Advocacy in the face in the face of change - Extended Interview

The Eastside of Charleston was one of many traditionally black areas of Charleston. Although never monolithic in demographics, the Eastside is facing similar economic pressures of gentrification, heirs rights and flooding. The neighborhood maintains a historical amount of resiliancy in the face of these challenges. 

Earl: Latanya, tell us a little bit about East Side Community Development.

LaTonya: East Side Community Development Corporation is a nonprofit, but it started out as a grassroots organization, as our neighborhood association. We’ve come a long way and we’re just happy to be here. We provide the neighborhood with lots of resources and connect them to other resources. And we’re very proud of that. When the pandemic happened, we were the only place that was open. And so we found out that people needed access to computers. And so that was very important to us.  So we started on this mad hunt for a computer because we have one computer, and only one me. But I figured that if we had more computers, we can service more people. And so that would avoid people having to come back all the time, trying to get simple resources like, connection to food stamp or to their unemployment, or looking for jobs, doing virtual interviews.  And then even just providing Wi-Fi to the community because a lot of people did not have wi fi.  So we opened up our wi fi. And then we also allowed them to use our computers. We thought that that was a great help for the whole community at this time.

Earl: So we’re in the Eastside community. But what is the Eastside community? Tell me a little bit about the history.

LaTonya: We’ve always had a mixed neighborhood, but then it became predominantly black. We went through an ugly phase where we had lots of drugs and stuff like that, and the neighborhood pulled together and we cleaned it up. So I think we’re a resilient neighborhood. Recently we’ve just gone through gentrification, but it’s happened. We’re all adjusting and we’re trying to find how we can unify and be one community.

Earl: The gentrification hasn’t stopped, though. I mean. Well, what hasn’t happened? So explain. How is it that I mean, yes, we’re on the peninsula of Charleston, but we’re only blocks away from a lot of money and we’re just blocks away from this community, How did it happened?

LaTonya: I guess because a lot of people have “heirs property”. I don’t know if you know what “heirs property” is, but when a family has property, but they do not leave a will on how to dispose of the property once a family member dies.

Earl: They’ve been here for generations.

LaTonya: Generations.

Craig: They’ve owned it for a long time.

LaTonya: For a long time. And now the matriarch, the patriarch, has died and now they need to do something with the property. And what often happens is maybe one family member will pay the taxes and then all of a sudden, all these family members want a piece of the pie. And so heirs property has been it just kind of robbed the neighborhood, basically.

Earl: So one family member pays the property or multiple ones and then all of a sudden they can’t decide who owns what, never wants a piece of the pie and then somehow they lose control of the property. And gets picked up by a developer or resold to somebody else. And now you’re replaced long, you know, generational, you know, property with somebody new.

“So I think we’re a resilient neighborhood. Recently we’ve just gone through gentrification, but it’s happened. We’re all adjusting and we’re trying to find how we can unify and be one community.” ~ LaTonya Gamble, ECDC Board Member

LaTonya: Exactly. And it’s heartbreaking to see it because some of these family homes have been in their family for generations, you know, but it’s sad. No one lives forever. And so we try to, like, make sure that people understand the importance of wills and trusts, getting appraisals of a property. Speaking to family members, we try to partner with heirs property to have little charrette so that people will know. And the problem is, in this neighborhood, a lot of people do not trust new people.  And we just have to find a way that we can communicate how important it is to have a will so that we don’t lose these homes anymore.

Craig: And it’s all legal.

LaTonya: It’s all legal. We’ve lost, I think, maybe 89 to 90 homes.

Craig: Oh, my gosh.

LaTonya: That may be associated with heirs property, so that’s a lot!

LaTonya: So the role of you so community development, one of those things is to educate people on the importance of what is heirs property and then what are the importance of legal wills and things like that. To maintain continuity.

LaTonya: We have to do a lot of outreach and sometimes we have to just go to where they are and meet them where they are. And that’s what a lot of people don’t like to do. They like to have like large meetings, but sometimes it takes a smaller meeting. So sometimes we have like smaller meetings with maybe three families. Just because we know that someone has died in the family, you’re in jeopardy of losing this property. How can we help you connect you to the right resources before it gets too far out of hand?

Craig: Yeah. Have you ever been able to, like, negotiate some with the developers or they. They come in and they do what they want?

LaTonya: No, we don’t do that at all. We try to, like, really educate the family. It’s very important that they know what they have and how important it is and the value of what they have. Developers. We can’t compete.

