BY PEGGY CLEMENT and
Last month, City of Charleston Director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability Tim Keane took aim in these pages at families trying to protect their historic neighborhood park.
Named for a leading 19th Century black businessman, DeReef Park lies at the heart of the Spring Street-Cannon Street neighborhood and at the heart of Charleston's Civil Rights movement.
Nearby was the Brooks Motel, owned by black proprietors who opened its doors to civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. Next door, the Cannon Street YMCA fielded the All-Stars, a Little League baseball team that earned national fame by challenging racial barriers. The neighboring Shiloh AME, Morris Brown AME and Morris Brown Baptist Churches have organized the faith community into direct action for decades.
According to Mr. Keane, the park at the center of our neighborhood and all this heritage is and was "a dumping ground" to be avoided, not a place to picnic. Those who want to preserve the park, Keane suggests, are newcomers. He appears to believe that dismembering a neighborhood park to allow for new $600,000 homes is in everyone's best interests.
As someone who grew up in the neighborhood and as someone who has lived in this Charleston neighborhood for 14 years, we would like to offer a different perspective. Although Mr. Keane may not have spent time there, DeReef Park has been a beloved and cherished green spot in our community for decades. DeReef is where churches picnicked. It is where YMCA children played games and sports. It is where families with no space of their own went to visit and spend their leisure time.
Like many public spaces a few years back, De- Reef Park had its challenges. Central Park did too, but no one proposed to slice it up for upscale housing. Better policing, management and lighting all would have made things better.
Instead, here's what happened. DeReef Park was originally acquired with federal funds to give a neighborhood with no green space a new park. By federal law, DeReef was supposed to be protected as a park forever. However, City of Charleston officials asked the agency charged with protecting DeReef Park to allow that it be replaced with space in a different area, claiming that DeReef was "barren of vegetation" and underutilized. The city also told the agency that there was no option but to sell DeReef Park to developers. Based on those representations, the federal agency agreed to lift protections from DeReef and shift them to land near the S.C. Aquarium, over one mile away, where there are fewer residents and many parks already.
We dug into the file and discovered that the stripping of federal protection for our neighborhood park was based on falsehoods. DeReef Park was claimed to be "barren" - but it had a virtual forest of sycamore, oak and cherry trees. It was claimed abandoned - but the picnic tables and playground were well-used. Finally, selling and replacing the park was not the only option available - other options just weren't considered.
The Friends of DeReef Park tried to make things right. We wrote letters, petitioned City Council and asked for meetings. The message we got back was that DeReef Park was unworthy of its federal legal protections.
We believed and knew otherwise. And so, all other options exhausted, we invoked the judicial system in the hopes of achieving justice.
We believe that the law, when properly applied, will provide and protect the needed green space in our neighborhood while respecting our area's proud Civil Rights heritage.
That is an outcome everyone should support. Through the years, multiple studies have identified a severe lack of park space in our part of Charleston.
And the need for recreational areas has only grown with the new wave of commercial development around King Street. We welcome new developments and thousands of new residents. Adding so much concrete and so many people, however, makes the need for green space to soften the edges more critical than ever.
This is what we seek: to honor DeReef Park's protections and provide an oasis of much-needed green space for the enjoyment of existing and new residents alike. We hope others will join us in seeking to restore the promise of a healthy recreational area that honors our neighborhood's central role in the struggle for Civil Rights.
Charleston is a great city with a proud heritage of healthy neighborhood parks. This era of renewed growth is not the time for removing our parks, root and branch.
This is a time to protect and add to the green spaces we have, and help them flourish.
Peggy Clement and Heather Templeton are co-chairs of Friends of DeReef Park.