Thursday, August 8, 2019

Tour the Lowcountry's Futurescape

We met a tour guide working in downtown Charleston today who lives in the Summerville area. 30 years ago, Charleston's tour guides lived downtown, walked to work and often were lifelong residents. 
As Charleston's status as a residential community for the people who work there fades into memory, the Bus Rapid Transit System's significance as an opportunity to create and maintain a connected community core for the Lowcountry rises in importance. Without a somewhere of connected people who share a landscape, the entire Lowcountry will become a nowhere of people trapped in their cars between garden apartments, cul du sacs and Walmart. At the center of it will be a historic theme park without a well executed Disney Princess greeters program or an underutilized Star Wars area.

In the 1980s, most people working in tourism lived downtown. They walked to work or used one of several frequent, reliable bus lines including the now vanished Beltline, Rutledge Grove and much changed King Street Citadel. A transit trip anywhere within the city seldom too more than 40 minutes, door to door. bus fare was 50 cents.

Rent downtown was affordable. With the minimum wage at $4.25 an hour and rent for a one bedroom or studio apartment around $175 to $250 a month, a week to 8 days wages a month generally covered rent which at the time often included utilities. One job was enough.

Shopping was easily accomplished near home. The city had two more supermarkets than it does today. It had three more hardware stores. A Woolworths and Kress offered discount shopping on King Street. Local Department Stores such as Kerrisons and Condons offered affordable clothing. All of this was local, staffed by lifelong residents who knew each other.
Downtown's civic and cultural life were concentrated in the urban center. Community meetings were often held at the Old Library (which was open until 9 pm) or in many of the historic meeting spaces which are now used exclusively as rented event spaces.

Downtown Charleston was a place where a cook dishwasher, maid, a young professional just starting work or a teacher could live and work downtown, often without a car. They could and did attend community meetings together and were often on a first name basis with elected officials. Racism, class division and urban decay were real problems but a diverse network of real people were concerned about them. Struggles were common, but the city had a collection of leaders who knew each other and a lot got done.  I do not want to indicate that it was perfect. This system did, after all, fail to stop the disaster of gentrification.
Transit was an integral part of this city. The Isle of Palms bus offered a way to reach the beach. The routes crossing the city allowed working class people to make quick, short trips to where they needed to go. As gentrification has driven the city's working class from downtown, many of these routes have seen declining ridership and were cancelled. The West side of the City has very little transit now and only in the Medical complex area and on the routes connecting to James Island and West Ashley.

To remain downtown now requires long transit trips to reach a department store. Many downtown residents now travel to a Walmart West of the Ashley on the St. Andrews Bus or East of the Cooper on the #40 to reach a Walmart. The city, to its credit, has helped maintain the #20 bus line which connects people thought-out the city to the Food Lion Supermarket up town. The City's department stores have all been converted to other uses with most shopping downtown gravitating towards the tourist market.
Ironically tourism has reduced the quality of life of people working in our tourism industry who live downtown. Fewer and fewer hospitality workers live downtown and they're often older. This is probably the last generation of Charlestonians who grew up here who will work in our tourism industry. . The 4, 10, 11, 30 & 301 buses now bring thousands of hospitality workers on hour long trips to work from the declining stock of affordable housing in the suburbs.
Rent for a studio apartment downtown now exceeds 1200 dollars in most places. The minimum wage is $7.25 with most downtown tourism jobs now pay a little more. Paying the rent on a one room apartment uptown, in a far less desirable area than those available 20 years ago, now takes over 100 hours of work. this is twice the amount of time it took to earn rent a generation ago and the locations available are not as good. Many of those 200 dollar a month apartments were found South of Calhoun Street at the time.

Now most of the people in our tourism industry just visit the historic city for work. It's a huge loss, since the deep social and historic knowledge full time residents have is no longer being presented to visitors. The visitor's experience is less real and tourism's capacity to support maintaining local knowledge in an organic basis declines. Since a tour guide license is no longer legally required, even the formal accreditation and training program is now optional. Rising rents, declining social and shopping opportunities for residents, school problems and weak transit are slowly hollowing out downtown Charleston. 

Very little progress has been made maintaining and creating affordable housing downtown. Though many organizations have spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money on downtown affordable housing, it is disappearing faster than it is being created. The massive number of new apartments being constructed in Charleston will be expensive and they're already struggling to fill them at the rents charged. However the massive national companies financing these buildings won't be slashing rents. Unlike the little landlords of 30 years ago, who need rent to pay bills, they can draw on a massive store of resources and credit to maintain the book value of their properties on the balance sheet. From their perspective, renting half the building at 1200 dollars a month is better than renting it all at 600 dollars a month or even more.

Bus Rapid Transit and the Future of the Lowcountry

The Bus Rapid Transit line presents the opportunity to connect an entire region where affordable housing, cultural opportunities, political involvement, shopping, healthcare and employment can all be connected without resorting to an automobile. The people living within walkable distance of the 23 mile long line can work downtown if they like, however on the existing #10 bus line which runs on the same corridor and has aver 90 thousand passengers a month. More and more people are traveling North to work. While the line will help downtown, it will have to compete for workers. This future connected Lowcountry will connect to Charleston but it won't be dependent on it. However without it, downtown won't be able to function at all. 

A quick, reliable trip to the old city center is a life or death issue for downtown as a tourist destination, educational hub and medical center. this is why utilizing the old railroad line beneath I26 for quick, uninterrupted transit access to the city is so critical. 

Colleton County and a Message from the Future

The Colleton County council ended support for the bus which took 50 people from Walterboro to work on Hilton Head because they felt employment opportunities for those people could now be found in Walterboro. 
We believe Colleton County should use those resources to create transit opportunities for those residents so that they have choice and freedom. If they don't those people and people elsewhere in our region will eventually relocate to places which do. The assumption that the Low-country can continue to ignore the quality of life of ordinary working people forever because they have not options is no longer valid. 

We're planning a presence at the next meeting of Colleton County Council on Sept. 10 to being helping that community consider what transit should be doing for their residents. 

Affordable Housing
Without the Rapid Transit line, the Lowcountry will be unable to offer a competitive quality of life for working class people anywhere. The costs of housing and maintaining a car in many of the jobs available here has become unsupportable. As Hilton Head has discovered, you can't neglect the people who make your community work and leave them with a two hour bus trip to work forever. 

There are many opportunities along the transit line to create affordable housing in safe, walk able communities, Not everyone is waiting to do something. Metanoia is building affordable housing in this area now.  State Rep. Marvin Pendavis is championing opportunity zones and working to be sure the Old Navy Hospital site is redeveloped with affordable housing. 

New Shelters in N. Charleston. 

A four year effort to build more and better bus stop shelters in N. Charleston is now putting new shelters on the ground along the existing #10 bus route in the area. Many people contributed to this effort including the City of North Charleston and State Senator Marlon Kimpson. Regular bus service which connects to the surrounding area is an essential part of making the new rapid transit system work and shelters are necessary to make transfers safe and comfortable.

The Bus Rapid Transit Line, well executed, offers us the opportunity to create a linear urban corridor for the entire region where some of what downtown Charleston used to do for the Lowcountry can be recreated and with the use of regular transit routes connected to it enrich life throughout the region.

1 comment:

  1. I read your content and busses quality it’s really interesting and attracting for new user. Thanks to providing the valuable services for customer charter bus rental cost This idea is not just for any public means, but it is to make your corporate deals and lifetimes event memorable and successful in terms of providing satisfactory and smooth transportation to our valuable customers.