Photo by IGL fellow Curtis Heru
Photo by IGL fellow Curtis Heru

Two Cities

by Jonathan Thomas

Indie Grits Labs (IGL) has dedicated the past eight months to producing a series of conversations, workshops, and community roundtables that explore the idea that Columbia is not one city but two, and that these two cities are experienced as parallel worlds. The project begins with an understanding that the diversity of our perspectives as well as the resources we can access as residents of Columbia are conditioned, if not curtailed, by the lived realities of racism and economic disparity, and that there are historical dynamics—shifting demographics, legacies of municipal neglect, and various modes of social exclusion—that have created a cultural force field that separates the downtown district from the North Main corridor.

For the fellows who make up the 2018 IGL cohort, Two Cities provides a framework for asking questions, even uncomfortable questions, about the history of this divided experience. Focusing on the experience of living in North Columbia in particular, the fellows are developing independent projects with IGL support to address a variety of issues, including educational opportunities, gentrification, food access, media representation, and the stories we tell ourselves as communities.

“Two Cities is an opportunity to use the power of art to examine the dichotomies around race, economics, and geography that define and instruct how the citizens of Columbia live together,” explains artist Michaela Pilar Brown, who along with Roni Nicole Henderson and Seth Gadsden is one of the three IGL Creative Leaders on the project. For Roni Nicole Henderson, the endeavor also reframes the question of who can be called an artist in the first place. “A lot of people in our group have never referred to themselves as artists,” she says. “But we do! We help them to see how what you do for your community, the way you approach whatever it is you do—that there is a level of art to that. So we were really excited to broaden our scope and to invite people who were activists and community organizers into the group.”

“Are we divided?” asks Indie Grits Labs director Seth Gadsden, when speaking about the social tensions that precipitated the project. “Yes, we are,” he says. “People need to realize that our spaces aren’t designed for everybody. That’s the conversation we want to put forward. But instead of having a general conversation, we want to look at Eau Claire and North Columbia, which allows us to get specific and dive deep.”

Volunteer Rifle Company at Hyatt Park, 1897

Volunteer Rifle Company at Hyatt Park, 1897 Photo by Walter L. Blanchard | From The Bicentennial Photograph Collection | Courtesy Richland County Library

Civil Rights Demonstrators in Downtown Columbia, September 10, 1963

Civil Rights Demonstrators in Downtown Columbia, September 10, 1963 | Photo by Mickey Dawson | From The State Newspaper Photograph Archive | Courtesy Richland County Library

To dive deep and trace the historical trajectory, we inevitably have to confront the violence and spatial strategies of white supremacy that have long-characterized the city of Columbia. For starters, consider Eau Claire, the neighborhood where Indie Grits Labs is headquartered. If the population today is largely African American, this was not always the case. On the contrary, Eau Claire, which was incorporated as a suburb of Columbia on the eve of the twentieth century, is in fact predicated on racial exclusion. In the 1890s, as the population of Columbia was expanding, Frederick Hyatt, a wealthy insurance agent, developed several neighborhoods on the northern frontier of the city. In the summer of 1897 he and his associates opened Hyatt Park, which was connected to the intersection of Elmwood and Main downtown by a newly constructed electric railway. In the center of the new park rose a grand “casino”—a two-story auditorium with a 500-seat theater, a zoo, a bowling alley, a shooting gallery, hundreds of Chinese lanterns, piazzas, and fresh water supplied by nearby springs. According to reports in The State newspaper, it was, for the upper crust, the talk of the town.

Photo by IGL Fellow Fart.PDF

Photo by IGL Fellow Fart.PDF

“However,” notes local historian John Hammond Moore, “all of their well-laid plans were almost scuttled [sic] late in September of 1899 when blacks began buying up land near the casino for a burial ground. Springing into action, within seventy-two hours twenty-two white homeowners rushed through incorporations proceedings, held a referendum, gave their community a name, and elected town officials who promptly passed ordinance #1—a prohibition against black cemeteries in the new municipality of Eau Claire.”1

Moore offers no additional information about this conflict (a silence that amplifies his good ol’ boy prose), but this much is clear: Eau Claire was founded in 1899 by a group of white people whose specific objective was to stop the Black community from having a cemetery in the area.

