Joseph P. Riley

2009 National Medal of Arts recipient
Joe Riley headshot

Music Credits:

Excerpt from  “Jack of the Wood” and “In the Dome of the Forest”, written and performed by The Kruger Brothers from the cd The Suite Volume 1.  Used courtesy of The Kruger Brothers.

Excerpt from Concerto for Orchestra  composed by Bela Bartok, performed by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. Used courtesy of WDAV.

Excerpt from “Riki Tiki Tavi” by Faraualla, performed by the Young People’s Chorus of New York. Used courtesy of the Young People’s Chorus of New York

Excerpt from “Brindisi” from La Traviota  composed by Giuseppe Verdi, performed by the MIT Orchestra. Used via the Free Music Archive

Mayor Joe Riley: So often we tend to think of beauty in the arts erroneously as something that the more educated we are, the more apt we are to appreciate. But it's not the case. The arts, a good urban design, insisting on beauty, great public spaces, when you do that it’s a gift to every citizen in every walk of life, everyone.


Jo Reed: That was Mayor Joseph P. Riley of Charleston, South Carolina, and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Mayor Joe Riley is a legend among urban planners, designers, architects and everyone who loves cities. In fact, in 2009 he received the highest award given to the arts by the United States government-- the National Medal of Arts. Since 1975, Mayor Riley’s visionary leadership has been instrumental in Charleston’s remarkable revitalization: he developed attractive and practical affordable housing; he led the charge to rebuild Charleston’s waterfront and recreate it as a park-- just one of the many parks built under his watch; he took a dying downtown district and restored it to a vibrant, bustling, and architecturally significant center; he was instrumental in bringing the Spoleto Festival USA to Charleston and he is the founder and ardent supporter of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design.

After 40 years as mayor, Joe Riley leaves office next month. It really is difficult to overestimate his contributions to Charleston in particular and to urban planning in general. But it starts, I think, with Riley’s bedrock and inspired belief that the mayor is a city’s chief urban planner.

Mayor Joe Riley: Every important development matter, every project, obviously any public endeavor, but private redevelopment endeavors, eventually came where we’re seated right now; came to my office. For one issue or another, whether it was support, or funding, or city’s energy. And so you have the opportunity and responsibility to be shaping your city for the people, now and in the future. You should use that opportunity to positively shape the future, and to do everything you can to make sure that what is designed and built adds to the quality of the public realm.

Jo Reed: Did you come into office knowing that, or is that something you learned when your feet were on the ground?

Mayor Joe Riley: I learned it. That’s why I’m so interested to share with other mayors, because I learned it over a period of time based on what I was doing, and understanding the impact of what I was doing. If you’re the mayor and you’re representing the people, they elected you. You have a responsibility for them. And so you have the opportunity and responsibility to be shaping your city, the design of the city, the public realm enhanced everybody’s quality of life in that city. And so with that understanding I knew then that I had this huge responsibility to make sure that every decision that affected the public realm in the city of Charleston was guided to produce the best possible achievement, the best human scale, the most attractive, the greatest contribution to the quality of the city. I always ask my coworkers here if what we’re working on passes the 50-year test. That is, 50 years from now, will what we’re doing be admired and revered, or is there a chance 50 years from now people will say, “Why in the world did they do that?” Or, “Why didn’t they do this?” So it was that felt understanding that you have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of the city.

Jo Reed: For you the belief was, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but that you invest in public spaces for public use, and then private development, private investment will follow that. As opposed to the way it typically goes, which is private development and whatever’s left over the public gets to have.

Mayor Joe Riley: You start with the public. And actually in a city, in an urban place, it’s really all affecting the public realm. That is if you walk down a street, the design of the buildings, the placement of the buildings, and the uses of the buildings affect your sense of the quality of where you are. But you start with the public, but then you should work in helping shape the quality of the private development. Not that that isn’t the private property owners’ responsibility or opportunity, but in a redeveloping city those private developments usually are coming to the city for some help, you know, whether it’s parking, or infrastructure. And so that’s the extra step, is that you use that leverage you have to make something excellent happen as best you can; don’t leave it to chance.

