Taking the Long View: Mayor Joe Riley and Charleston’s Revitalization

Audio Transcript

Mayor Joe Riley: Well, without the NEA Charleston would be different, and America would be different. We’re a young nation, and so as a-- 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 initiatives. And 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. Without the National Endowment for the Arts, there would be no Spoleto Festival USA, there would be no Mayors’ Institute for City Design. That small federal agency has really changed our country in so many wonderful and positive ways.

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, that 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’s that felt understanding that you have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of the city.

A city should be for people and cities need to be bustling with people. And it is an ecosystem so it is.. in the design of the buildings, in the uses, to promote that pedestrian activity. And then a city comes back to life.

Without the National Endowment for the Arts, there would be no Mayors’ Institute of City Design. I 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 and so we had a small group, and spent a couple of days discussing how we 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 it hasn’t changed at all, it’s the same format, it works perfectly.

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. And it’s the most important two and a half days I’ve spent, it changed my life, I wish I’d gone sooner.”

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 worthwhile, a city doing something worthwhile that benefits itself and others. And 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, you know, 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, and 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.” And so that was why we pursued. It was very controversial too, And we won by one vote. And 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, you know, more robust with this comprehensive arts festival going on. And then it just got better and better.

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,” little side festivals here and there, and then we came up with the concept of Piccolo. and the Endowment was very helpful in that as well, and lots of the Piccolo Spoleto’s performances are free, in public spaces, or a very low cost, you know, and we go out to senior centers and places like that. So for any citizen of the metropolitan area, they feel like they can participate in it. Because overall there’s like 650 performances going on in Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto, Then the whole community, the kids and their great-grandparents are engaged in it. We have concerts, you know, on the steps of our Customs House, it overlooks the harbor by the Waterfront Park, and there are several thousand people there, it’s free, and hearing the great symphony perform. 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. Because what it does, and then what Piccolo does, it’s for everybody, the whole community celebrates it.

The arts at its core… are by someone or some group of people seeking and expressing themselves, and doing it perfectly. That’s what they’re trying to do. Whether it’s their voice, or the violin, or their brushes or their typewriter, whatever they’re-- these creative people are doing the best they can to excel. When you expose a community to that, then it makes the citizens of a community less apt to accept mediocrity in whatever they do. Whether it’s their personal lives, whether it’s in the community initiatives or nonprofits, or whether it’s in education or whatever, the arts expose people to the beautiful search for excellence. And that changes communities, it’s changed Charleston.

The arts are a thread that knit us together. You know, every human being needs beauty, and every human being might see it differently, but they need it. And then they come together and experience it. And the beauty can be in the beauty of a park, it can be in the beauty of a building, it can be in the beauty of a choir. When they’re experiencing that together, then it’s just so much more reinforced. We’re sharing this, we share the moment.

When the Waterfront Park was first being built we did one part of it, the first part, a little pier. And there’s a big pier later, but a little pier, and we had worried about the design of that and the architects, landscape architects said, “You don’t need a rail round it.” I said, “Alright.” And I was going by there one morning, sunup, I was jogging, and saw this man there, sitting with his legs draped over the wharf like the designer said would happen. And I didn’t bother him, I kept jogging, but I saw him a few weeks later. I knew him, he was very poor, he suffered from epilepsy, he rode a bicycle and shined shoes, and tied it up in front of a gas station. 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 a 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.