Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


Artists Unite: Gentrification and the Village of West Greenville


Mikael Pelz

07-28-2014


By Mikael Pelz

July 28, 2014

This article is the second installment in a series on gentrification.

In the first article in this series, I called for a more balanced perspective on gentrification. Citing the work of noted scholar Sharon Zukin, I argued that gentrification should be evaluated based on whether changes taking place in a neighborhood bridge the history, landmarks, and long-time residents with modern trends, new enterprises, and recently transplanted residents. Furthermore, I proposed that gentrification along these lines can create communities that are both diverse and participatory, but only if citizens, churches, community organizations, and developers are engaged in this project. This article, which tells the story of West Greenville, South Carolina, is the first of several that apply this framework to a specific instance of gentrification to illustrate how these principles play out while examining a key actor in this process.

At the turn of the 20th century, Greenville was a thriving city dotted with several large cotton mills. West Greenville had two notable mills: Brandon Mill and Woodside Mill. During their heyday, each mill supported an active community consisting of mill employees, grocery stores, and churches. By the late 1970s, the last of the mills had closed, succumbing to the economic realities of the industry which made manufacturing cotton fabric outside of the United States more cost effective. Many residents left, and those who couldn’t leave faced poverty, crime, and blight.

Over the past decade, this section of Greenville has gradually been transformed from a poor, primarily African-American neighborhood into a budding community of artists and “creatives” repurposing old and abandoned structures into galleries, studio spaces and, in some cases, homes. Citizens have remade this neighborhood into what some have called an “art mecca.”  

In comparison with Greenville’s downtown, which has received millions of dollars in redevelopment funds, the rebirth of West Greenville can be credited almost exclusively to artists. This transition began in earnest with the opening of ArtBomb in 2002, a large studio in the former general store for the Brandon Mill. Studio spaces and galleries also popped up in the adjacent Flatiron Building. In 2013, Clemson University established the Center for Visual Arts in the heart of West Greenville. This center allows students to take advantage of the creative synergy in this place. Local restaurants and boutiques have also begun to spring up on Pendleton Street, the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood. What started as a search for cheap studio space has sprouted into a critical community of artists now known as the “Village of West Greenville.”

Has gentrification in the village successfully bridged the old with the new?  From my point of view as a casual observer, the new residents of this neighborhood appear to celebrate the rich heritage of the place. A current exhibit titled Sense of Place at Clemson’s Center for Visual Arts honors the past by recounting the stories of all residents in the neighborhood as well as acknowledging their history. Moreover, this exhibit advances a critical dialogue between the long-term residents and the recently arrived artists. New residents seem to relish the folklore of the neighborhood. For instance, local artist Mandy Blankenship told me about “bootleggers corner,” which, back in the day, offered moonshine with the honor system. Finally, the structures of the old mill communities are the focal point for this new community. For example, the mostly abandoned Brandon Mill is being developed into new commercial and residential spaces and old mill houses are being rehabbed into modern homes.

But is the Village of West Greenville a shared, diverse community? According to Blankenship, interaction between African-American residents and mostly white artists is limited. Nevertheless, there are reasons to be hopeful. The increased safety of the neighborhood has made sidewalks, a prominent feature in Jane Jacobs’s work, a physical space for community building. Specifically, unlike other mill redevelopments, the development of Brandon Mill will not include a perimeter fence. The outdoor art festivals common to this neighborhood also have the capacity to bring diverse people together to share in the delights of food and art.

More sustained community outreach has focused on those residents in need. A local church regularly offers free bike repair and a mobile food market provides fresh produce to what would otherwise be a food desert. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing West Greenville is where people call home. As Blankenship noted, many people who work in the village live elsewhere. With more homeownership, the village of West Greenville could be an even greater example of how artists, as active citizens, can revive forgotten neighborhoods and break through social barriers. 

Special thanks to Mandy Blankenship for her assistance in writing this article. Her enthusiasm for West Greenville is infectious.  

- Mikael Pelz is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College. 



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