Jo Reed: How did you begin? You wanted Charleston to be a great city. Where did you begin?

Mayor Joe Riley: Well you begin with a good, solid, strategic plan. Now that sounds boring, “Oh, a plan.” But that’s simply, you do the hard work, you get people engaged... the intellectual, the emotional work and say, “Now what really should happen here? What is our ideal? Our goal?” And so you start with that. Then you just stick with it. You don’t let something happen-- and you work hard to put the pieces into place. 

Jo Reed: What was downtown Charleston like when you took office in 1975?

Mayor Joe Riley:  When I took office, downtown Charleston was like the average downtown in the seventies in America. Great disinvestment, the shops had moved, suburbanization happened, people left, businesses left, our main street, King Street was... well it was like this: I was elected just before Christmas, so a week before Christmas I went to do my Christmas shopping dutifully on the old main street, King Street. I parked behind a building, as you did, walked through the building, turned up the street. There was no one on the street, it was empty. So it was a classic disinvested downtown in America and our responsibility had to be-- and our goal was-- to restore this to a place that was active and lively. Because a healthy downtown is a wonderful gift to the citizens, because you own it. So if you come there and if it’s lively then all that energy, you as a citizen-- whether you’re rich or poor, young, old-- it doesn’t matter, that benefits you. 

Jo Reed: What was the first big project to downtown that really kind of set King Street in motion?

Mayor Joe Riley: The first big project was what is called Charleston Place, and it was at the intersection of King Street and Market Street and another parallel street. It was a vacant lot. When I was a child there were two department stores there. Huge vacant lot, from block to block, you know, like bombed out after war or something like that. And so our strategic plan said, “We need a critical mass.” That means lots of activity, lots of people. What was going on then was a suburban shopping center. Suburban development was sparse. We needed dense development right in the heart of the city, because what you need in a sick downtown is you need people on the street, lots of people on the street. So Charleston Place was controversial. People said it would ruin Charleston, no one would want to come, and all you’d have is tee-shirts shops and all this. But we knew-- because we’d done the plan, careful study-- we knew it would work. And that was it. Took a number of years, a huge investment.

Jo Reed: I grew up in New York City, and when I think of cities that I love, it’s always walkability.

Mayor Joe Riley: Always, always.

Jo Reed: Do I want to walk?

Mayor Joe Riley: That’s right.

Jo Reed: And this is a walking city, but you really designed it. You really had pedestrians rather than cars in mind.

Mayor Joe Riley: It was a city. A city should be for people, and it is an ecosystem, so it is in the design of the buildings and the uses to promote that pedestrian activity. And then a city comes back to life, and then people who are there have the energy, you know. You walk down the street and you make eye contact, elbow contact. You see the excitement of people visiting or shopping and all that. You internalize that. It’s a joyful experience, and cities need to be bustling with people. And the car, you have to find ways to accommodate cars, of course. But we in our parking-- design of parking structures, I think we showed the country that they didn’t have to be ugly and they didn’t have to be brutal. You could tuck them away or design them in a fashion that didn’t diminish the intimacy of the street, the human scale of the street.

Jo Reed: You also expanded the sidewalk on Market Street, giving the pedestrians more room and automobiles less.

Mayor Joe Riley: The question is, how does a human being feel walking down the street? That’s the question. So with this street it was narrow, and the sidewalks were narrow. But to make it work, to get storefronts in, we needed to widen the sidewalks, which meant that the street had to become a bit more narrow. So the first reaction to that was, “No, you shouldn’t do that because right now a beer truck can park illegally in one lane, and a car can pass it in another.” But I realized that the most important thing really wasn’t the convenience of the beer delivery truck, because they can go around the block. The question is, “How does it feel walking down the street?” So we added two feet to the sidewalk, and it’s all the difference in the world, if you feel good walking down it. And, you know, with that same street, just another block of it, we had an office building that was going to be built and they needed some land from the city. And so I said, “We’ll sell you the land but we need some storefronts.” They said, “No, we just want the office building.” And I said, “No, if you just do office building, I don’t get any pedestrian activity because it becomes a dead space.” So I said, “You got to do storefronts.” Well I had them, so they did storefronts. Urban spaces are very delicate in terms of human experience, and that should be in the forefront.

