Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Spartanburg's Nightmare Days

Rather than rattle off the story of a murder or haunting, my post this month has more to do with the ghost of a vision, one that haunts a lot of the leadership in Spartanburg. With municipal elections less than a week away, this ghost was suddenly resurrected about a week ago by one of the mayoral candidates.

The ghost I'm referring to is one of the darkest chapters in downtown's history: the period from the 1960s through the 1990s. This was when downtown was depopulated and crime-ridden and city leaders tried one scheme after another to revitalize our crumbling town. Typical of most small American cities, suburbs and the white flight trend that populated them sapped money and interest from downtown. This was compounded by the slow decline of the textile industry that had buoyed up a lot of the business in the city. Top it off with a series of misguided planning errors and downtown Spartanburg had four decades of loss and stagnation.

One of the earliest attempts to get people back downtown was to widen and expand the roadways. I guess the logic was that a smoother traffic flow would get people circulating and take them to their destinations downtown faster.
It didn't work. Instead, we still have buildings with their sides and fronts lobbed off. Downtown became little more than a speed bump between the east and west sides.

Perhaps the second major attempts were the well-documented Urban Renewal projects on the southside and northside. The goal was to move impoverished families out of the sub-standard housing and into more modern (and more compact) housing. Vast, depopulated boulevards (East Daniel Morgan and Hudson Barksdale) were created in their wake. Needless to say, all it did was further embitter the African-American community and wipe out small businesses.

The best known attempt was the Main Street Mall, which closed vehicular traffic to East Main Street between Converse Street and Church Street from 1974 to 1989. This project was modeled after similar pedestrian malls in other cities and was believed to be the best way to compete with the suburban shopping malls that themselves mimicked downtown storefronts. There was great hope for this million-dollar project, but as in other cities, the project failed and downtown continued on its downward spiral.

Another aborted plan was the Spartan Centre project, which sought to reconfigure Morgan Square and replace the 19th century storefronts that lined the square with an enormous mid-1970s indoor marketplace. This project lost momentum quickly, but not before the north side of the square was leveled, including Spartanburg's first skyscraper, the 1912 Andrews Building. The resulting lot (called the Opportunity Block) was vacant from 1977 until 2003, when the Extended Stay headquarters was constructed. This project even had fatalities. Five people died during the unexpected collapse of the Andrews Building during its demolition.

The late 1980s also produced another plan to reconfigure the square and build a hotel in the vacant Opportunity Block. This plan also recommended the removal of the Main Street Mall, the only part of the plan actually implemented.

It's difficult to put a finger on how things began to turn around. But beginning in the 1990s, my sense is that people began to take a little more pride in downtown. It may have been the 1990 construction of the Spartan Foods Tower (now most often known as the Denny's Building). Another possibility could be that the events held downtown started bringing return visitors who took notice of the urban landscape. The 1997 construction of the new Spartanburg County Public Library headquarters certainly had a huge impact. Perhaps the 1999 historic facade easement program, which led to the restoration of several downtown storefronts, encouraged people to notice the decorative brick building facades. The construction of the Extended Stay Headquarters and the Advance America Building brought white collar workers to downtown every day, as did the QS1 Building. Beginning in 2005, Hub-Bub provided consistent nightlife and cultural options and gave downtown a boost of creative momentum leading up to the 2007 completion of the Chapman Cultural Center.

2005 was also the year that approximately 2 acres of sterile blacktop was unearthed and replaced with a verdant community gathering spot that has hosted Wednesday Farmer's Markets, Jazz on the Square, homecoming celebrations, outsider art shows, community pep rallies, and scores of other events. Our historic city center is now the ultimate spot of pride, and our downtown has begun to flourish around it.

Thinking that our downtown park should be ripped out is emblematic of a flawed understanding about how communities thrive, not to mention short-sighted and monetarily wasteful. In my mind there is no doubt that Spartanburg has positive momentum going and the progress made in the past several years has been uplifting and beneficial to our community. Spartanburg's nightmare days are past us, but the understanding it takes to continue forward is only barely grasped by city council. With the passage of Bill Barnet's mayoral tenure, the city faces a critical transition. I just hope that the city council continues to build upon the first successful foundation our downtown has created in 50 years.

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