This is just one episode from the complicated prehistory of the Two Cities project, but it gives a sense of the historical dynamic. Decades later, in the 1960s, the composition of Eau Claire began to transform as Columbia unfolded its “urban renewal” program—a federally-subsidized program of the 1950s and 1960s which, under the auspices of slum clearance and civic improvement, demolished neighborhoods in cities across the country to provide space for universities and hospitals and to build housing for middle-class whites. In effect, African American communities were uprooted and displaced, which is why writer James Baldwin, in a famous 1963 interview, described “urban renewal” as code for “Negro removal.”

This is what happened with Ward One (East Glencoe), a primarily African American neighborhood located in the center of the city, near the University of South Carolina. When the University desired to expand its facilities in the early-1960s, it turned to the Columbia Housing Authority and together they articulated a plan for the University to acquire the land occupied by residents of Ward One. From 1964 until 1974, more than 300 families, more than 60 individuals, and more than 40 businesses were displaced. This is not the only African American neighborhood in the city where this sort of displacement occurred—Arsenal Hill, Wheeler Hill, Camp Fornance, and others had similar fates—but again, it provides a poignant example from recent history that continues to resonate today.

Photo by IGL Fellow Michaela Pilar Brown

Photo by IGL Fellow Michaela Pilar Brown

IGL fellow and storyteller Darion McCloud remembers this moment of transformation. In 1969, when he was a young child, his family moved to Eau Claire. “When we moved in,” he recounts, “our neighbors across the street were white, our neighbors to the right were white, our neighbors to the left were white, and our neighbors across the street to the left and right were white. I was in the 1st grade. By the time I was in the 6th grade, my neighbors to both the left and right and directly across the street were all Black. We were the first wave of Black families in the neighborhood, so we also watched that first wave of white flight. When we first moved in, there was a white kid across the street—we used to play together. But shortly thereafter, by the 3rd or 4th grade, he was gone. Soon, the whole neighborhood is Black. There were a couple of holdouts, a couple of older white people past retirement age here and there, but the neighborhood becomes easily ninety percent Black in a relatively short amount of time.”

In the wake of white flight, which can also be a boomerang, the North Main area has been relatively neglected at an infrastructural level, according to residents. “The thing about Columbia is that it’s pretty segregated,” says IGL fellow and filmmaker Betsy Newman. “A lot of the neighborhoods are almost entirely white. North Columbia is majority-Black, and the farther north you get the less integrated it becomes. I have lived here for sixteen years and I have always lived in North Columbia. I have long been interested in North Main Street and how drastically everything changes once you cross over Elmwood. You’re suddenly on what feels like a runway at an airport. There’s an obvious demarcation between the downtown that the city has put a lot of energy into and that has attracted the creative class, and North Main Street, where it looks like a place that has been deserted.”

The problem—the experiential divide—is not just limited to the condition of the roads, or to the availability of a sufficient number of school busses, which is, for example, a problem now descending on the Richland One school district according to IGL fellow and community organizer Yolanda Anderson. It is also, moreover, a matter of representation. 

“Why isn’t there better representation, positive and accurate representation, of North Main and the people here in North Main?” asks artist and IGL fellow Rico Racardo McDaniel. “If you knew who was here, why they are here, how long they have been here, and what they do here, then there wouldn’t be so many misconceptions and stereotypes,” he explains. “This place has a deep history, and not only a deep African American history because there’s a deep white history here as well. So we have things that we all should be proud of, but we’re not, and we’re not even talking about it. Everyone is taking sides, and nobody is listening to each other. And nobody really wants to talk.” Two Cities, on this front, is a way of starting the conversation.

Video still from IGL Fellow Mahkia Greene’s portrait of Rosco Davis (known locally as the waving man)

Video still from IGL Fellow Mahkia Greene’s portrait of Rosco Davis (known locally as the waving man)

IGL fellow and high school journalism teacher Mary Brebner has been researching the question of representation for Two Cities by investigating The State newspaper’s headlines from the past five years. “A lot of the headlines talk about how they’re building all this awesome stuff downtown, and over on Bull Street, and how they’re going to do something cool in Cottontown. But you don’t hear a lot about the North Main area. There’s just not nearly as much coverage of this huge area that’s known as North Main.”