Jo Reed: And part of that human experience is appreciating the scale of what’s there, and not sticking a 50-story behemoth <laughs> on a street where everything else is two stories.

Mayor Joe Riley: Well, you know, when I see another city, a plan, and so-and-so building is going to be built, a tall building... but I always ask myself this question: “I wonder what it’s going to look like at the sidewalk level.” And that’s the most important thing, you know, people always, they want to show you what the top of the building is going to look like. Well maybe somebody will notice that, if you’re in a helicopter you’ll notice that. But what everybody notices is what it feels like on the street. That’s the most important design element of city building, is what happens at the street level, because that means how the human being feels when they’re walking past it.

Jo Reed: Well one thing that’s certainly happening on the street level of your city of Charleston is Waterfront Park. Take us through that.

Mayor Joe Riley: Well going back to the mayor being the chief urban designer for the citizens, well that was a burned-out pier in the fifties. It languished. And then a developer bought the land to build a private gated thing, Venice of the Southeast. And this is a gorgeous site. And what I knew was the great cities in the world, always when they had a chance, gave the water’s edge to the public, if they had a chance. So we acquired the property. It was controversial, it prevented the private development for the simple and profound purpose of giving the citizens that piece of land. And then we worked hard to get a good design; it’s not obvious what a park is supposed to look like. It looks obvious now. It’s beautiful, it fits. And we worked hard on design, worked hard on the money. We had granite and fine stone, and really nice fountains and all of that. And I said, “Look, I’ll find the money.” Because the thing about that park is that that belongs to everybody. The little baby, the great-grandparents, the well-to-do and the not well-to-do, they all own it. That’s why the Waterfront Park is there. Citizens love it, and the design is so good because it feels like it’s always been there, it was just perfectly natural. That’s how it ought to be.

Jo Reed: You also made the decision that this was not going to be a place where concerts would be held.

Mayor Joe Riley: Well in the design of a park, one of the most important design decisions is, “What is the park’s purpose?” Every park’s purpose is different. So this park’s purpose is this incomparable view of the water, and the solitude and joy that that gives you. So when you occupy it, no one has a greater right to being there than you. So if it’s turned over for commercial activity, or if there are big events going on there, then you’re second fiddle. And you got wonderful events in other parks and all that, and each one is different. But this is... you go to the water’s edge and you connect with the water, whether it’s for relaxation, or for spirit, or for solace. So it’s very important. The only event we’ve ever had was opening the park, in May of 1990, had a wonderful concert. But since then, everybody who goes there knows that that park is for them.

Jo Reed: There’s a balance when you’re building a city, and you’re clearly building it for its citizens, but you’re also building it for tourists to come. And sometimes there can be a tension. It can be challenging. There’s a way that one needs to work to accommodate both. Tell me how you coped with that here in Charleston.

Mayor Joe Riley: Well if all of your decisions about the building of a city always centered on, “Is this going to make the city more livable and enjoyable for its residents? Residents in the inner city and then the metropolitan area." So you start with that, and if you do that, then the visitors will come. We think of the cities we like to visit, the cities where residents love living there, it’s joyful. That was always our foundation. And then we developed the first Tourism Management plan in America, based on the principle that we should determine how we want visitors to use the city. So where visitor accommodation should go and should not go, how many carriages we ought to have and what rights they should have and what times they should run, and all those kinds of things. So we have a robust visitor accommodations economy in the city of Charleston that is a lot of number of hotels and motels. But not nearly as much as we could have; we zone property to prevent them certain places. Our waterfront isn’t lined with tall hotels. Why? Because we zoned it so you couldn’t do that, because we wanted it for the public. And so you keep that balance. It’s all aimed at making the city a livable place for people who live there and work there, and then when you do that you make it ever more appealing for the visitor, because there are not many places like that.

