With dark days behind it, Greenville, S.C., springs to life

August 15, 2016

Once derelict and dangerous, downtown Greenville's Main Street today is a place for strolling, shopping and quiet conversation.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — A river ran through it. Falls, too. But nobody noticed.

Now 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 States.

Greenville, 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 a bit.

Wasn’t like this not so many years ago.

For 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.

"When 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 so forth."

Today, 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.

Restaurants? 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 before.

And 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 South Carolina.

Here’s 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).

All 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 Green Monster.

The 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.)

The 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 Museum.

There’s 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.

Quick word about the local barbecue. There’s plenty, and it’s very, very good. The South Carolina classic sauce is yellow, mustard-based.

"Back in the 1700s," says local historian John Nolan, "there were a lot of Germans coming to South Carolina, and they brought their mustards."

"We 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 … "

You 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.

Reedy River and its marvelous falls always ran through it, but who knew?

"The 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."

Greenville 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.

Imagine 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.

Greenville 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 homegrown.

"Chambers 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."

Sounds like a plan.



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