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One of two new murals decorate the sides of buildings on Reynolds Avenue on Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Once a thriving commercial corridor boasting bars and retail businesses, Reynolds Avenue is now scattered with empty lots and boarded-up buildings.

The North Charleston community struggles to attract stores, such as a pharmacy, that could offer basic resources to the surrounding low-income neighborhood.

But signs of life are sprouting.

In addition to the arrival of nonprofits, architect firms, restaurants and photo studios, painted on three buildings are bright, colorful murals that offer messages of rebirth, hope and unity as community leaders aim to change the negative stigma often associated with the neighborhood.

"It's a sign of life," said Ed Sutton, president of Reynolds Avenue Area Merchants Association.

The initiative started a little over a year ago when Sutton, fascinated with street art, reached out to a local artist to create a rendering on a building he owns at 1925 Reynolds Ave. 

He pitched the theme "rebirth" to Doug Palzone, the artist who recently completed the image of the flying butterfly backed with bright green, blue and purple octagon shapes on the side of a church building. A few blocks down Reynolds, another image features a pilot floating while clutching a paper airplane. The artist, Karl Zurfluh, said his goal was to inspire viewers to chase their dreams, no matter the struggle.

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Ed Sutton, president of the Reynolds Avenue Merchants Association, discusses the development of the area Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

"The paper airplanes represent dreams and aspirations that we, as humans, hope will take flight," he said. "Some dreams come true ... others crash and burn."

Fronting a building owned by nonprofit Metanoia, a local nonprofit community development group, is a mural depicting a multicultural group of people standing in a grassy field. A nearby street features several buildings of different colors. A message within the illustration reads "What I see for my community."

Sutton said more artwork is on the way, including a rendering of Robert Smalls, the slave who freed himself during the Civil War by commandeering a Confederate ship and sailing it from Confederate-controlled waters.

Sutton welcomes other artists to participate.

The artistic renderings give many hope that the community is moving in a positive direction. Rebecca Rushton, president of the Chicora-Cherokee Neighborhood Council, said she's gotten several text messages expressing excitement.

“I think it’s a little spark of light," Rushton said. "Most people are drawn to art. It gives them a nice feeling. Hopefully, that’s what will happen to Reynolds Avenue. I think it's getting there.”

Community groups and business owners have made a successful push over recent years to redevelop Reynolds. Most recently, they landed a benefits agreement with Frontier Logistics to keep large trucks from transporting cargo along the strip.

North Charleston city officials are also working to acquire ownership of the road itself in order to make the street more pedestrian friendly and have more control over the neighborhood's future.

However, concerns loom about what development could mean for the community's most vulnerable residents. Rent has skyrocketed over the years with some residents paying $1,000 in rent for one-bedroom residences, Rushton said.

She added there should be more efforts to ensure the homes of elderly residents receive regular repairs so they can afford to live there.

Metanoia has made several efforts to keep the area affordable. The group has four new affordable housing homes going up within a block of Reynolds, with another 10 units slated for the future.

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One of two new murals on Reynolds Avenue decorates the wall behind Ed Sutton, president of the Reynolds Avenue Merchants Association, on Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The organization also owns three buildings on the commercial strip that house a cafe, youth entrepreneurship program, and incubator for minority-owned businesses. The group aims to change the narrative of gentrification that's "pervaded Charleston for decades," said the Rev. Bill Standfield, CEO of Metanoia.

“We know the property up here is not getting any cheaper," he said. "Ultimately, who decides what happens in a neighborhood is who owns the property in the neighborhood.”

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Rickey Dennis covers North Charleston and faith & values for the Post and Courier.

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