Romney Street is not Romney territory

Sammie Smalls owns Romney Street's First Cut barbershop, where he was giving a trim to James Washington. File/Staff

The easiest way to get a chuckle on Romney Street in Charleston? Ask where the Mitt Romney for President headquarters is located.

This mostly black neighborhood on the peninsula is Barack Obama territory through and through, so bring up the Mitt Romney-Romney Street connection and you'll likely get a laugh.

“That's a joke,” said Sammie Smalls, owner of the First Cut barbershop near the intersection of Romney and King Street. “He's got no chance here, not the way he's talking.”

Heading into the final three weeks of the presidential race, Obama needs black America to come out again in numbers equal to the record turnout of 2008. For his part, Romney needs to convince voters that he is the better choice to turn the economy around and create jobs.

Romney tried to make his case along racial lines at the NAACP national convention in July and was jeered by the audience in Houston. “If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him,” he said.

So far, there are few, if any, Romney Street converts.

“He's not for the whole community of people,” Smalls said. “He's out for certain people, rich people, above the middle class.”

Romney Street is not where Charleston tourists go, or even many politicians. It's about a mile long, beginning near the Cooper River, cutting underneath the Interstate 26 overpasses before crossing Meeting and King streets and dead-ending about mid-city. Mostly, it's a cut-through.

The eastern edge includes a former dump site now filled over by several feet of earth, while nearby on North Romney Street, Bridgeview Village Apartments is one of the most crime-stricken sections of Charleston, featuring a homicide and an armed stand-off this year.

Most locals attended Burke High School. Most read the Bible, but in a sign of the ever-changing face of downtown, the Central Mosque of Charleston is a neighbor.

Most people also don't own their own homes on Romney Street, and some who live here privately admit they are afraid to venture out after dark. Besides an open-air basketball court, there is little for the local children to do. Few employers hire locally.

It wasn't always that way. Chris Felder, 64, was born and raised near Romney Court, at the street's midtown dead end. He remembers it being a dirt road outside and lots of friendly people living side by side. “We could play up and down the whole street,” he remembered.

But in the past 40 years, drugs and poverty took over. “These youngsters out here don't want to work,” he said. “They see the easy way out. They see drugs in their hands and making the quick buck.”

Felder's family lived at 163 Romney when he was born, he grew up in his grandparents' home at 174 Romney, and lived for a while at 172 Romney. Today, many of the houses around him are boarded over and in need of TLC, their former inhabitants long gone.

The origin of the name “Romney Street” is one-part early Charleston history and one-part what might be a simple scrivener's error. The beginnings date to the 1600s when early records describe the land as a Colonial-era settlement away from the city center that featured a 77-acre plantation nearby.

Over time, the property appears to have changed hands several times, eventually becoming the site of an enterprise called “the Rumney Distillery,” supported by people who settled together in “Rumney Village.”

Research indicates life there flourished. “Even more intriguing is the Rumney Coffee House, a lone urban outpost located at the southeast corner of Rumney and King streets,” a local archaeology firm wrote in a 2004 report on 18th-century Charleston.

The “Romney” spelling seems to have began appearing on local records by the 1800s, possibly due to a typographical error, with the “u” becoming an “o.”

Still, presidential candidate Mitt Romney surely must have seen signs pointing to Romney Street and noted the similarity during his last visit to Charleston, in January, during the S.C. GOP primary.

Shantell Washington is among those for whom the election of Obama was supposed to bring a new wave of hope. But for her, life has changed little in the last four years, though she admits she was prompted to go to school to learn to be a certified nurse's assistant.

“I think it's stayed the same,” she said last month during a visit to her sister's apartment about mid-way through Romney Street's mile-long path. “People are looking for things to change 'like that,'?” she added, snapping her fingers. “But it's not realistic.”

No one is really under the illusion that next month's election would mean a sudden turn in life on Romney Street, or that Charleston's 7.9 percent unemployment will quickly come down. Jobs in general — not specifically for inner cities — is the dominant theme of either campaign's rhetoric.

But the two largest local political figures with ties to the presidential race each say their candidate represents the best choice to kick-start prosperity.

Mayor Joe Riley points to Obama's handling of the near economic meltdown and his stimulus package as examples of being on the right path.

“I think he's the best person for the people on Romney Street or for the people in Palm Beach, Florida, and everywhere in between,” he said of Obama.

To Riley, Mitt Romney's call for tax and spending cuts is reckless, given the economic situation and Romney saying this is a time to invest in America.

Romney's approach “will get us back to the same things we were doing before, and that will be bad to the people of Romney Street,” Riley said.

On the flip side of the aisle, Charleston Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Scott knows Romney Street just as well. His mother used to attend church at Romney and King, on a lot that has since been supplanted by the mosque.

Mitt Romney is the best choice for the people of the Romney Street corridor, he said, because the Republican is supporting reform in educational choices such as charter schools, private schools and “a cafeteria” plan of opportunities.

“Parents would fare better having more options,” he said.

Tax reform and less regulation also would open the door for job growth and entrepreneurship, Scott said.

Felder, who earlier had pointed to the homes of neighbors who have moved away, said no matter the condition of Romney Street today or what the politicians argue, his mind is set on supporting Obama.

“He offers a little hope,” he said.

History already shows Romney Street likely will be another Obama landslide: Local precinct results from 2008 show 615 votes were cast for Obama, and only 18 for Republican John McCain.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.