Jo Reed: Spoleto certainly fit into this philosophy you had about Charleston, your vision for Charleston. Explain why you thought of Spoleto.

Mayor Joe Riley: Well of course the National Endowment for the Arts gets credit for Spoleto happening, because they gave a grant to Gian Carlo Menotti to help him find a place in America, and then made major grants for his festival and festivals since then. But for me, what I saw was that it was a chance to be a great city. A great city has nothing to do with international prominence or any numbers or peoples, or anything like that. It’s just a city doing something worthwhile that benefits itself and others. So if this comprehensive arts festival could be in our city for 17 days, and force us to upgrade our act, if you will, then we were going to help produce a world-class arts festival. Really, at the top of our game accept that responsibility, and there was always the chance of failure. And if we did that for the city, the dividends would be huge. I knew that it would robustly add to the quality and quantity of arts performances and organizations. And it’s interesting, some of the local arts groups resisted Spoleto because they saw it as a zero-sum game. It would take audiences away. I said, “It’s going to build audiences. You bring something like this, the Symphony will have more patrons and the art galleries will have more patrons.” Without Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston would be a very different place. Because we did all that, and then people came to our city and saw the energy of the city, and the beauty of the city more robust with this comprehensive arts festival going on. And then it just got better and better.

Jo Reed: And you also created Piccolo Spoleto.

Mayor Joe Riley: We did. Menotti knew that a great arts festival needs to be something that the whole city embraces. And so the first year we had what we called “mini festivals,” a little side festival here and there, and then we came up with the concept of Piccolo. And the Endowment was very helpful in that as well. So lots of the Piccolo Spoleto performances are free, in public spaces, or are very low... So any citizen of the metropolitan area, they feel like they can participate in it. Because you know, overall, there's like 650 performances going on in Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto. Then the whole community are engaged, you know. We have concerts on the steps of our Customs House. It overlooks the harbor, and there are several thousand people there. It’s free, and hearing the great Symphony... What would not be good, is for you to have a festival that seemed to be some kind of elite event. That’s not what Spoleto is. The whole community celebrates it.

Jo Reed: The Mayors’ Institute on City Design. If you’ve done nothing else <laughs> and you’ve done much, much more, that is a legacy. One thousand mayors have gone through that program. And your goal was both very simple and very complex; helping mayors create attractive and livable cities. Tell me how MICD goes about doing that, sort of creating practical visionaries.

Mayor Joe Riley: Without the National Endowment for the Arts, there would be no Mayors’ Institute for City Design. I've said the equivalent of, “Mayors are usually smart; they’ve got to get elected, they love their city, to be effective they’ve got to be quick studies.” You know whether it’s a current problem, there’s a crime problem, a drug problem or whatever, or school issues, they quickly become facile. So if they come to an institute where all they have for two and a half days is to think profoundly about their role as being a city’s chief urban designer, then that same quick study capacity they use in other things, that happens. The Endowment agreed to fund it, so we had a small group over the span of a couple of days discussing how it would be organized. Because it wasn't obvious we could have had the mayors come with staff. “No, don’t want any staff, the mayor’s got to be by himself.” “Well the mayors and city managers.” “ “No, no, to the managers.” “How many?” “Not too many, eight be about right.” So we designed it correctly. And so it was a good design and it hasn’t changed at all. It’s the same format, it works perfectly. It is so thrilling to me, if I go to a conference and there’s a meeting, I could spend the whole time just having one mayor after another come up and say, “Joe, let me tell you what we did. We went back and did so-and-so.” They see their city as something that they have a responsibility for, not just in keeping it safe, which is important, or children learning, which is obviously very important. It is they have the responsibility of making it a great place. And it’s really... it’s thrilling. Without exception they’ll say, “Joe, that’s the best meeting I’ve ever gone to. That's the most important two and a half days I’ve spent. It changed my life, I wish I’d gone sooner.”

