Beauty in the City

November 24, 2000

By Michael Jessen

Mayor, you can't do that.

Like a broken record, Joseph P. Riley, Jr. has heard that phrase over and over during his 25 years as mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. But he ignored the advice and has a shelf full of awards to show for it.

Riley heard the refrain when he nixed the idea of a low-income housing project in Charleston. The six-term mayor felt scattered site public housing in renovated heritage buildings was a better idea than a sterile complex.

Charleston's creation of sustainable affordable housing has received a Presidential Design Award and three Housing and Urban Development Department Blue Ribbon Awards for Best Practices.

Riley simply says: "Poor people like beauty; they deserve to live in beautiful places."

Prince Charles requested a visit to one of the newly created public housing units when he visited the city in 1990. Riley earned the undying gratitude of residents who say they are now proud to tell people their addresses because their streets are so beautiful.

At other times, Riley has ignored the advice of his city building inspectors and fire officials to rehabilitate dilapidated or burned out heritage buildings. Once a heritage building is torn down and replaced with a modern structure, Riley says others inevitably fall to the wrecker's hammer.

"Every time we destroy a heritage building, we take a piece of the scrapbook of our city and throw it in the trash can and rarely replace it with something better," says Riley. He spoke recently in Nelson at the third of a series of Designing Community talks sponsored by the Nelson and District Community Resources Society.

According to Riley, older buildings should be saved for future generations. "We don't want to turn around one day and have nothing but 50-year-old architecture."

He believes that in order to rebuild and maintain thriving cities, leaders must develop a clear visioning process -- one rooted in historic preservation. "Beautiful, livable, invigorating and inspirational cities are essential to our quality of life," he adds.

But as Riley never fails to mention, beautiful cities need someone to challenge entrenched thinking. For example, when Riley told his public works department to widen a sidewalk to accommodate some new store fronts across the street from Charleston's downtown department store -- Saks Fifth Avenue -- he again heard: "Mayor, you can't widen that sidewalk."

I said "Why's that?" They said "Because you'll have to narrow the street." And I said "Well I was pretty good at math in school and I really had figured that out in advance." They said it wasn't going to work because if a giant beer delivery truck was illegally parked in a moving lane of traffic and a giant Greyhound bus came down the street they wouldn't be able to pass one another. And I said "What if we never let the beer truck illegally park there? And so we widened the sidewalk and now we have a nice livable place and parents can hold their kids hands and walk down the street. But what if we had a state that had a policy that pedestrians come first?"

First elected in December 1975, Riley is considered one of the most visionary and highly effective government leaders in America. Under his leadership, Charleston has increased its commitment to racial harmony, achieved a substantial decrease in crime, experienced a remarkable revitalization of its historic downtown business district, seen the creation and growth of Spoleto Festival U.S.A., built the beautiful Waterfront Park, as well as developing nationally-acclaimed affordable housing. A recent issue of Newsweek named Mayor Riley one of America's twenty-five most dynamic mayors.

A chorus of developers told Riley the Charleston waterfront should be used for upscale housing to increase the city's tax base. Riley resisted and insisted on a park. "Great cities maximize ordinary citizens access to the water's edge," Riley tells the 150 people in the Nelson audience who respond with loud cheers and clapping.

The Charleston mayor then tells the story of noticing a man sitting in the park by himself early one morning. Riley relates that Clarence Hopkins is an epileptic, shines shoes and sweeps sidewalks for a living, and rides a bicycle everywhere. Seeing the man a couple of weeks later, Riley asks him "Clarence, I saw you down at the park the other day, you go there often?" He said "Yeah," and I said "Why?" He said "Because it's so beautiful on the water and I love it when those big ships are coming in."

"Everyone's city has to be a place where the heart can sing," says Riley. "The moral imperative is that we must build great cities for the Clarence Hopkinses of the world and if we do, we build great cities for everyone," he adds.

When Riley was first elected mayor, he dutifully went shopping downtown on the Saturday before Christmas and was dismayed to find the streets empty.

"So, we did everything we possibly could, we proposed a strategic plan, we did it by the numbers, we got the pieces, we worked hard, we got the grants and we turned it around," Riley says, referring to his downtown revitalization efforts. And, of course, there's a story attached to this as well.

After it was completed, one Sunday after church, Riley was walking up the street to get an out of town newspaper when he saw a retiree walking down the street at noon by himself. He lived in the suburbs and Riley said "Harold, how are you doing?" He said "Fine." I said "What are you doing around here this time of day?" "Well Joe, Doris and I went to early church and she had some chores to do around the house" and he started blushing a little bit and stammering and getting a little embarrassed and said "Joe, I'll be honest with you. It's just so pretty down here now and I'm so proud of it. I like to come down and walk around." That's what we want in every town, in every city, in every place in our country. For citizens to have a place where they have that sense of pride.

"The restored public realm is something," Riley says. "There is a yearning in the heart of every resident of a metropolitan area."

Do people want beauty in the city, Riley asks. "They desperately want it! They crave it! They will rejoice in it. It is our responsibility to give it to them," he answers.

At the end of Riley's presentation, one can only respond with "Amen."

ONE SMALL STEP: Charleston's parking garages look like anything but. There is retail space on the first floor and instead of seeing parked cars above, the fašade is designed with what look like shuttered windows. They are also surrounded by flowers and trees.

RESOURCES - The City of Charleston's web site can be found at Some of Mayor Riley's speeches can be found at and

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