The poverty tour that I take interested people on changed forever for me on Thursday. It’s not that we went anywhere different or that I changed what I said…okay, maybe a little. However, we still drove through Sterling, Haynie-Sirrine, Nicholtown, Arcadia Hills, Green Line, Washington Heights, a couple of mill communities, and Southernside neighborhoods. Yes, I still talked about how these neighborhoods were mostly in the City of Greenville. I explained that we’d see primarily black/white poverty. If we went to the Berea area, poverty would look different there. The history of Berea is different from the inner city and the area is now heavily populated with Hispanic/Latin people. If we went to the northern part of Greenville County toward Slater and Marietta, poverty would look different there with more of an Appalachian feel to it.
I told about how most of the neighborhoods that we drove through were created as segregation neighborhoods. The geographic bounds were very tightly defined; the neighborhoods had as many houses as possible stuck in them; and there were no curbs, gutters, and sidewalks. I pointed out that everywhere we saw empty land, houses used to be there. I let the riders in the van know that Nicholtown and Washington Heights were built primarily for middle class and professional black people.
When we were in the Sterling community, I talked about how the students at Sterling High School were the courageous activists in the 1960s who marched down Main Street and who sat at the lunch counters that served whites only. I told about Sterling High School burning down in 1967 while the students were at a dance in the school’s gym. The fire was ruled accidental but it was 1967…and the students were calling for major change in this southern town.
I showed people the great wall of Greenville which separates an upper class predominantly white neighborhood from a neighborhood that is predominantly but not exclusively African-American.
When we drove through the Haynie side of Church Street, we saw the new homes there which are wonderful for the people who can handle the rent or mortgage payments that this mixed income neighborhood requires. The neighborhood is great; nevertheless, hundreds of homes were torn down in the process. People of color lost a neighborhood in the name of progress that had provided homes for generations for their families. True, many of the homes needed a lot of work; yet, they provided a base for households. I’m thrilled for those people who got to remain in the greatly improved neighborhood or who were able to move into the beautiful new homes but what happened to all those people who could only afford a dilapidated house? I wanted improvement but not at the expense of all those people for whom the Haynie-Sirrine neighborhood was home for decades.
And then we came to the Sirrine side of the neighborhood. This neighborhood is the new development on the corner of Church Street and University Ridge. It is planned and marketed as upscale living. The housing that preceded this new development was housing for primarily poor people and let’s be honest, primarily for black people. Haynie-Sirrine was a segregation neighborhood.
And this is when everything changed for me. The day I led this particular tour was the same day that the confederate battle flag was voted to come down off the State House grounds. This tour was just weeks after the massacre in Charleston. The idea of Unseen Greenville and the racial divide slammed up against each other for me.
There have been meetings of civic and religious leaders about what kind of response to recent racially motivated events is appropriate. Give money to help rebuild? Make statements as congregations? Make friends with people who are different? Pray? All these are important. However, neighborhoods which used to be gathering places for families of color, people who have low or moderate income, or people who have been historically pushed aside–not only in this southern city but in cities across the country– are now neighborhoods for people with financial means. True, people of color may benefit from some of these neighborhoods but that’s because of their economic level, not because of the color of their skin. Once again people of color may be the losers. Sure, someone may have been offered $15,000 for their home which may feel like a great deal at the time but who really benefits from the sale of that land?
The poverty tour reminded me that Greenville may not be all that different from Charleston or any of the other communities that have recently suffered because the people murdered or threatened have skin that may be darker than mine. Some of the historically black neighborhoods–read segregation neighborhoods–are being pushed aside. They are truly Unseen because they don’t exist anymore. Does this pain your southern heart?