King Street dethroned

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By: Madison Ling and Sigrid Johannes

Photos by: Jaquan Leonard and Kaleb Dill

“They were the royalty.”

Totally at ease among the black, tan and gold tones of his polished home, Jack Alterman reclines in an Eames chair and tells a story about the city Charleston was — and what he hopes it will become.

Alterman is one of the most famous photographers in the region, and his work has taken him throughout the city. His celebrated project ‘East Siders Matter’ dove into one of Charleston’s most long-lived residential neighborhoods. Another of his projects, ‘Faces of the 500 Block’ documented business owners from the block who had been opening and closing their stores, each day, for decades. This work has given Alterman a unique perspective on downtown Charleston’s arterial avenue — King Street. “King Street, which runs from the Battery to practically North Charleston, is really a microcosm, a very important one, of the city,” he said.

Tourists, students, residents young and old, everyone from the palmetto rose boys to visiting movie stars can be seen on King. The lifeblood of Charleston flows through this street, and it is a different blood type than it used to be. Alterman recalled how shopping in stores like Berlin’s felt like a fashion show. His grandmother owned Rosalie Meyer’s, which was the only bridal shop in Charleston at the time. Alterman’s own mother and father ran a store called Elza’s, and they would entertain shoppers from open to close with cocktails and conversation. It was an era when stores like Elza’s, Bob Ellis, Croghan’s Jewel Box and Jack Krawcheck thrived. ‘Hospitality’ was part of business, long before it came to signify a Charleston industry. “The reason I’m mentioning these people, like Berlin’s, is because they are the last survivors of what I remember and what the old Charleston will remember,” Alterman said.

Many stores like Elza’s shuttered when Saks Fifth Avenue moved into the corner of Market and King, a space now occupied by Forever 21. Elza’s old home is now Luna.

When did the shift begin? Alterman credits the construction of the Charleston Place Hotel in the 1980s. This brought an influx of commercial energy to that block. Saks Fifth Avenue followed in 1997, and the tide began to swell until it was unstoppable. “What we’re seeing is really the gentrification of King Street. It’s a people thing. The moms and the pops and their kids are being forced out…because they didn’t own their building and whoever did has raised the rent too high and they can’t make ends meet,” Alterman said.

Who were these moms and pops? Mothers and fathers, like the Altermans who owned Elza’s. “Life sort of centered around King Street from one end to the other,” Alterman said. After attending Rivers High School on the 1000 block, he would ride the bus down to his family’s dress shop. “All my friends in high school, their parents had stores, or worked, or had some roots in something that was going on on that street,” Alterman said.

Jack Alterman.

The changes are not all bad. According to the Charleston Chamber of Commerce’s 2016 Talent Demand Study, the Charleston area will generate 26,000 new jobs over the next five years. Specifically for 2017, the Chamber expects that the retail sector will grow by 6.9 percent and unemployment will shrink by 2.9 percent. Alterman personally finds the new mix of people refreshing. But despite this variety, he observes more and more people turning inward. “We’re living inside of our heads, our own little bubble, everywhere we go, and that affects the whole community,” Alterman said. An unfortunate example is the Cigar Factory on East Bay Street. Built in 1881 as a cotton processing factory, it later became one of the most successful cigar plants in the nation, employing thousands from the surrounding neighborhoods. As smoking declined in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the factory space was turned over to other uses. Each iteration, from artists’ lofts to offices to expensive event space, has neglected in one way or another to seek input from the surrounding community. The great warehouse is not the job-producing engine it once was, and the new businesses that have occupied it provided little opportunity or revenue to the community. The result is lingering underemployment and resentment. In short, “what they didn’t do was involve the neighborhood,” Alterman said.

King Street will never again be the domain of mom and pop shops, but perhaps it is not doomed either. Thanks to restrictive municipal codes, the Board of Architectural Review must approve any attempt “to demolish, or demolish in part, or remove, or alter the exterior architectural appearance of any existing structure.” The Board considers many factors, foremost being the historic and aesthetic value of the structure and how any changes would impact the “nature and character of the surrounding area.”  Consequently, the look of King Street has been largely maintained. “The cornices [ornamental moldings at the top of a structure]  are the real faces of King Street. They’re the ones that were looking down, all through the century, the whole 20th century. At parades that went by, at cars as they changed and evolved, all the people. They were there looking down, like they were the royalty. All this change, all these events were parading in front of them,” said Alterman. The buildings of King Street tell a story of push and pull, progress and preservation. Alterman predicts the onslaught of chain stores will slow soon, due to stiff competition from online shopping. “I would love to actually see it become a pedestrian street,” he said. “It’s becoming this Disneyland, so you may as well reinvent Disneyland. Reinvent it to become a classy, classic place like Charleston could be. Bring out the charm of the city, the color, just that feeling that you have.”

