Kurt Walker likes seeing new restaurants popping up and white families with baby strollers walking along the street in his Wagener Terrace neighborhood, but he also fears that black residents are being pushed out as the neighborhood gentrifies.
Walker, who is black, inherited his Peachtree Street house on the Charleston peninsula from his grandmother and has watched the upper west side neighborhood change dramatically. The community had a large black majority – like the entire peninsula once – but it’s now the most racially mixed neighborhood downtown.
Since the 1980s, there’s been a stunning decline in the number of blacks living on the peninsula. Some neighborhoods – Wagener Terrace, Hampton Park Terrace, and Cannonborough/Elliottborough – lost roughly half of their black population in just one decade, starting in 2000.
Economic forces and demographic change – gentrification – are quickly transforming the upper Charleston peninsula. Those neighborhoods are the last downtown refuges of the middle class, and they have been increasingly attracting real estate investors, student renters, and affluent young adults seeking a more urban lifestyle.
The resurgence of urban centers is a national trend, readily apparent from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Portland, Ore. It’s also a generational trend, a reversal of the “white flight” that saw a predominantly white middle class move from cities to suburbs in the 1960s.
In downtown Charleston, that trend has been picking up speed.
Ten years ago, half the single-family homes sold on the peninsula north of the Septima P. Clark Parkway (the Crosstown Expressway) sold for $170,000 or less. So far this year, half have sold for at least $325,000.
While home prices have been rising fast, much of the peninsula’s population change is due to rising rents. Most peninsula residents are renters and the voracious demand from college students, who now account for about a third of the peninsula’s population, has driven prices higher.
Downtown Charleston’s relatively small number of homeowners – particularly longtime owners in the upper peninsula, who tend to be black – are solicited with real estate offers so frequently that some feel they are being pressured to move.
“Don’t you ever come on my porch again or I’ll call the police,” Hampton Park Terrace resident Lesheia Oubre told one man who walked up to her front door with a note offering to buy her house.
Robert Mitchell, a black North Central resident who owns a house on King Street near Huger Street and serves on Charleston City Council, said he’s advised constituents to post “no trespassing” signs.
“The people buying these houses are buying them as investments,” said Mitchell. “They are coming to people who have had their homes for a while, and in these communities, those are African-American people.”
Mitchell said his family sold his late father’s property near Rutledge and Line streets to a cash buyer, who fixed it up and resold it. But Mitchell has no plan to sell his own house.
“The only reason I am still here is I bought this house in 1985,” said Mitchell. “I get three calls a week from people asking to buy my house.”
Around Hampton Park, strong demand for homes drove up the median sale price by $50,000 in just the past year.
“That neighborhood, it is on fire,” said Carolina One Realtor Stephanie Wilson-Hartzog, who lives in Wagener Terrace. “It is back, and everyone wants to be there again.”
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