North Charleston dares to be different

Dolly Frock, owner of the Idle Hour Cafe, greets fellow Park Circle business owner Scott Cloud, who runs The Barbecue Joint. Both eateries are on East Montague Avenue in Park Circle.

When North Charleston residents Rachael and Todd Parker were buying their home two years ago, their top priority was the real estate agent’s mantra: location, location, location.

“We wanted to be able to park our cars after work and enjoy our evenings and weekends where we lived,” Rachael Parker said.

They settled in the East Park Circle area of North Charleston, near the Olde Village, a portion of the East Montague area that stretches from Park Circle to Virginia Avenue.

“We love to walk around Park Circle and to restaurants in the Olde Village,” she said. “There is always so much going on around here.”

Location was also the most important factor for Spencer and John Allsop when they were home shopping in 2012.

They wanted to be close to work and shopping, but also wanted amenities like a neighborhood pool and walking trails, so they chose another North Charleston neighborhood 15 miles from the Parkers, Wescott Plantation.

“It’s a growing area and we really like it,” she said. “It’s definitely the suburban life, where we have to drive to just about everything. Sometimes I do wish we had a quaint little downtown area.”

North Charleston is South Carolina’s third-largest city with a population of 104,000. It spreads across 76 square miles, much of it in Charleston County, but also takes in part of Dorchester County and reaches into Berkeley County.

Even though it’s lacking a recognized downtown or access to fresh food in some areas, and saddled with some of the worst violent crime in the tri-county, new residents are showing up. Officials say neighborhoods in the city’s troubled South End have been losing population but others, in Dorchester County and in the Park Circle area, are gaining residents. It encompasses nearly 10 times more area than its original size in just over 40 years.

“We don’t have and never have had a downtown,” said Mayor Keith Summey. “The little village we have is the only downtown we know.”

Olde North Charleston was part of the original city in 1972, when after several failed attempts to incorporate, John Bourne, who became the city’s first mayor, reduced the size of the area voting to four precincts most interested in incorporation. North Charleston had seven square miles and 21,000 residents.

The city’s founders immediately started annexing surrounding areas, and within a year the population was 53,000, according to city records.

Bourne, who served as mayor for nearly 20 years, said city leaders thought the commercial area around the North Charleston Coliseum would grow into a downtown.

City planners envisioned shops and restaurants with apartments above them, and buildings that went right up to the sidewalks — an urban, pedestrian-friendly city center.

While the area never became a traditional downtown, Bourne said, it is thriving.

He also said Park Circle serves as a small downtown area, even though it comprises only a few blocks.

Overall, he said, he’s amazed at the way North Charleston has grown up. “It has grown more than I had envisioned,” he said.

The municipality touts attractions such as the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center, the Golf Club at Wescott Plantation off Dorchester Road and Riverfront Park on the old Navy base.

And while some residents might wish for a downtown, city leaders are not so sure it’s necessary.

“I don’t think it matters,” said Councilman Ron Brinson. “Where’s Mount Pleasant’s downtown? There are many cities that you would have trouble identifying a downtown, or if they have one, it’s kind of ill-defined.”

In the early 20th century, about 50 years before North Charleston became a city, the area was laid out with Park Circle as a central green space with streets radiating out for residential, commercial and industrial use.

One of those streets is East Montague Avenue, where the Olde Village area now offers restaurants with outdoor dining, businesses, churches and North Charleston High School between Park Circle and Virginia Avenue.

“We get comments about it every now and then, but as far as I’m concerned, we do have a downtown area,” said Councilman Bob King, whose district includes the Olde Village area. “Some of the other areas are really growing, too, no doubt about it, but this is where North Charleston began.”

The area has been revitalized in the last couple of decades and is now the center of many of the city’s cultural activities and festivities, including the city’s Arts Festival, St. Patrick’s Day celebration, Christmas parade and music events throughout the year.

“A few years ago, we got some businesses to come in there and new restaurants,” he said. “We found that a lot of people wanted to come to that area to live. A lot of people want to live in a nice home and go down to the village for dinner. That’s what they like.”

What they are missing in the old part of the city is a grocery store. Summey says he has worked for years to bring one to the area, which has been classified as a food desert.

