Charleston: America's most rapidly gentrifying city

December 18, 2017 23 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Ever wonder what a rapid gentrification process resembles? Look no further than Charleston, South Carolina.

A controversial topic among urban planners, politicians and real estate developers, gentrification can be easily described as the process of renovation of deteriorated urban neighborhoods by means of the influx of more affluent residents. According to a recent article, a report conducted by suggests that Charleston, South Carolina is the ‘fastest-gentrifying’ city in the United States.

Back at the turn of the millennium, the median price for a home in Charleston, South Carolina, was just $152,100. By 2015, that number had spiked 77.5 percent to $270,000. Over the same period, the city’s population shifted as well, with traditionally working-class, African-American neighborhoods becoming increasingly middle-class and white. Altogether, these kinds of changes have put Charleston first on a new list identifying the fastest-gentrifying cities in the U.S.

While more in-depth analysis illustrates much of the gentrification process is taking place on the urban fringe of the city, one can't help but notice what's taking place within the city's six square mile historic urban core. Prior to the Civil War and largely built on the back of slavery, Charleston was one of the largest cities in the country. Serving as the country's major port of entry for the slave trade, it quickly developed into an urban playhouse for successful Southern plantation owners. Its days of economic bliss came to an abrupt end with the Civil War, the devastating 1886 Earthquake, the emergence of Jim Crow and the rapid growth of southern centers around important railroad junctions such as Atlanta, Jacksonville and Birmingham in the early 20th century.

After languishing economically for several decades, the city's fortunes began to change after the 1975 mayoral election of Joseph P. Riley, Jr. With a focus on the advancement of the city's cultural heritage, the city of 134,385 became a tourism powerhouse and doubled in population by the time Riley left office in 2016. The negative side effect of the city's re-emergence appears to be gentrification in the form of displacement of long time lower-income families.

Downtown Charleston does not seem to be the primary driver of the city's demographic changes, but it certainly is contributing. Unlike with the estimates for Daniel Island and West Ashley, the peninsula's population has stayed fairly constant, but the non-Hispanic white population of these tracts has increased (from 16,736 to 21,002, an increase of 4,266) while the remaining population has dropped (from 20,310 to 16,752, a decrease of 3,558).

Notably, the peninsula apparently transitioned from majority non-white to majority white. The actual numbers are pretty dramatic: The peninsula's Census tracts went from 51.8% African-American and 45.2% non-Hispanic white in 2000 to 38.7% African-American and 55.6% non-Hispanic white in the 2013 estimates.

(The city estimates have a few thousand people in these Census tracts that aren't in Charleston proper, but also shows no growth from 2000 to 2013.)

Perhaps the peninsula's pattern of a constant population with increasing non-Hispanic white and decreasing minority populations suggests displacement and a limited housing supply or capacity--the "standard" gentrification story, as opposed to the development-driven shifts in West Ashley and Daniel Island.

This dramatic demographic shift is visual evident on the city's East Side. Dating back to the early 19th century, prior to the Civil War, the East Side was the nation's largest community of free African-American craftsmen. Here, more than 3,000 free African-American carpenters, ironsmiths, tailors, and wholesalers resided, using their talents to construct the unique historic urban setting that led to the city's 2016 ranking as the "World's Best City" by Travel + Leisure. To address displacement, the city continues to develop a variety of solutions to incorporate affordable housing into its infill developments.

At city hall, the idea is to allow developers to build more units near the Low Line if they’re willing to make some of them affordable. That’s the carrot. The stick could come from the Statehouse. Marlon Kimpson, the state senator who represents Charleston, has sponsored a bill under consideration in Columbia that would allow South Carolina cities to enact mandatory inclusionary zoning, ensuring that all new developments of a certain size contain affordable units.

While this article isn't meant to provide solutions for Charleston's challenge with displacement or the pending issue of the impact of sea level rise on historic flood-prone neighborhoods, this collection of images is intended to provide a visual look at what rapid gentrification resembles in the American city experiencing it the most.

Charleston Gentrification Photo Tour

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Davis is a certified senior planner and graduate of Florida A&M University. He is the author of the award winning books “Reclaiming Jacksonville,” “Cohen Brothers: The Big Store” and “Images of Modern America: Jacksonville.” Davis has served with various organizations committed to improving urban communities, including the American Planning Association and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. A 2013 Next City Vanguard, Davis is the co-founder of Metro and — two websites dedicated to promoting fiscally sustainable communities — and Transform Jax, a tactical urbanist group. Contact Ennis at