Wendell Gilliard on the East Side

Wendell Gilliard stands beneath the tree he climbed as a child, outside the home where he was born in Meeting Street Manor. Brian Hicks/Staff

Wendell Gilliard is walking around Meeting Street Manor, talking about how life was growing up on the East Side.

There’s the home where he was born, the tree he used to climb, the grassy commons where all the kids passed summer days catching bees.

His father had a barbershop across from Sanders Clyde, and behind it was the creek where he learned to swim, the woods where he picked blackberries. Gilliard still has scars from an ill-advised skating accident on Harris Street — where he remembers the vegetable man hawking produce every morning of his childhood.

The same street where, two weeks ago, a young man was murdered. And just a few blocks from the spot where another man was killed three days later. And in August, a man was shot outside his own apartment on nearby Hanover Street.

Those crimes are the only way most people know the East Side these days, and Gilliard wants to change that. “The problem is, 90 percent of the time the people are from outside the neighborhood,” he says. “They come in here to sell drugs because where else are they going to sell? Around the college? These are turf wars.”

Last week, the veteran state lawmaker hosted a community meeting and prayer vigil for residents to share their concerns and ideas with the police. “People need to talk,” Gilliard says, but he has plenty of ideas of his own.

Some of his suggestions align with the Charleston Police Department’s own detailed plans for the East Side: surveillance cameras, more officers walking the streets. Gilliard would like to see a precinct house near Meeting Street Manor and the Cooper River Court — a regular presence that would forge a stronger bond between the police and the community.

Gilliard also wants to create a better environment for kids coming up on the East Side today, an alternative to bad crowds or crime. Some of his ideas are conservative, even old-fashioned — requiring children in public housing to be enrolled in recreation programs — but others are cutting-edge. And that’s exactly what the neighborhood wants.

At last week’s meeting, one resident after another said their children were afraid and “hiding from the guns,” but that some turn to drugs and crime because they see no other path to economic success. “They think nobody cares,” Rita Willis said.

Gilliard says the answer is to persuade tourism-centered businesses to hire East Side teens. Many hotels and restaurants report that they can’t hire people fast enough in these times of low unemployment. Giving young folks a job and steady paycheck, which he had as a teenager, will show them there’s a better way.

“They just want the opportunity, and a chance to move on,” Gilliard says. “And all these hotels need workers.”

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Gilliard sees the East Side as an opportunity for everyone, and he’s right. As the neighborhood gentrifies, and the rest of Charleston encroaches on it, it’s about time integration worked both ways.

Gilliard sees police and cameras as good crime deterrents, but the best way to improve the East Side is opportunity. And there is no better proof of the possibilities than Gilliard himself.

He grew up in East Side public housing, and has since launched a nonprofit and successful political career. Body cameras on South Carolina police officers? That was just one of his many ideas.

While he walked the old neighborhood Monday afternoon, the only sound was the whir of central air-conditioning units. Gilliard helped get those air conditioners as a city councilman, through a HUD grant and his own Project Cool Breeze. “When I was a kid, we just put blocks of ice in the window and turned the fans around so that the suction would draw the cold and the moisture into the house,” he said.

As Gilliard remembers his childhood, there were always possibilities.

And even if the times, and the East Side, are changing, that shouldn’t.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.