derelict and dangerous, downtown Greenville's Main
Street today is a place for strolling, shopping and
S.C. — A river ran through it. Falls, too. But nobody
the Reedy River Falls, and the park that surrounds it and
the suspension bridge that spans it, are at the heart of
one of the great smallish-town successes in the United
population 62,000, is very cool. Put it this way: If you
were planning a drive to Charleston or Myrtle Beach or
Hilton Head or any of the usual South Carolina suspects
and only saw Greenville as a place to fill your tank and
empty your bladder, you might want to tweak your itinerary
like this not so many years ago.
more than a generation, as the old textile mills shut down
and not enough happened to replenish the town’s jobs and
spirit, Greenville — especially downtown Greenville —
had become a pretty miserable place.
I moved here in 1982," remembers Bill Marcley,
retired director of Greenville County Emergency Medical
Services, "they actually barricaded Main Street. Most
of the stores were empty. You couldn’t drive down Main
Street after 9 o’clock at night because of the crime and
Main Street looks like — well, not only alive (even
after 9), but downright spiffy. Boutiques and galleries.
Statues and other street art. A Brooks Brothers. An Orvis.
On Main Street and its tributary lanes can be found
barbecue (of course), and shrimp and grits (naturally),
but also the following: French, Dutch, Belgian, Japanese,
Persian, Italian, Vietnamese, the usual (but better than
usual) steaks and seafood, and at Soby’s (since 1997,
which in downtown Greenville makes it a pioneer), fried
green tomatoes like none you have ever experienced before,
even if you actually have experienced fried green tomatoes
for serious diners who like their kale massaged, their
sweetbreads crispy and their lamb bellied: Try American
Grocery — the kind of foodie-magnet restaurant you’d
easily find in, say, high-end Manhattan, not in Upstate
one more surprise: On Saturday mornings, in season, Main
Street becomes a farmers market so bustling, and with
musicians everywhere, it would make California spit its
kumquats (through Oct. 29, www.saturdaymarketlive.com).
that plus a ballpark, 5,000-seat Fluor Field, on the edge
of downtown. It’s home to the Class-A Greenville Drive,
a Boston Red Sox affiliate, and it mimics Fenway Pahk in
every way but the accent, right down to its left-field
park opened in 2006 on a piece of land that was an
abandoned lumberyard. "A lot of junkies and homeless
people," says Marcley, who was speaking just across
the street from the ballpark, in Shoeless Joe Jackson’s
house. Yes, that Shoeless Joe Jackson’s house. Joe grew
up in Greenville, learned his baseball here and moved back
to town years after his baseball career ended with a
proposition. (See "Field of Dreams" or
"Eight Men Out" for that story.)
house he died in, this one ("He actually passed away
in the front bedroom here," says volunteer Mike
Miller), was moved here from its original location 3 miles
away and opened in 2008 as the Shoeless Joe Jackson
a statue of Shoeless Joe in front of a barbecue restaurant
a short walk away. The base of the statue is made of
bricks salvaged from Chicago’s old Comiskey Park.
word about the local barbecue. There’s plenty, and it’s
very, very good. The South Carolina classic sauce is
in the 1700s," says local historian John Nolan,
"there were a lot of Germans coming to South
Carolina, and they brought their mustards."
do all wood fire," says Jeff Little, owner and chief
barbecuer at Mike & Jeff’s, a few minutes’ drive
from the center and typical of what’s around. "We’ve
got hickory, oak and pecan. About as old-school as you can
get … "
would expect good barbecue in this part of the world. It’s
the lively, charming downtown that’s the stunner. It has
a sports arena, museums of art and history, lots of new
hotels (plus the stunningly restored, 12-story Poinsett,
circa 1925), a wonderful bookstore-gift shop-cafe-bakery
(M. Judson in a former courthouse), a venue for Broadway
shows — again, this is Greenville, S.C., we’re talking
about — but nothing amazes quite like the downtown
miracle of Reedy River Falls and Falls Park.
River and its marvelous falls always ran through it, but
waterfall had been covered up with a (four-lane) road
bridge," says Nolan, the historian. "It was
right over the top of it, and nobody could see it. And the
river was overgrown. It looked horrible down there."
has had its share of visionaries, elected and not, and
seeds of planning date to the 1970s, but it was current
Mayor Knox White (first elected in 1995) who envisioned
what would become one of the most remarkable urban spaces
in America, one that truly transformed Greenville.
a series of falls and pools accessible to adventurous kids
and foolish grown-ups surrounded by greenery and lush
flower gardens right in the middle of downtown, spanned by
the gloriously suspended 345-foot-long Liberty Bridge.
Here, too, begins a bike/walking path (Swamp Rabbit Trail)
that meanders 22 miles to a village called Travelers Rest
that exists mainly to feed those bicyclists and walkers.
Former pro cyclist and Lance Armstrong teammate George
Hincapie — whose sporting career, like Shoeless Joe’s,
has an asterisk by it — opened the upscale Hotel
Domestique here in 2013.
is — downtown, the park, the bridge, the trail, the
ballpark, the dining, the public art, all taken together
— a celebration of life in a place that not long ago was
a ditch bordered by crime and crumble. Plants belonging to
BMW (mid-’90s) and Michelin (mid-’80s) gave the
economy boosts it needed, but the downtown rebirth was
of commerce, city councils come here and do study trips
and try to glean ideas from us," says Nolan.
"Our leaders went to successful cities like Portland
and Chattanooga that had good ideas. Now, people are
coming to us."
like a plan.