First-time visitors to Charleston marvel at its historic beauty and tend to assume that the city has always looked that way. In fact, though, the city’s magnificent restoration is largely due to the hard work of Joseph P. Riley Jr. In 28 years as Charleston’s mayor, Riley’s devotion to urban detail is what has made a town of 98,000 on the South Carolina coast feel like one of the world’s great cities.
Charleston is more than three centuries old, and Riley, who has lived nearly all of his 60 years there, has absorbed a few lessons in history. One is that cities feel the impact of all development decisions, both good and bad, for generations. So unlike most mayors, who view economic development projects largely in terms of dollars, Riley sees each one as a fateful choice for Charleston’s sense of place: Every project, he believes, can add to the quality of life in his city — or subtract from it.
As evidence, look no further than Charleston’s waterfront. In the late 1970s, a developer approached the city with plans to build high-rise offices on some weedy lots along the harbor. The proposal would have cleaned up a blighted area and immediately added prime real estate to the property tax rolls. Riley said no. Instead, he pushed forward his own plan for a waterfront park. The park not only became a jewel in Charleston’s urban crown but also spurred other development nearby that better fits the area’s low-rise historic character. “Great cities around the world have the guts to give the finest parts of their city to the public realm,” Riley says.
As Charleston’s historic core gentrified, Riley insisted that lower-income residents be part of the revival. Long before other cities began toying with new designs for public housing, Charleston was winning architecture awards for its scattered-site homes and even a transitional shelter for the homeless. Riley has always believed that low-income housing works better, both for neighborhoods and for the residents, when it doesn’t look like public housing. Just last January, at the ribbon-cutting for eight new city-owned homes, Riley suggested that a 5-foot fence surrounding the property was too high. “His comment was that the high fence conveyed an institutional appearance,” says Donald Cameron, the head of Charleston’s housing authority. “He was right. It didn’t catch our eye, but he picked it up that it just didn’t feel right.”
Riley has no formal training in architecture or urban planning. He’s honed his flair for design simply by walking, observing and reading. It’s crucial, Riley says, for all mayors to master a few principles of urban design because so many blueprints come across their desks. That’s why he established the Mayors’ Institute on City Design. In the past 18 years, some 600 mayors have attended two-day seminars where they discuss urban design issues facing their cities with experts and other mayors. They leave the seminars not only brimming with ideas for current projects but also as confident clients who know what to demand of architects and planners.
Riley’s remarkable run as mayor has shaped Charleston in countless other ways. He diffused racial tensions by working closely with the African-American community and appointing the city’s first black police chief, Reuben Greenberg, who pioneered the concept of community policing. When Hurricane Hugo slammed into Charleston in 1989, Riley won wide praise for getting the city cleaned up quickly and back on its feet. He has managed to develop a robust tourist economy without turning Charleston into a garish theme park. Riley snagged for his city the renowned Spoleto arts festival, which makes Charleston the world’s culture capital for 17 days each spring, and he is currently championing a plan to build the International Museum of African-American History.
As Riley seeks reelection to an unprecedented eighth term as mayor this November, some argue that it is time for someone else to lead Charleston. But it is also easy to see Riley another way: as a living argument against term limits. Charleston as we know it is a monument to his consistent leadership and firm belief in the importance of civic space. “Americans spend a great deal of time on their homes — the front yard, the back yard, the private zone,” Riley says. “But the public realm, what all citizens own together, has a collective value that is essential to the quality of life of a community.”
— Christopher Swope
Photos by Matthew Scott