr., was elected to what he thought would be a one-term job in 1975, when the city was besieged by racial tension and the downtown was losing stores to the new malls cropping up in the suburbs. He ended up being elected to 10 consecutive terms, serving 40 years until 2016. A headline in the New York Times once asked if Riley was the “most loved politician in America.”
Part of Charleston’s comeback can be attributed to the growth of Spoleto USA, which came to Charleston in 1977, when composer and conductor Gian Carlo Menotti sought a sister festival to the one he founded in 1958 in Spoleto, Italy. The annual festival has put Charleston on the cultural map. It also caught the eye of the organizers of the 15-year-old Princeton Festival, the annual presentation of opera and other music forms at various venues in June. Could the Spoleto success be replicated up north, the Princeton people wondered. To get some insight they invited Mayor Riley to come to town last week.
The Princeton Festival wanted to hear more about opportunities for increasing its audience. I was more interested in that six-foot band of space that the mayor concerned himself with every day — that part of his city that is literally in the face of residents and visitors alike — fences, walls, you name it.
Joe Riley, you quickly discover, not only helped make Charleston a successful city, he also made it a successful place. Details mattered. The city put up some new housing and erected a five-foot high fence around it. Too high, making the project appear isolated from the rest of the neighborhood, said Riley, as always considering that band of opportunity from ground level to six feet up. The fence was replaced with one three-feet high. Riley directed that new benches at a city park be made 25 percent bigger than the previous benches, and urged that they be situated close enough to the retaining walls that people could sit with their feet up. Make those retaining walls just 14 inches high, he advised, high enough to offer a challenge to toddlers, yet low enough to prevent injuries in a fall.
An art deco movie theater in town was not torn down but repurposed, leaving a blank wall along one street — not an inviting vista. Riley proposed retail for that portion of the streetscape. But the sidewalk had to be widened. The traffic people said the road would be too narrow if two trucks crossed paths. Ban the trucks, Riley countered.
“Anything that a human being can see should look good,” Riley says. “You need a zealous commitment to integrity.” As he went about his place-building, Riley was inspired by Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte, two urbanologists who also studied cities from a pedestrian’s eye point of view.
As many things as Riley did, there were some things that he tried not to do — especially tearing down existing buildings. “A good while ago rehabbing was less intensive. But we didn’t want to lose any structures. We kept houses from coming down. Every house that comes down takes away from the fabric of the community and is a memory loss.” Riley refers to the “miracle of historic renovation. You keep a building from coming down, and then you generate energy as you figure out how to creatively repurpose it.”
In addition, the mayor’s up-close point of view did not preclude some big-picture analysis. “We had a strategic plan and we stuck with it,” Riley says. “We zoned the city so that you couldn’t put a hotel on the waterfront. We needed every bit of energy to be concentrated in the city.”
He continues, “we needed to keep the junk out. Some friend of mine wanted to put a cheap motel on Calhoun Street,” one of the main streets in downtown. “I was able to cite the plan and tell him no.”
In Charleston the strategic plan also called for “a commitment that the waterfront be open to everyone.” When the city built a new aquarium, on the waterfront, it ended up being separated from another visitor attraction, a facility for tour boats, by a fenced off, high rise residential building. Riley told the owner that a public pathway along his property would help the community. No way, the landowner said. A few years later when the landowner needed the city’s help in repairing a bulkhead, the mayor worked out a deal behind the scenes. The path was soon completed.
In Charleston as in every other city with a decent heartbeat, parking is always an issue. How did Riley manage it? “With parking, you don’t want to build too much, because then you have dead space.” And parking garages don’t need to be monuments to King Car. “You don’t need to build an ugly parking garage,” says Riley. “We had one going in just a stone’s throw away from where the Declaration of Independence was first read in Charleston. The architect told me that the form has to match function, and that it needed to announce its purpose.” Riley stood his ground he insisted on a stucco exterior and louvers.
Soon into his tenure as mayor, Riley realized that other mayors could also benefit from his approach. He created the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, where no more than eight mayors gather for two and a half days to address specific urban challenges with a team of planners, architects, and landscape architects. Princeton’s Lempert attended one in December in Austin, Texas.
“In the 1970s, we wondered if cities would even survive. By the 1980s it was clear they would, so the next step was figuring out what mayors could do to improve them,” Riley told the AARP magazine. “Mayors today are smart and they care, otherwise they wouldn’t get elected. But they often don’t know a lot about placemaking.”
The guy behind it all is no architect or planner, but he is a lifelong resident of Charleston. Riley’s father was a self-made businessman who ran an insurance and real estate business in Charleston. After college at the Citadel in his hometown, Riley earned his law degree at the University of South Carolina. At age of 25 he was elected to the state legislature but he still saw his future as a lawyer. But then a racial dispute flared up and both the African American community and the Chamber of Commerce urged Riley to run “to be the guy who could bridge the divide.”
As a legislator, Riley had one view of government: “In the legislature you propose a piece of policy and when the bill is passed you’re finished. I thought that when I ran for mayor I’d be able to fix things up, serve one term, and then quit.” It turned out just the opposite. “As mayor you should always have nine different things you are working on, and they should all be in different states of progress,” he says.
When Riley became mayor there were literally signs of trouble. A gas station in the heart of downtown was the site of a billboard that proclaimed, “If you like Charleston you’ll love Savannah.”
The downtown decay was insidious, in that the city deteriorated bit by bit over time. “Shopping centers came in and eventually a mall,” he says. “It’s like a disease that you don’t notice” until it’s far along in progression. One stroke of good luck for Charleston was that the mayor before Riley was a fiscal conservative. “Government intervention was not his cup of tea,” says Riley. “If the city had been more aggressive then we might have ‘malled’ Main Street. That didn’t happen.”
The historic charm of Charleston, founded in 1670, attracted the attention of the Italians in Spoleto, who found Charleston comparable in terms of its many potential concert spaces, from churches to theaters to steps of public buildings. And, as Menotti said, “It’s intimate, so you can walk from one theater to the next. It has Old World charm in architecture and gardens. Yet it’s a community big enough to support the large number of visitors.”
Retired as mayor, Riley continues to keep track of his city’s vitality. “At intersections I like to count the number of people on the sidewalk. It’s what ‘Holly’ would do,” he says, referring to his “dear friend,” Whyte. “I like to gauge the economic health of my city, but I know retailers will never tell you. So I count the number of shopping bags people are carrying.” He says he doesn’t count take-out food bags, but he does try to see if some shoppers have bags inside of bags. “When I get to 100 I’m pretty amazed.”
Persistent challenges include the need for more affordable housing and the perils of gentrification. Charleston has taken a “scatter shot” approach to affordable housing, trying to locate units throughout the community. He had some older units updated with Craftsman-style porches so that they would fit in better with the neighborhood.
Gentrification, Riley says, “is hard to avoid. You don’t want buildings in crappy condition and you want your downtown to be vital and spirited. In time, unavoidably, the value of land increases. You just have to keep producing more affordable housing. It’s a national issue, but national issues can work themselves out at the local level.” And sometimes you start at the ground and look up to eye level.