There are, of course, some exceptions. “Is North Main the next downtown hot spot?” reads the title of one article from 2015, which uses a real estate broker as a source while perpetrating the coinage of “NOMA” to describe the stretch of North Main from Elmwood to Earlewood Park that is, says the journalist, “set to pop.”2 Similarly, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin was recently keen to suggest that “We’re seeing fantastic things happening in North Columbia. New families coming here, empty nesters, millennials, all coming here because they see what is happening. Exciting things are happening to the tune of literally well over $100 million invested out here in District 1.”3

People living “out here” in the North Main community are wary of this exuberance. “I don’t know that it’s getting any better,” says Yolanda Anderson, “and I won’t dare to say that it’s getting worse.” On this note, Rico Racardo McDaniel points to the City of Columbia’s so-called “Master Plan” for redevelopment along the North Main corridor, which was introduced back in 2005. “If you put a frog in a pot of water, you don’t put him in boiling water. You put in him in water and turn the heat up little by little. You don’t notice it’s getting hot, and by the time you notice it’s hot, it’s too late—you boil, you cook. That’s what I feel is going on now,” he says. “The heat is getting turned up little by little, and little by little I notice changes within this community.”

For musician and IGL fellow Curtis Heru, the discrepancy between Black-owned businesses and white-owned businesses, between landowners and renters, is something to pay attention to when considering the question of representation from this perspective. “Sometimes businesses come here that don’t have the people’s best interest at heart,” he explains, “but they still find their way here. There are a lot of companies that move here for our money, but don’t give anything back. So we’re asking questions about how the community can begin to have a bit of control over that.”

For a number of IGL fellows—filmmaker Josetra Robinson, artist Fart.PDF, filmmakers Laura Kissel and Betsy Newman, and filmmaker and educator Mahkia Greene, as well as those mentioned above—the goal therefore is to celebrate the community of North Main as it stands. Instead of interrogating the contradictions, the intention is to counteract stereotypes by creating a platform for positive representations.

“What I wanted to do was highlight the beauty that already exists in this area by highlighting prominent figures—not in the traditional sense of politicians or public figures, but people like the waving man who sits on Monticello Road and has been there for years,” explains Mahkia Greene. “He’s a fixture of the community. He just waves at cars as they go by. And then there’s a crossing guard near the Public Library who is just the sweetest man you will ever meet. Parents love him. So I just want to highlight these important figures, even though they are not people we would traditionally regard as prominent.”

For IGL fellow, educator, and food equity advocate Tahirah Spann, Two Cities provides a framework for addressing the disparity that exists in Columbia, and particularly between North Main and other pockets of the city, in terms of whole food access and food education. “How do we get community members back in touch with healthy food in a way that will contribute to their well-being? And how do we do this in an innovative way, with an approach that steps outside of the norm but is respectful?” she asks. Her solution is to offer workshops on hydroponic and aquaponic gardening so that DIY sustainable food practices can become part of the community’s food culture.

Two Cities is an experiment—a laboratory. It’s a beginning of a conversation and this year’s Indie Grits Festival offers us an opportunity to meet the fellows directly, to engage their projects, to ask questions, and to build bridges to a better and perhaps more unified future of living together in the city. “The emphasis is on empowering folks as opposed to responding to those who don’t believe in you, or who think you’re a monster,” says Roni Nicole Henderson. “There’s a multifaceted way to fight bigotry. We’ve had a really tough couple of years, where every day we seemed to be bashed in the head with death, so I think people are happy to be alive and are using their voice to echo: We are alive.”

“But,” adds Rico Racardo McDaniel, “what’s going to happen when it’s all said and done? It’s going to take people like you and me to actually want to sit down and talk, and not just talk but come up with solutions, and not just come up with solutions but implement them. Get out, get in someone’s face, and talk. It’s going to take a certain type of bravery, it’s going to take people who are willing to do this because there’s going to be some negativity, some backlash, but that’s how you know you’re going in the right direction. It’s going to take some work, but it can be done.”

Lettuce sprouts for IGL Fellow Tahirah Spann’s The Grow Lab: an indoor hydroponics and aquaponics lab with classes open to the community. Photo by Tahirah Spann

Lettuce sprouts for IGL Fellow Tahirah Spann’s The Grow Lab: an indoor hydroponics and aquaponics lab with classes open to the community. Photo by Tahirah Spann


1 John Hammond Moore, Columbia and Richland County: A South Carolina Community, 1740–1990 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993), p. 281.

2 Jeff Wilkinson, “Is North Main the next downtown hot spot?” The State, April 18, 2015, retrieved from http://www.thestate.com/news/local/article18890907.html

3 “North Main project hailed as monumental undertaking,” undated, retrieved from http://www.richlandpenny.com/north-main-project-hailed-as-monumental-undertaking/

Special thanks to historians Eric Bargeron and Margaret Dunlap