Jul 21 1:00 PM

The man behind Charleston's rebirth

The Charleston, S.C. where I landed my first TV job in the early 1980s was just a shadow of the tourist mecca it is today.

Sure, it lured people eager to fulfill their “Gone with the Wind” fantasies and spend a few days at the nearby beaches. But just as I showed up (big hair, enormous shoulder pads and ambition in tow), the downtown “Holy City” seemed to be languishing in the image of what folks thought it should look like. Charleston was the picture of faded glory.

Up from the postcard perfect Rainbow Row and the Battery, the Slave Market merchants sold trinkets worthy of the Dollar Store. East Bay – where local politician Arthur Ravenel, Jr. seemed to be forever renovating that old mansion – was the guaranteed place to get flooding shots for the evening news. Past the brass button shops of King Street, where old Charleston shopped at Jack Krawcheck’s, most of the storefronts pushed furniture on layaway, if they weren’t just boarded up.

I could appreciate the pride of old Charleston – the “binyahs” in local parlance, meaning “been here” (you weren’t considered “native” unless your “people” had lived in the Lowcountry for three generations). As one of the few Asian-Americans in town, I was clearly an outsider, but I always felt welcome. After all, as locals frequently reminded me, the Charlestonians are just like the Chinese: They eat lots of rice, worship their ancestors and live behind brick walls.

What I couldn’t grasp was the vision of the city’s mayor. At the time, Joseph P. Riley was a youngster in municipal leadership compared with other cities, and he was quickly making waves. Since then, Riley’s been re-elected 10 times – a record for a city this size.

Now, heading into his final year in office, I caught up with the mayor about how he managed to transform the seedy city I knew into an international cultural destination. In 1975, did he really see all that the city was to become?

“I couldn’t see all of that,” he admitted. “Two things, first of all, I aspired for this to be a great city, and that has nothing to do with size. A place of excellence in everything it did. And the second thing was a firm belief that solid strategic planning which sounds boring, but it’s so important in city building.”

He began by building the improbable.

There was the seemingly out-of-place Spoleto festival. An arts festival was understandable, but this series featured all sorts of oddball avant-garde segments (I remember some disturbing giant papier-mâché puppets).

In the city where the War Between the States (or the Civil War, as Yankees would have it) began, race relations were still tense when Riley won his first mayoral election in the mid-1970s. A product of an old Charleston family and graduate of The Citadel, the city’s vaunted military academy, Riley was a somewhat unlikely candidate for the times.

“I had gravitated toward the challenges of racial progress,” said Riley. “And so the African-American leadership and the white business leadership saw in me somebody that could unify this city.”

At the city level, partisanship just doesn’t sell. Talking doesn’t sell. You’ve got to produce. You are directly working with and for the citizens, you’re listening to them.

Joseph P. Riley

Mayor of Charleston, S.C.

He hired the first African-American police chief, improbably named Reuben Greenberg, who was routinely seen out on his roller skates. In a town where voters identified crime as the No. 1 political issue of the day, where drug runners had begun to take a coastal foothold, Greenberg was an early proponent of community policing.

And in a city that prizes the structures of its past, the mayor kept pushing a building agenda.

First, there was the city center mixed-use development Charleston Place, which had local preservationists up in arms. One nearly slugged the mayor at a town hall.

But Riley was unshaken. The man had other big plans for Charleston, and by his second term he was talking up a waterfront park. And an aquarium. And redevelopment throughout the city. Didn’t it bother him, I asked, to know people thought he was getting a little crazy, maybe overly ambitious about building up the city?

No, he said: “You get used to that. It was in my heart, and I knew it was the right thing.”

He understood the opposition, he said. Urban areas were becoming depopulated, as people fled for the suburbs. They were afraid.

“I knew that the only way to bring the city back to life is to have it energized with people living in it, and people visiting it and people on the sidewalks,” he explained. “You put people on the sidewalks and it’s like irrigating a parched lawn. All of a sudden, it comes back to life.”

"A great city is about making its present worthy of acclaim years from now," Mayor Riley says.
Richard Ellis/Getty

Riley seemed like such an unlikely revolutionary. He’s always been a slight figure, with the thin build of the runner he was until his recent knee surgeries. Dressed in the uniform of his city (brass buttons on his blue blazer, rarely without a repp tie – unless he’s been in a running singlet) Riley doesn’t command a room with volume, but he’s always found a way to be heard.

In what is increasingly a “red” state, Riley is well-known and popular despite his progressive Democratic credentials. It works, he says, because a local leader’s primary duty is to be a salesman of his ideas.

“At the city level, partisanship just doesn’t sell. Talking doesn’t sell. You’ve got to produce. You are directly working with and for the citizens, you’re listening to them,” he said. At the local level, “a political leader is about understanding the hearts of your citizens. What would make them happy? What would make them proud? And so there’s no room for a partisan argument.”   

And though he’s clearly ruffled feathers many times over the years, Charleston today not only consistently turns up on lists of America’s best cities, but it’s also emerged as a game changer for business opportunities and innovation. Some began calling it “Silicon Harbor.” Weathering the worst of the recession, the city has a AAA credit rating, a title only 1 percent of America’s counties can claim. 

And crime – voters’ biggest concern when he was first elected – has dropped steadily for decades. It’s a trend seen across the country, but some speculate that Greenberg’s pioneering policing contributed to that on a national scale.

Next year, Riley insists he will retire. But before he leaves the mayor’s office, there’s one more building project he is determined to see through. Riley wants a museum that won’t just gloss over, but confront, his city’s past in the slave trade.

“If I don’t get the International African American Museum underway, I will feel that I have failed,” he told me. “If I don’t get that going, I will feel like I haven’t done a good job. So I work on it every day.”

And so he does. Late on a Friday afternoon, well past 6 p.m., Riley leaves his last interview of the day, only to head out to another appearance. Another chance to sell his community on the importance of building the museum. Another chance to make a difference.

“Being mayor of a city is an opportunity to do things, concrete things for your citizens, with your citizens, whether it's rebuilding a part of a city, or building parks, or institutions, or you know bringing people into the fold or making the city safe,” he said. “It's a fascinating job. For someone interested in public service, I really think I've got the best job in America.”


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