LaTonya: This was a thriving community. I guess it’s always been here on the peninsula. But I’ve been told there used to be a couple of grocery stores, barber shops. Over the years, the thing is kind of ebbed and flowed. But there’s some stores and things that have been around since for a very long time. Mary Sweet Shop is one of those.

LaTonya: Yes. The Powells grocery store, the Quick Stop, the spot 47 is another one. Knights has been around. I mean, it’s change owners, but that’s something that’s been around in our community. Right. Top of the Line Barber Shop has been around for a long time, but they’re in danger that this pandemic has put all those in danger of being just gone now.

Earl: How much pressure is on you to make sure that this thing doesn’t change for the bad?

LaTonya: Oh, it’s a lot of pressure!  You know, there are a lot of people that own their businesses, like painters and stuff like that. To other people, it may not look like a big, thriving business, but that’s how they feed their family. And while they may not get those big contracts, they’ve been in business for like maybe 15 or 20 years. And so it’s very important that we connect them to resources to make sure that they can survive. The problem with that is the paperwork is so complicated.  It’s almost like you say “it’s for us but we can’t figure it out”, And then when we get somebody to help us figure it out you say, “oh thank you for applying, but we just, we’re sorry”. We’re sorry. That’s what’s happening to a lot of, you know, small business, you know, like soul food. Hannibal’s wasn’t able to weather the storm a little bit.

Earl: That’s the soul food place right over here.

LaTonya: So I don’t know, how long they can do it as well.  Miss Mary has been here, that’s what, 47. They’re facing some challenges, but they’re still hanging in there. So we want to make sure that they get connected to those resources so that we can still have a melting pot.

Craig: What’s the makeup of the community here in terms of like, is it the lot of service industry people, a lot of artists, a lot of local business?

LaTonya: Or now that the neighborhood has changed, I think we have like a lot of developers, retired teachers. That’s our elderly population. They’ve been in the neighborhood for a long time and they’re in the eighties and they just want to age at home. Then we have our hospitality for the people of color that live in the neighborhood. That’s how they make their dollars and cents. Then we have a few entrepreneurs, and then we have just regular people that work in the 9 to 5 everyday job and none of them is in danger.  As you build these new homes to older homes, I think it’s kind of like a disadvantage because our homes are older and we’re under the old law, which means that we can’t change our paint color and stuff like that and we have to buy the very expensive windows. So yes, our house get in disrepair, but the new homes then raise up all these taxes and then it makes our insurance, our homeowner’s insurance rate rise to the top. So then we’re facing that as well as we try to stay in the neighborhood.

Earl: And really keeping people in the neighborhood, too, because the rent go up.

LaTonya: The rent is now $2,500 in this area here.

Earl: And if you’re working Food & Bev or you’re a teacher, you can’t live on that.

LaTonya: I see that the city is trying to come up with creative ways to provide affordable housing, but they still miss a large population and they’re only servicing.  I want to say maybe 15% as these new homes come in, because they have to be mixed income. And I think, as you see with mixed income, a certain amount of people have to make, you know, X, Y, Z, dollars, and then another. You’ve got these people in the middle and then you’ve got another layer and then you’ve got us. And I just don’t think that will translate into a lot of housing for us. But I, I am hopeful that something will shake down. I know that they’re talking about doing Land Trust, but unless people make more money…  I heard somebody say they’re making $9 an hour.  So if your rent is for a one bedroom. $1,400 dollars off $1,500 dollars at $9 an hour. How do you pay for water?  You don’t.

Craig: You don’t.

LaTonya: They don’t want to raise the minimum wage to $15, but I just don’t see how you want hospitality workers to work. And you you keep them at 20 hours so they don’t have health insurance. And so it’s just a lot going on.

Craig: I was told by a friend of mine, I live in Richmond, Virginia. I was told by a friend of mine that per capita the eviction rates in Richmond and Charleston are some of the highest in the entire country. I think that’s because people can’t afford to pay if you are making minimum wage? How are you going to afford to live in these kind of cool, historic areas and they just beat you out?

LaTonya: Well, it would have been nice if I went up $50 or $100. You just got like a base and it’s going up $300. So it’s just like, I don’t know…

Earl: How do you guys get funded? Is it donations and grants or what do you got?

LaTonya: Well, we do grants and donations, but we’re small, too. So we’re like the small fish in the big pond.

