GREENVILLE — A century ago, textile mill owners created paternalistic mill villages providing low-wage workers with housing, stores, churches and entertainment. Even today, people who grew up there feel a strong sense of community, saying “I’m from Brandon,” or “I’m from Dunean.” Some mills, though, paid in script that could only be used in expensive mill stores and provided credit at high interest rates, trapping indebted workers in the mill villages.
African Americans endured additional burdens from segregation and other injustices. Many mills wouldn’t employ them. Racist zoning laws forced them into segregated neighborhoods that didn’t receive an equitable share of public resources from the city. Yet, many residents also feel strongly connected to neighborhoods such as Southernside or Nicholtown.
At the peak of the textile industry, Greenville proclaimed itself the Textile Capital of the World, with 18 mills in the Textile Crescent. When the U.S. textile industry died, so did the Textile Crescent. Few people walking along Main Street realize that about 2 miles away the old Textile Crescent has some of the country’s highest poverty.
Excellent public-private partnerships over 40 years sparked Greenville’s renaissance. Early successes included the Hyatt hotel, the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts, the Peace Center and the Poinsett hotel. The renaissance picked up steam through Artisphere, Falls Park, RiverPlace, Fluor Field, the Swamp Rabbit Trail and Unity Park. The city attracted the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research, the Clemson Graduate Business School and the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville. Great restaurants, live music, art walks and green spaces have Greenville’s quality of life regularly ranked among the best in the country.
Pop the champagne! We succeeded! Today, 53% of adults in the city of Greenville have a bachelor’s degree or better. Average per capita income is $48,000. The city matches up well with such highly innovative communities as the Research Triangle Park, N.C., and Austin, Texas. What we accomplished is incredible.
But not everyone is celebrating. I walk several miles each day taking smartphone photos of our beautiful downtown. I share a photo each morning on Facebook. I’m struck when older white Greenville natives comment, “That’s not my Greenville.” It’s not the textile town they grew up in. They can’t enjoy the new Greenville because the restaurants, retail and housing are too expensive.
Unity Park recently opened next to traditional African American neighborhoods. Neighborhood leaders participated in the design and naming of the park acknowledging the historical injustices African Americans have experienced. These leaders were among the speakers proudly celebrating the opening of a fantastic park close to their neighborhoods. Yet many living in those neighborhoods struggle to survive in the more affluent Greenville.
Furman researchers led by Ken Kolb recently released a study of the negative impact of Greenville’s growing affluence. Their anecdotes of people displaced are heart-wrenching. Their analysis is flawed because they paint Greenville’s renaissance as racist. Historically poor black neighborhoods have been negatively impacted, but so have historically poor white neighborhoods.
Gentrification is a real problem. It’s crucial to get the analysis right to develop effective solutions. Framing the problem primarily in racial terms is wrong. No educated black lawyer, doctor or executive is legally prohibited from living anywhere in Greenville today. In recent years the number of affluent people of all races in the city has grown while the number of lower-income people of all races pushed out by the increasing cost of living has declined.
We all benefit from living in a community of highly skilled people, from the mechanics who service our cars that are computers on wheels to the nurses and surgeons who operate on our hearts. First responders and teachers, as well as people who cook in our restaurants and clean hotel rooms for our guests, need affordable housing and transportation to live in the city.
Just as Greenville supports high-impact entrepreneurial organizations, we need to support and expand high social-impact organizations. Feed and Seed in the low-income Judson neighborhood provides access to healthy, local food. Legacy Early College in the low-income Woodside neighborhood provides its young scholars excellent academics, nutrition and fitness to prepare for a bright future. The Greenville Homeless Alliance is fiercely committed to reducing homelessness. There are many more.
We should celebrate Greenville’s success. Those of us who benefit the most from Greenille’s renaissance should also ensure that people of all ethnicities and incomes see the city as “My Greenville” and no one gets left behind.
John Warner of Greenville writes and speaks from a lifetime of experience as a serial entrepreneur promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in South Carolina. He is a regular contributor to the Opinion section.
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