March 13, 2019

Former Charleston Mayor Visits To Share Story of Revitalization

By Anne Levin

Joseph P. Riley, Jr., whose four decades as mayor of Charleston, North Carolina, transformed the city from an urban wasteland to a highly desirable place to live, visit, and do business, came to Princeton last week to share his success story.

Riley was invited by The Princeton Festival, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary and looking to the popular, annual Spoleto Festival USA, which Riley is credited with establishing in Charleston, for inspiration. On Thursday evening at Monument Hall, he spoke to some 30 local merchants, business, and municipal leaders about the key role the summer arts festival, and historic preservation, played in Charleston’s revival.

“Our vision is to become a destination festival,” said Benedikt Von Schroeder, a board member of The Princeton Festival, upon introducing Riley. “We want to enhance Princeton’s role as a cultural destination over the next 15 years.”

Efforts to establish the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston as a sister to the Festival of the 2 Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, were stymied at first. “Plenty of people wondered why we were getting involved with this Italian arts festival,” Riley said. “There was this challenge of fundraising and communicating why it was important. And we sold it. Because the arts are a multiplier of energy, vision, enthusiasm, and culture. For Charleston, you can date it before Spoleto, and after Spoleto.”

The city was “down at the heels” in the mid-1970s, Riley said. “It still had not really recovered from the Civil War. The heart of the city was a vacant lot. It was pretty beat up. And we knew the festival would give it renewed energy.”

Riley’s administration was careful to involve the local community from the beginning, he said. The festival began small but now includes 17 days of performances ranging from free concerts on the waterfront and steps of the city’s Customs House, to ticketed events in theaters. “We wanted to make it accessible to everyone,” Riley said. “We wanted the community to feel that the festival was theirs, at all incomes. It gave citizens the membership in the big deal, even if they weren’t at the expensive performances.”

During a question and answer period, resident Joel Schwartz asked Riley how the city had turned abandoned buildings into affordable housing. It has been a priority from the beginning of the city’s revival, Riley responded. “We didn’t want to lose any structures. And we believed strongly in affordable housing,” he said. “We created a world-class shelter for the homeless and we formed some housing nonprofits, one at a time. That kept these houses from coming down, in neighborhoods that had been falling apart. Restoring them became developmental. It saved our city and kept neighborhoods intact.”

James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum, asked how much existing infrastructure was used in establishing the Spoleto festival in the city. “It wasn’t huge. We had one great space for chamber music, but not much else,” Riley said. Jill Barry, director of Morven Museum and Garden, asked how long it took to see the growth the city was seeking. Riley said that the festival’s founder, composer Gian Carlo Menotti, was “amazing but challenging, and that created some hiccups with the board. So it took about seven years. But we had a strategic plan, and we stuck to it.”

Rich Gittleman of the Princeton Merchants Association asked Riley how restrictive Charleston’s historic preservation laws were on the business community. Riley joked that the town’s historical society was often called the hysterical society. “But we’re very flexible in terms of adaptive reuse,” he said. “Every building saved is a vibrant achievement.”

Asked about parking issues, Riley said Charleston did a study that recommended new parking facilities. “We made them, and we made them beautiful,” he said. “We also put in trolleys to take people from the parking garage to the downtown.”

To deal with gentrification, “keep creating affordable housing,” he said. “That’s the pressing challenge in the American city. It’s a national issue.”

Riley left municipal government in 2016, but is still active in Charleston and is currently a professor at his alma mater, The Citadel, in a professorship  that has been named for him. His legacy project, Charleston’s International African American Museum located on the site of the wharf where enslaved Africans took their first steps in this country, is about to break ground.

“He is a remarkable fellow,” said regional planner Ralph Widner, who was instrumental in bringing Riley, his friend for years, to Princeton. “When he took over, Charleston was very stagnant and the downtown was dead. It had a serious racial problem. He became a valiant civil rights leader and urban designer for the town. And you can see the results.”