Earl: But it would be helpful if people would donate to you.

LaTonya: Would be helpful. We do a lot of things.  This year we had like 75 seniors during the pandemic. We provide a virtual learning hub for our students. We still do a computer class, we do virtual interviews. We connect them to jobs. We try to do like a grant to help people fix up their homes, but we never get enough. So $5,000 ain’t going to go that far. You know, you might you might paint the step or something, but, you know, you’re really not doing anything.

Earl: We’re a coastal city. We got climate change coming.  So, Latanya, I’d love for you to introduce us to some of the folks around the neighborhood. I know this is an area that’s had some problems with flooding. And so.

LaTonya: Let’s go across.

Craig: I’ll  hobble across.

LaTonya: Oh, well, I got ya.  How about that?

Earl: Well, tell me a little bit about this spot.

LaTonya: Well, this is Miss Mary Sweet Shop, and I believe she’s been here for, like 66 years or longer. She had the first restaurant and really one of our first entrepreneurs. She transition the restaurant to like a boarding house. And then she did the sweet shop. And so we all know her as Miss Mary, sweet shop and sweet shop. And so she has this wonderful son named Joe, who we call our historian, because Joe’s always bringing me newspaper, telling me this is what we need to do.  And so I think you should meet Joe.

Craig: Let’s do it. I’m looking forward to it.

LaTonya: Hey, Joe. Hi. Come on out. I want you to meet some people.

Craig: Hey, Joe.

LaTonya: This is Earl.

Earl: Hey, Joe. Hey. Good to see you.

Craig: Very nice to meet you, Joe.

Joe: You too.

Earl: Well, I’ve actually read about Mary’s Sweet Shop, and I know that you’ve been in this neighborhood for quite a while.

Joe: Yeah, I grew up here on this corner because we came here when I was eight years old.

Earl: To this physical location right here?

Joe: This physical location here. I was born at 27 1/2 Amherst right over here. Matter of fact, in that store is when my daddy went in to call the doctor to come. But he didn’t come. And who they raised here was not just my parents who raised me, but also the conversation with my neighbors next door, the Lucas’ and then down halfway to the block and being like I was their child and how they was putting responsibility and using me to do certain things.

Joe: The important and most critical behind cutting I got happened in 1971 right here. I was not the beating my mama did, but that conversation with Daisy Lucas on what to do with your life and how you’re going to live your life and save money and be responsible. And when she said to me, because I bought my second car, right? The first one, I only had nine months and it didn’t have no air conditioning, no FM radio and those things. I came out here to show her the car and she said, I’m disappointed in you and with that, and how she talked. That was a behind cut because she knew she was talking to me and my values and just a standard. But that’s how we can have an influence on good children within the neighborhood, and that’s how it was all over this neighborhood. And then that keeps me here because I want to do the same thing with so many of the kids, to help. That we can leave our love in this world.

Earl: What did this neighborhood feel like when you were growing up?

LaTonya: It felt like everyone lived in each house was part of your family. But that conversation that we were having, that interaction that we were sharing, that Sunday environment where we all was home on the porch and enjoying family life and being able to talk to each other and really share with each other. To hear someone speak a different language to their kids, but then turn around and still tell you that language so you could understand it.  That made you a part of what that community was. Then that was what was happening all over this neighborhood.

Earl: Some of these buildings were grocery stores and other things.

Joe: On this corner, there were nine businesses. There were three in the building over here, a barbershop, sweet shop and a cleaners. Over there was a liquor store, a grocery store and a dry cleaners. And here was the Jewish store, Mr. Henry. And there you had Whitney’s grocery store. And that pink door building was another liquor store. But the activity within the neighborhood was around the clock, people working together, working constantly, and they were actually teaching the children, by how to see them work and always doing things, what they could do with their life.

Craig: Yeah. So, Joe, you were in front of your sweet shop. Give me a little background. And what is this sweet shop?

Earl: Sweet shop they created back in the forties and fifties. And the kid just to the children within the neighborhood and the snack foods and also all the fruits that they would buy back then. Of course, kids don’t buy fruits, apples and oranges like we did back then, but, we still cater to them. No beer, no wine just but the children would want also have a net exposure to want like my mama learned from when she had a restaurant here that she didn’t want to poison anybody. When she did have a beer license and she saw how they got drunk up there, she said, no, that was that. And so she made it all these years without that.