Alterman walks us through his home, which is practically wallpapered with his artwork. Black and white portraits of friends fill the dining room, artifacts of his father-in-law’s theatre career adorn the stairway and family portraits begin to dominate as you near the kitchen. He lingers with quiet love over a shot of his mother, playing her weekly card game with three other Charlestonians, and his nephew, a brilliant young veteran of the Obama administration. His home, like his work, is intensely interested in community, in people. How they live, work and laugh together. How they gather, in front of convenience stores and bridal shops and front porches and dimly-lit diner doorways. Alterman hopes that this bond of community will endure, even as King Street and the neighborhoods around it continue to transform.

“King Street really, from one end to the other, was a neighborhood that you could walk into if you were from around here, and know somebody. You may not know everybody, but you knew somebody. You felt like nothing was ever going to change.”

Filling in the sky

Looking out the window at a grungy, empty parking lot with cranes towering in the distance, Mike Shuler gazes at his hometown. A Charleston native, Shuler built his company King Street Commercial in a time with very little potential in real estate. Today, the area right outside the window of his third floor King Street office is one of the city’s most dense, coveted patches of land. But it has not reached its potential quite yet.

“In order to finish what we have started, I would like to see the skyline fill in. And I don’t mean fill up, up to the sky. I’d like to see quality development. I’d like to see how the market will dictate the new uses that come into town,” Shuler said.

While city leaders, neighborhoods and developers debate about what to do in relation to the transformation of King Street, the hub of downtown Charleston, Shuler believes that the market will show what we need for social and economic growth.

Charleston, as a tourist town, has changed dramatically from when Shuler lived here as a kid. Instead of coming downtown, people would go to Mount Pleasant. King Street was not a place where people would hang out, get drinks after work or shop like it is today. Even just nine years ago, King Street was an assortment of boarded-up storefronts and dilapidated buildings, not a safe place. Shuler saw this as a place of opportunity. The 400 block had been restored. Why not the 500 block, what we know today as Upper King?

Shuler sees a changed Charleston, one that offers possibilities to those of us starting out in the professional world with little financial stability to support us. Everyone knows Charleston is expensive. But perhaps that could be remedied with more affordable micro-lofts. “They’re doing it in bigger cities and doing it well and I think we could do it better than anybody,” Shuler said. People would walk to work instead of driving, alleviating traffic issues city-wide.

A positive change is coming. Neighborhoods are being revitalized. Following Hurricane Hugo, much of King Street was boarded up and abandoned. Due to neglect and damage, King Street and its surrounding neighborhoods were, for the most part, empty. So looking at the idea of “gentrification, I think some of that is going on, but it’s mostly infill. There weren’t a lot of people here to begin with,” Schuler said.

Through a lot of hard work from a lot of amazing people, Shuler has built a legacy, including a few successful bars such as Midtown and The Blind Tiger and a substantial commercial real estate company tied to King Street.

Part of this real estate business includes the space above Basil, a popular Thai restaurant, that is currently under renovation for office space. There, Office Evolution, will sell memberships rather than the traditional renting of office space, catering to the younger crowd who have flexible working hours and styles that don’t need a permanent office.

“In general, it’s very positive” Shuler said. “They say a rising tide floats old boats. I think you have to know where you came from to know where you’re going. So, although there wasn’t anything wrong with the community or the people that were here, that part of town needed economic drivers to sustain it. I think we are very fortunate to have found that spark. This is the hottest street in the South…I mean, that’s why you’re here.”

“Everybody’s just the same.”

Leaning against the plate glass windows in the front room of her studio, Charleston Power Yoga co-owner Beth Thomas can watch the pleasant afternoon bustle of Upper King pass her by. “When we opened in 2009 there was nothing up here,” she said.

Thomas remembers when there was nothing on this stretch of King. It was dark, many old businesses had bars on the windows and pedestrians scattered once the sun went down. Today, there are lines on the sidewalks to get into some of the most popular bars and restaurants in town. Upscale clothing boutiques nestle next to the clubs. Thomas looks at this growth and smiles.

“I feel like it indicates there’s growth and vitality. When we opened it was 2009, I remember people saying ‘This is a really tough time to be opening a new business.’ I guess it just goes to show you people have resilience. There’s just no stopping Charleston.”

The free community classes on Friday afternoons draw a diverse crowd — men and women, young and old, hungover college kids, housewives who just dropped their kids off, people on their lunch break, servers who haven’t started their shift yet.

Thomas values this mix of experiences which distinguishes their local business from the big-box stores further down the street. “When people are in their yoga clothes, you have no idea who they are. Everyone is on the same level when you’re on your mat and you’re sweaty. Everybody’s just the same.”

Charleston is in the midst of a tremendous transformation. We, as students, are witnessing some of the most intense economic growth and demographic shifts the city has experienced since slavery. The arrival of a new era feels inevitable, and some people are more thrilled about this than others. Emotions range from excitement to anxiety to anger — and that’s ok. Because at the end of the day, King Street is not just a street full of mom-and-pops or big boxes; it’s a street full of people. Charlestonians have always been at the heart of this street, whether they were opening their own business or eager to start their new job at a national chain. The people will always be there. So the next time you’re strolling by, look up from your phone. Say hello to Charleston as we know it now, as it is in this moment, before we have to say goodbye.

*This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of The Yard.

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