It’s safe to assume that many of the longtime residents of West Greenville are unaware their neighborhood now has a Web site, or a logo, or a social media campaign. But it’s also safe to assume many of those people don’t care. West Greenville has been their home for decades, and they’ve weathered all types of changes.They’ve watched a thriving industry sputter, then stall, then crash.They’ve watched jobs disappear and services grow scarce. They’ve watched buildings decay and sidewalks buckle.They’ve heard gunshots and sirens and rumors of redevelopment. And, for many of those years, they’ve lived behind a veil. West Greenville has long been a neighborhood in the shadows.A footnote in the textile history of the Upstate. A ghost town of living, breathing souls.
For the first half of the century, West Greenville was the pulsing heartbeat at the center of the Textile Crescent. Brandon Mill opened in 1899 and Woodside, less than a mile north, in 1902. In 1914, after a second addition was completed, Woodside became the largest cotton mill under one roof in the world. With Judson Mill less than a 15-minute walk to the south, West Greenville was a hub of commerce serving the needs of three mill villages. There were restaurants, stores, community centers, and a theatre. Hosea’s Restaurant, on the corner of Pendleton and Perry, was open 24 hours a day, and at dawn served milkmen and mailmen beginning their workday alongside third-shift mill workers ending theirs. Even non-residents were drawn to West Greenville as the Brandon Mill company store sold overruns from the mills, making it one of the first “outlet” stores.
But by the early 1970s, the textile industry was losing steam. Foreign competition and new technology were chipping away at the profitability of the mills. Like a spigot gradually being closed, the economy of West Greenville was slowing to a drip. “There was no magic date when it changed,” says local historian Don Koonce. “But the town turned its back on a dying industry, and everything shifted northeast.” For West Greenville, this ushered in a time of poverty, crime, drugs, and blight.
Greenville native Reverend Vardrey Fleming, pastor of Bethel Bible Missionary Church since 1970, remembers the change. “West Greenville became known for all of the social ills you could think of,” he says.
It became so bad that Fleming considered moving his church, which is located just north of Pendleton Street, to a safer area. “I began looking around, then said no, I’m going to stay and make this a mission,” Fleming says. “A mission to rid West Greenville of all of the substandard housing and also to have a diverse community. Because you can’t build a strong community without a mixture of people.” As president of the West Greenville Neighborhood Association, Fleming has diligently worked toward his goal, and along with other organizations has improved the quality of the housing in the area significantly. During a 2009 interview with the Journal Watchdog, Fleming was quoted as saying, “Within the next five years, I believe this neighborhood won’t be recognizable by those who once knew it.” Five years later the reverend’s prediction is pretty close to the mark.
In the early 2000s, despite the successful efforts of those working to elevate the housing options in the area, the economy of West Greenville was still stagnant. On Pendleton Street, a handful of stores were open, but most buildings were shuttered and some were falling apart. Hosea’s Restaurant had closed in the 1970s, and the 10,000-square-foot Brandon Mill store had been boarded up for decades. The sidewalks bordering Pendleton Street remained eerily quiet and empty as if setting the stage for a tumbleweed to roll past. During those years, it seemed West Greenville was all but forgotten by those who didn’t live there. If you were looking to open a business, West Greenville was not even on your radar. But if you were an artist looking for cheap studio space, well, that’s another story.
“I rented space on Coffee Street for ten years but then real estate started to shift,” says artist Diane Kilgore Condon, who in the early 2000s, found herself, as well as other artists, being priced out of the area surrounding Main Street. “We were driving around looking for a place to rent and came into West Greenville the back way,” she says. “We stopped at the first large, commercial building we ran into, and there was a little sign in the window that said ‘For Sale or Lease.’” The building was the old Brandon Mill company store, and Diane immediately saw its potential. Eighteen months later, she had purchased the building, formed a non-profit, and was renting out studio space in the newly named “ArtBomb” for $100 a month.
While artists seemed to be comfortable with the area, others were left scratching their heads. “The only questions people had were, ‘Is your life insurance up to date,’ or ‘Has anyone been held up at gunpoint?’ That was all people were interested in. That was the only set of beliefs they had about the area,” Diane says. Twelve years later the ArtBomb is still full of artists, and Diane is still charging a pittance for studio space. “We’ve only gone up $50 in twelve years,” she says. “We really should go up. Rents are going up everywhere else, and it would make this a lot easier.” Diane is again seeing the shifting landscape of real estate and knows today it would be impossible for someone to create something like the ArtBomb in West Greenville. “When we came in, we had the luxury of low overhead,” she says. “The studios coming in now don’t have that, so there is a different mission.”
Soon other artists came and opened their own studios and eventually the area became known as the Pendleton Street Arts District, then later as the Far West End. New energy was flowing through West Greenville, although at very moderate rate.
But now the pace of change is increasing significantly. A repurposing of the Brandon Mill into residential and retail space has just been announced, and Mac Arnold’s Plate Full O’ Blues music venue, located just steps away from the old Hosea’s building, is bringing some real food back to the town, with ASADA restaurant sharing interior space. Last year the area was renamed “The Village,” and a full branding campaign is now underway. According to the Village Web site, there are four galleries and 24 studios where artists create photography, paintings, jewelry, sculpture, iron works, and “outsider art.” But hipness comes with a price.
“It’s the classic story of artists looking for cheap rent,” says textile artist Mandy Blankenship, who also serves as the artist representative for the West Greenville Business Association. “They come in and make an area cool, and then the visionary developers come in and rents rise, and it pushes the artists out.” Originally from Dallas, Mandy, along with her husband Joshua, recently purchased a home near Brandon Mill, and both are deeply involved in the growth of the community. “You have these families who have lived in the area a super long time, and I would hate to see them get pushed out,” she says. “But at the same time you want progress, so there’s a lot of tension. I don’t know a way around that story, but if there is a way I would certainly love to do it.”
Artist Jennifer Lynne Ziemann, who rents studio space on Pendleton Street, is cautiously excited about the growth. As a single mom working in downtown Greenville during the day and painting and teaching art classes in the evenings and on weekends, she hopes the community remains centered on the artists and longtime residents alike. “For it to go forward as a true arts community, we need to embrace the community that is already here,” she says. “Businesses should come in, but it needs to first be an arts district so artists can Dafford to be here. I do wonder where this is all going to lead.”
Diane Kilgore Condon realizes the development of the area is going to happen one way or another but hopes it happens slowly and organically, and with respect for the longtime residents in the area who have lived through even the darkest days of West Greenville with dignity and pride. “I think we’re a little starstruck about ourselves,” she says. “I think some are trying to go too fast and getting frustrated by the fact that they can’t have it all right now. We need to remember that for 15 decades there has been death and sorrow and joy and success and effort and beauty in this area. It’s a beautiful neighborhood. I loved it the way it was. I love it the way it is. And hopefully I will love it the way it will be.”
To call what is presently happening in West Greenville a “renaissance” might be overly generous. During First Fridays, the monthly open studio and gallery event, Pendleton Street is bustling with life and possibility. On most other days, however, the sidewalks are empty and many of the studios closed, as the artists, most of whom do not live in West Greenville, are elsewhere, working their day jobs. But venture one or two streets over from Pendleton in either direction, and you will see life in progress: kids playing basketball in the streets, a woman in a housedress planting geraniums in plastic swan planters, a mom pushing a baby in a stroller. The new name of this area may prove visionary because a diverse community is what really makes a village. As artists, entrepreneurs, investors, and residents come together in West Greenville, there is potential for something truly wonderful to happen.