Earl: Yeah. Wow. Joe, you’ve been around for such a long time. There’s been flooding on the peninsula. I think that’s an understatement, right? Tell me about I mean, is it worse? Is a better what is it been like.

Joe: It’s gotten worse! It’s gotten worse to where we’re standing that one time that we actually had a foot of water in here. With the storm. In this block here. But you go back to 1959 and Hurricane Grace, that water only came up right there. We you see that blue can, you know, but that showed you that it has increased within this area. But how do we address what needs to be done? And the Dutch Dialogues and that conversation that we’ve had, it has not continued with the city where we can address the needs of this community.  Issue by issue. So we get there and have it in place. One statement was made at that meeting about these drains and the connection to the harbor and no pneumatic wells that would open and close on high tide during a situation like that. The 12 of them needs work on. If they would do one or two a year or even when we look at the wall they want to build round Downtown and we would put away the money for every certain feet of that wall we do every year, we could get it done before flooding gets real serious with this area. Also look at what federal funds like they did in Upstate they did put pulled down to save so many houses. Well we can do that. We got to look at the character of the houses here and what it shows individuals. That detail and accomplishment, what they had back there with less equipment to do it, but they could really leave a building to support that family. And the parents’ desire of what a house and a home was, that we want to stay in place! Because it connects us too to what we have to do in the future. What we want to be able to say, like I said earlier, about leaving our love in world.  And at level the next 20, 30 years, we want them to be able to really function as good or better than what we’ve done years ago.

Earl: LaTonya, out of all the people that you serve, what percentage of them are impacted by flooding?

LaTonya: Hmm. I would say. 85%.

Earl: That’s a thing for everyone on the east side.

LaTonya: They usually lose everything. Like you can see them put their furniture out. Then on the corner of Reed and America Street, it floods. Then by Sanders Clyde school, it floods. Where those children live over there, it floods.

Earl: And how does that impact the family, though? I mean, once you have flooding? You have flooding and then mold.

LaTonya: You have to throw a lot of your stuff away. You have to wash walls down, if you can’t afford to replace it, with bleach. And that’s hazardous as well. So it’s like starting all over again. Over and over again. And then the people with older homes, they’re in jeopardy of losing insurance because, they just did an assessment, saying that our area may be, in another flood level. So that means more money are maybe we if we can’t raise our houses, then we might have to lose our houses. Does that make sense?

Craig: Is it a little bit about, you know, political and economic?

LaTonya: You know, I’m not sure. I’m not a politician. I’m just a mama. I’m just a advocate of my community. But I don’t know. I just know that, with people not making that much money and they’re trying to hold on to their homes and the flooding issue, it just makes it kind of difficult because, you know, you’re you’re facing multiple bank.

Earl: Is this a community that’s in trouble?

LaTonya: I think so, but I think I’d would like to see the city give more resources. And they’ve been doing a better job at, cleaning out drains out a little bit more. But I would like to see, with all these developments coming in our community, maybe they can have like an impact fee that just would be earmarked for flooding to help us out. They’re getting a rich neighborhood. And I would like for them to leave something behind that we all can use. So if they could put some money in the kitty for flooding and our children wouldn’t have to walk through the dirty flood water are we wouldn’t have to lose our cars. We wouldn’t have to lose our furniture. Our insurance.  So I don’t know what that looks like, but I would like to see us try.

Craig: And with climate change, it’s just going to keep getting worse.

LaTonya: Right. So I think we need to start now rather than later.

Earl: And this is not just flooding from the ocean. Clean water coming in. We’re flooding. And we’re basically we’ve got all of the bad stuff that this thing is collecting and our kids are having to stand for their school buses and wade through water, you know?

LaTonya: Exactly. So that all plays a big part. And, you know, we’ve had wonderful groups and wonderful neighbors that try to clean and keep around the drains clean so that the water will go down. But we just need so much more.

Joe: There was an article that was in the USA Today. I showed you where it talked about Charleston and the flooding here. And then the insurance per house could possibly go to $18,000 a year. That’s enough emphasis right there that we need to move forward with all the plans. That’s an emphasis where we need to have more discussion about how we address the flooding. But it’s us who have to move forward, contact the city and move forward on certain issues on that so we can show them that these things are being done.

Earl: It’s your community, Joe. You haven’t left. You stick around.

Joe: I’ll never leave.

Craig: It’s a beautiful community. I love this place. And it’s a beautiful day for it.