“That’s the one thing we are missing,” said Terri Hamilton of Mixson Avenue. “I usually drive to West Ashley to buy food once a week.”

North Charleston has 19 grocery stores over 10,000 square feet in size, according to the city. By comparison, Mount Pleasant, a city of 75,000, has more than 30, some within sight of each other.

As far as livability goes, the lack of a downtown is probably low on North Charleston’s priority list. The city garnered national attention last month when one of its police officers fatally shot Walter Scott. Scott was pulled over April 4 on Remount Road by North Charleston Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager, and video footage from a bystander’s cellphone showed that Slager shot at Scott eight times as he ran from the traffic stop. Slager is charged with murder.

The case illustrates how officials are battling the city’s image as a violent place to live — even though the reaction to Scott’s death was nowhere near as violent as protests over officer-involved deaths in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.

The city’s murder rate was about triple the national average in 2013, the latest year for which national statistics were available.

North Charleston also led the tri-county in homicides three years after posting its lowest murder rate in decades, an achievement that had been partially attributed to aggressive policing. Its police force investigated 22 killings in 2014, up from 16 deaths in 2013, 13 in 2012 and five in 2011. The city of Charleston recorded 9 homicides in 2013, according to data collected by The Post and Courier.

City officials insist, however, that the city is safe and thriving, and that most of the crime is committed by a small segment of the population who live in a few areas.

When protesters wanted to draw attention to the lack of a civilian oversight board in North Charleston, the most effective protest wasn’t even in the city. A group used cars and walkers to stop traffic at rush hour on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, which connects Charleston and Mount Pleasant, on the one-month anniversary of Scott’s slaying. That 15-minute-long protest received days of news coverage.

National Action Network leader Thomas Dixon said his group’s demonstrations at North Charleston City Hall on Mall Drive immediately after Slager’s arrest were effective. The events were sparsely attended, often gathering only a few dozen people, but they were near the national TV news trucks.

“The issue in that scenario was City Hall,” he said, and that a downtown destination wouldn’t have mattered.

Until large-scale shopping centers and urban sprawl became popular in the 1960s and ’70s, Main Streets were the center of commercial, social and civic activities in many municipalities, according to the National Main Street Center, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They were the heart of a community.

Now, communities are revitalizing their main streets to return to a traditional small-town environment.

Across the country many municipalities, such as Greenville and Columbia, have put millions of dollars and years of work into giving new life to their historic downtowns.

The city of Greenville has been particularly committed, planting trees and widening its Main Street sidewalks in the 1980s and creating Falls Park along the Reedy River a decade ago — two measures that spurred new investment and changed the image of its downtown. Columbia has improved Gervais Street in its Congaree Vista District, also luring new restaurants and shops.

“We’ve seen a lot of attention to regenerating the downtown in Greenville and Columbia, but I don’t think that necessarily creates unity in a city,” Brinson said.

The town of Summerville recently developed a Vision Plan that includes a face-lift for Hutchinson Square in the center of its downtown.

But Summey, who lives off Montague near Park Circle, doesn’t see the lack of a downtown as a shortcoming.

“A downtown limits you,” he said. “If you look at everybody else that’s got a downtown (in the Lowcountry), they can’t keep up with us in retail sales. We don’t have any one specific (retail) area, but if you go to downtown in the Olde Village, we still have the feeling of a small town, which is good.”

With Tanger Outlets and many other shopping areas, North Charleston annually leads the state in retail sales, exceeding $6 billion dollars each year.

Brinson, who represents a district that includes Coosaw Creek and part of Wescott Plantation, said the city’s neighborhoods may vary in character, but their residents seem to share a common bond: an interest in civic and cultural activities.

“That’s just something North Charleston has dealt with,” he said. “The neighborhoods are very disparate — that’s an important part of who we are — but cultural arts and recreation are the things that pull a community together.”

In addition, he said, public opinion of North Charleston is changing.

“Over the last four or five years we’ve seen our city begin to rise above, if not its image, the perception of it being a blue collar, crime-ridden area,” he said. “More and more people are taking pride in North Charleston as being the hub of economic development.”

Years ago, people in his section of the city used to ask for a Summerville mailing address.

“I don’t hear that at all anymore,” he said.

Reporters Robert Behre, Prentiss Findlay, Diane Knich, and David Slade contributed to this report.