Our website takes its name from the dilapidated tenements that are the home of the inhabitants of “Porgy and Bess.” The Catfish Row of the folk opera – which will get its first full-scale professional production in Charleston at the Spoleto festival next spring – is a desperate place, like the original, real one, at 89-91 Church St., which was called Cabbage Row. But in the closing scene of the opera's story, Porgy, sitting in his goat cart, is pushed toward the dock where he will embark for New York City to retrieve his Bess.
In a cri de coeur of hope over desperation, Porgy sings, “Oh Lawd, I’m on my way.” Some residents of the real Cabbage Row and other blacks who were pushed out of their downtown Charleston apartments by the preservation movement, starting in the early 1930s, went north with the same hope in their hearts, migrating to the big industrial cities where the jobs were. Others took their hope with them up Meeting Street to The Neck, to neighborhoods extending to North Charleston. Those neighborhoods became new Catfish Rows, where blacks lived on the unequal side of the same color line that had defined their status when they lived downtown.
The civil rights movement – locally it was called the "Charleston Movement" – and the War on Poverty in the 1960s didn’t bring much positive change to The Neck. A 2009 report by the City of Charleston found widespread poverty, with 95 percent of schoolchildren receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Thirty percent of the residents didn’t have high school diplomas. Most of those who were employed were stuck in low-paying jobs. More than 60 percent of the housing was described as poor, deteriorated or dilapidated. As if that wasn’t enough, the neighborhoods were home to three environmentally toxic waste sites. Conditions today are no better and, in some cases, worse.
But these Catfish Rows can be transformed into livable communities. They can be a significant part of the new Charleston that needs to populate vacant or marginally developed land with new housing, offices and mixed-use commercial. How it can happen is spelled out in “Partnership for Prosperity,” a Tricounty master plan designed to “tap the area’s potential and bring prosperity to its residents, businesses and other stakeholders.”
The plan's high hopes took a big hit when Magnolia, a major mixed-use project in a largely industrial wasteland along the Ashley River, went bankrupt in 2013 after limping along in the post big-recession years. But the new owners of the 182-acre parcel have brought the ambitious project back to life. Meadwestvaco has downsized the new Magnoilia to 3,500 homes, 690 hotel rooms, 850,000 square feet of office and 420,000 square feet of commercial - enough density to keep the original goal of a pedestrian-oriented urban environment. Meadwestvaco expects to move forward on the project in 2016.
Public and private entities within The Neck will have to work together on the big tasks: reform of public education that extends beyond the four walls of the schools into the neighborhoods; economic development that brings better jobs; new and restored housing that will meet the needs of low-income people; health care that reaches the under-served and those who have none; better transportation. It’s all spelled out in the “Partnership for Progress.” If the plan is realized, The Neck will, become a “cohesive urban fabric within which people from all walks of life can thrive and prosper.”
Beyond Catfish Row will shine a light on implementation of The Neck's Partnership for Progress – until the residents of the neighborhoods, who have waited so long for a better day, can declare, like Porgy, “Oh Lawd, I’m on my way."
Red flag for black child 'concentrated' poverty in county
Charleston County has some of the highest-ranking "concentrated" black child poverty in the country (chart below).
A neighborhood is in concentrated poverty when at least 20% of the households are poor. For a family of four, that's income below $24,250. The rate of black child poverty in Charleston County is more than a third higher than the average for the U.S.