LaTonya: Lontya, we appreciate the work that you do. I know if there’s some way that we can help raise visibility, and help you all out a little bit, we’d love to figure out a way to do that.

LaTonya: Please, please donate to us. We’re a really good organization that’s telling you. We really put it back in the community. I mean, we’re a small organization, but we share every penny that we have with our community. I mean, we have all kinds of resources, the computer class, the virtual hub. You know, we do workshops for financial literacy. So please, if you could give, just… $5,000? anything! We’re not picky. Whatever you can give, we’re so appreciative. Thank you so much.

Craig: Thank you for your years of service to the children in this community.

Joe: Well, I thank you for this. And this is one of the main thing to do. The Joel going to do with this film is going to expose to other people in this nation within their heart what they can do. And that’s what I want to happen nationwide. Looking at the pandemic, we are and we can help individuals to get up out of there. We could create avenues in the community where people who’ve been downtrodden, who really gone through a suffering during this time, those who do not have a job… Be able to get back, not just on that level, but a higher level. Then we would be doing what we supposed to do here, and that’s why I’m hoping and praying and we want to happen.

Earl: Thank you. I told you that Craig and I grew up together in Bangkok, Thailand. One of the things that he’s like was something called the thousand year old egg now. But but do you have any pickled eggs?

Joe: Yes, I do.

Earl: Can I get me two pickled eggs?

Joe: Yes.

Earl: Craig, have you had a pickle egg?

Craig: I don’t know that I have. I’m excited!  I love anything pickled.

Earl: This is a Southern thing.

Joe: Yes, it.

Earl: This is something that when we go to bluegrass festivals and stuff like that. Pickled eggs, and I love me some pickled eggs.

Joe: So we need to call you Hawkeye because it was behind the bananas and he spotted them.

Earl: Well, first of all, I saw you got pickled, I don’t know if it’s like ham hocks or something like that, but.

Joe: Yeah, that’s the pig feet.

Craig: You got pickled pig’s feet! My Mom grew up eating those pickled pigs feet. 

Earl: But this is pickled eggs. And this is one of the things I love about the South.  We got boiled peanuts and stuff like that down here in the South. Are you a fan of pickled eggs?

Joe: No.

Earl: Have you seen it? Look at that color.

Craig: Oh, man, that’s good. Yeah, I like that.

Joe: Actually, the cooking and the processing that they did so much of the stuff. My mom, when she had her restaurant, she and her aunt would actually jar up things, okay? They would stand when she closed the restaurant from 11pm until 3:30am in the morning and they would jar up all the vegetables. So we all have it at the end of the season, right into January, before they came up with all the stuff they do now.

Earl: Just how much is this pickled egg?

Joe: 69 a piece.

Earl: Put it on my bill.

Joe: Well, I’m retired, so I’m not living off of this, huh?

Craig: You have people do kind of IOUs, right? Is that.

Joe: Yes. Yeah. On the bills and stuff like that. It’s to help them out in a situation where they don’t have money. My momma did the same thing, but she didn’t put the stickers up there. She had them in the book like this. You can see it right there.

Craig: She recorded it.

Joe: She recorded it in her own notebook. But I decided to put it up there to be reminded, because a lot of times, with the 4 organizations I work with, besides here, I can really forget things, but to have it there and this is something I learned from her too, is when that individual come by and they have been taking care of it. She would go to them and say, You could have just come and tell me that you did not have the money now. That would be the honest thing to do. She did not approach him to get at them about the money per se, but the honesty on how they present herself and what was respectful to her. And you find out when you look at the same letter I have right there. That that was one that I found that she did, that the girl slipped that under the door and went on to her job that she had and let her know that she was going to take care of it down the road. And that’s the honesty you want to build. There were times when you had the two schools up there. Parents were busy and couldn’t do something. You just tell the child when you get out of school, go to Miss Mary. And they would be here and she would get stopped right then and she would go take some something to eat, take care of them. Like that’s her child, you know.

Earl: Joe Thank you, Mary.

Joe: Sweet shop. Yeah.

Earl: When you’re in Charleston. Come on down.

Joe: Come on down. I’ll be right here. Happy to see you. Happy to share this life. Would you get asked? That is so important to have those conversation.

LaTonya: There’s so much more to explore. And we want you to join us on The Good Road.

LaTonya: For more in-depth content, meet us on the Internet at the Good Robot TV.

LaTonya: Hear more great stories, connect organizations, and make sure you download our podcast. Fill Anthropologie.