Jo Reed: That tragic shooting at the Emanuel AME Church that Charleston-- and by extension the rest of us-- experienced, that had to have been a knife in the heart. And obviously there are political realities that will have to be addressed, but I wonder, is there a place for the arts in helping with healing and bringing people together?

Mayor Joe Riley: Oh sure, the arts always do that. And of course one of the things that we were working on anyway, already, was raising the funds to build the International African American Museum.

Jo Reed: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that.

Mayor Joe Riley: Which we will build, and this tragedy helps affirm the purpose for that. The purpose for that was that we as Americans do not know this volume of American history, African American history. We don’t know it because a good bit of it was never written, and we certainly were never taught it in school. And so in this place, Charleston, where 40 percent of all enslaved Africans who came to North America came, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to help us present this part of American history. So we’ve got great designers, it’ll be on the harbor-- a beautifully inspiring and historically important site, because it’s where the wharf was. The arts, the art of architecture, the art of programming, the art of telling stories, the art of landscape-- we need a landscape-- all of that will help create an amazingly instructive and healing place.

Jo Reed: It’s your 40th year in office and it’s the 50th anniversary of the NEA. You’ve mentioned it certainly throughout this conversation how the NEA has supported your work and your vision for Charleston.

Mayor Joe Riley: Well without the NEA, Charleston would be different and America would be different. We’re a young nation, so developing our culture, the American culture, and the American arts component of that culture... it’s been so vitally important that there be a national home for supporting ideas, initiatives, creating opportunity for communities to solicit assistance. In Charleston, whether it’s Spoleto Festival, design grants that we’ve gotten, the support our Symphony Orchestra has gotten, our other arts entities, and certainly we’ve benefited from the Mayors’ Institute of City Design. But without the National Endowment for the Arts, this would be a different city. So that small federal agency has really changed our country in so many wonderful and positive ways.

Jo Reed: I know you have had many experiences in the wonderful spaces you’ve helped create in Charleston, but I wonder if there is one that you can share that might have been particularly memorable for you. Something you even saw on a walk or maybe a performance or just something that just hit you about what you and the people of Charleston have created here.

Mayor Joe Riley: Well when the Waterfront Park was first being built we did one part of it, the first part, a little pier. And I was going by there one morning, sun up, I was jogging. And I saw this man there, sitting with his legs draped over the wharf. And I didn’t bother him, I kept jogging, but I saw him a few weeks later and he was-- I knew him, he was very poor, he suffered from epilepsy, he rode a bicycle and shined shoes. And I saw him and I said, “I saw you at the park the other morning.” And he said, “Yeah, Joe.” I said, “Do you go often?” It hadn’t been open that long. And he said, “I go every morning.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “Because it’s so beautiful.” And so that, you know, you might say was a citizen with as few resources as anyone in the community. And so often we tend to think of beauty in the arts erroneously as something that the more educated we are, the more apt we are to appreciate them. But it’s not the case. And that just reinforced me in all of my work since then, this was quite a while ago, but it’s that-- the arts, a good urban design, insisting on beauty, great public spaces, and more, that when you do that it’s a gift to every citizen in every walk of life, everyone.

Jo Reed: Mayor Riley, thank you. For your time, for everything, seriously, thank you so much.

Mayor Joe Riley: Thank you. My pleasure.

Jo Reed: You’re really a hero of mine, so thank you.

Mayor Joe Riley: Well thank you.

That was Charleston’s mayor and 2009 National Medal of Arts recipient Joe Riley.

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

After 40 years, Joseph Riley steps down from being mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, leaving a legacy that demands art and beauty in the everyday.