Wheeler Hill couple remembers thriving African-American neighborhood

By Caitlyn McGuire
July 9, 2013

From the front porch of their Pickens Street house, Frances and Matthew Addison can look out at what seems to be an almost ideal city neighborhood tucked away just beside USC’s campus.

Along Wheeler Hill’s winding roads are tall brick houses, neighbors washing their cars and walking their dogs, a family restaurant, tennis courts and a small local church. Those who live there – students, USC faculty, Columbia professionals and families – rave about its safety and proximity to popular areas like Five Points, downtown and USC’s campus.

“I rarely hear complaints about it here. Everyone’s generally happy,” says City Councilman Moe Baddourah, who represents the area.

But when the Addisons look harder, they see what used to be a primarily poor and African-American neighborhood. They see the ghosts of the grocery store across the way, the houses they grew up in, the five-and-dime store down the street. There was Booker T. Washington High School and someone to say hello to on every corner.

“Everybody knew everybody,” Frances Addison says. Frances, who graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1964, has lived in Wheeler Hill all her life. Her husband, Matthew, who graduated in 1962, has lived here 50 years. There were no gated driveways or decorative fountains and no sizable brick Pickens Street house with a porch.

There is barely any evidence of that Wheeler Hill that existed before 1980, except for the few families, like the Addisons, who stayed through the controversial urban renewal project.

Listen to Matthew Addison talk about the challenge of change for African-American neighborhoods

But more than 30 years later, the effects still remain. And the city is still struggling with how to preserve what is left of some of its once vibrant African-American neighborhoods, such as what was Ward 1 between downtown and the Congaree River, where preservationists fought proposed demolition of the Palmetto Compress warehouse before the city stepped in to buy it.

In the 1960s and ’70s, USC looked to expand, and the USC Development Foundation began to buy land, buildings and houses within Wheeler Hill. At the same time, the city thought it was a good time and smart financial opportunity to renovate Wheeler Hill, buying houses, demolishing them and rebuilding as a higher-income area. As the 1970s progressed, Wheeler Hill became almost unrecognizable and many residents moved.

“A lot of times when you see change coming it’s kind of scary,” Frances said. “I think we were all afraid of what might take place.”

“I’m not convinced that people had to leave their homes,” said former City Council member, Anne Sinclair. “But all of the urban renewals at the time were situational. It’s what the university thought was best at that time.”

Many Wheeler Hill residents felt they were being pushed out of their community and taken over by USC, a feeling that still lingers.

“You became a victim of your pure economic circumstance,” said Bishop Redfern II, who lived in Wheeler Hill in the 1970s.

Redfern remembers Wheeler Hill like the Addisons do – a vibrant community, but with financial and civil rights problems. Redfern, an activist for his neighborhood and the African-American community, says he saw his neighbors denied jobs that would have helped them be financially stable enough to keep their homes.

He recalls watching as his neighbors moved away and as his furniture was carried out of his apartment to pay for his rent.

While Wheeler Hill’s redevelopment remains controversial, the Addisons remember things a little differently.

The couple say they were never forced to leave. They stayed in their first Wheeler Hill house until seven years ago, when they built their current house down the street.

They say USC’s Development Foundation offered to buy out many homeowners, though for less money than they might have gotten otherwise, and many, fearful of what was happening, took the deal.

“You’d turn around and all your neighbors would be leaving,” Frances Addison says. “You’d hear them talking to the person next door telling them they better move now before they’re forced out. Everyone was talking about it, but no one was really forced to leave.”

Many didn’t have money to fix their homes, her husband says.

The couple knew Wheeler Hill would never be the same, but say they saw good in the changes and thought the neighborhood would profit more from it.

So the Addisons rebuffed the foundation’s buyout offers.

“We prayed about it quite a bit because it was a decision we had to make sure we were absolutely comfortable making,” Matthew Addison says.

They eventually sold to the foundation, but instead of moving out, they moved just down the street.

The couple knows they do not live in the same Wheeler Hill. Though their home is constantly busy with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren just as it was before they moved, they do not feel a close relationship with their neighbors now. But they say it is a better place.

“At one time we had a community,” Matthew Addison says. “But you’ve got to change with the times. We know these changes were for the better.”

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