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A neighborhood anchored in history. Charleston's proud East Side tries to maintain its identity as development approaches

AS the sun drops behind old trees and ramshackle buildings, kids ride their bikes up the middle of America Street, past old men sitting on steps. A group of girls skip up the sidewalk. A car idles at an intersection, all four windows down. The driver leans out to talk to young men lounging on parked cars.

On the corner of America and Amherst, people wander in and out of Mary Watson's store. It is a dim room with a concrete floor; three pinball machines in front of the counter and all merchandise behind.

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Working the register is Mrs. Watson's daughter Mary Alston, born a few blocks from here 36 years ago.

``They're going to renovate there,'' she says, pointing out the bright spot of the door toward a dilapidated building.

``That one over there, the owner is working on it. He's getting ready to repair it. I really do think the neighborhood is coming up.''

Fifteen blocks away, in Charleston's immaculately restored downtown district, Pat Crawford at the City Planning Department agrees. ``East Side neighborhood is on the way up, definitely.''

Once the largest community of free black craftsmen in the nation, but for most of this century an area of poverty and blight, East Side is now seeing a steady growth in investment and rehabilitation.

Last year the city, whose 536-acre Old and Historic District adjoins East Side to the south, proposed nomination of the neighborhood to the National Register of Historic Places. Residents fearing soaring rents and taxes and strict restoration requirements objected so strenuously that Major Joseph P. Riley agreed to drop the East Side from the proposal.

But on the peninsula of Charleston, booming downtown development has no place to go but north, over Calhoun Street and into the East Side. The neighborhood is four blocks by eight blocks of sagging 19th-century houses, an occasional antebellum mansion, a public housing project dating from the 1930s, and a few commercial properties.

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More than 100 years ago, East Side was an industrious and respected working-class community. In addition to a few wealthy planters and slaves, more than 3,000 free black carpenters, ironsmiths, tailors, and wholesalers lived here, and a substantial portion of them were property owners. Their skills and talents helped create some of the buildings for which Charleston is now famous, and won them the grudging admiration of whites.

But after the Civil War the city fell into poverty, and the East Side never really recovered. ``Negro codes'' limited opportunities for blacks. German and Irish immigrants moved in. During the early 20th century the neighborhood was the scene of gang warfare between different ethnic groups.

Families that bettered themselves generally moved out. By the time of the 1980 census, population in the neighborhood had dropped from around 10,000 to 4,500. Forty-six percent of the residents were under the poverty level, and 75 percent rented their homes. Ninety-five percent were black.

For many longtime residents, neighborhood improvements now bring fears of gentrification and displacement. But others are determined to channel economic growth to help the neighborhood break out of its cycle of poverty.

``East Side has historically been a place where there's a lot of good people,'' says Arthur K. Maybank, president of the East Side Neighborhood Council. ``We're trying to show how a neighborhood can help itself.''

In the last few years, many residents say, people have been working together more to make East Side a better place. Says Philip Simmons, ``We're getting together as neighbors, talking, trying to do things for the neighborhood.''

Mr. Simmons, a wrought-iron smith, is one of the city's more renowned black citizens. He came to the East Side from Daniels Island 67 years ago to get an education, and has lived here ever since. His work has been displayed in the Smithsonian Institute, and his ``Star and Fish Gate'' has hung in the National Museum of American History.

``I was here a long time,'' says Simmons, who lives in a modest cottage on Blake Street, behind a two-story house he owns with his sister. ``I can see the increase and the decrease. I know the value of the East Side. I know what can be done on the East Side.''

T.C. Drayton, a community liaison specialist with the city, helps East Side residents find jobs. In the last year she has placed about 200. ``It's changing for a better community,'' says Ms. Drayton, a lifelong resident of the East Side, whose father is a retired brick mason and whose mother did domestic work.

``There's more opportunity now,'' she adds. ``If the folks on the corner don't see that, there's something wrong. I try to make it known to them: Your area's changing, and you've got to change with it.''

Drayton says she finds her clients in churches, pool halls, and beer joints. Some have been on welfare for generations. With a city unemployment rate of 5 percent, ``anyone can find a job,'' maintains Drayton, a self-proclaimed optimist.

``They've been laid back for generations, nobody to motivate them,'' she says. ``I go on the job. I observe. I call them up, I speak direct to them, I speak their language. Ninety-five percent of the time it works. They know I care.''

This year, Mr. Maybank became the first East Side resident ever appointed to the mayor's Redevelopment and Preservation Commission, which has administered the city's rehabilitation funding on the East Side for the past 12 years.

In addition to outside investors, East Side residents who have money are putting it back into the neighborhood, aided by a package of housing rehabilitation loans and grants from the city.

Says Maybank, whose parents were renters in the neighborhood all their lives until he recently helped them buy a house, ``More and more families are approaching the property development thing together. The time is now to start getting it together if they can.''

As a workman on an extension ladder brushes bright yellow paint against the side of her house, Lottie B. Mack looks down Hanover Street with satisfaction.

``If you had come here two years ago, over there you would have thought it was a slum,'' says the 81-year-old property owner, pointing to a neatly painted blue and white house across the street. ``Hoodlums would be over there, drinking whiskey and selling stuff in the back. These colored people bought it now and fixed it up.''

Ms. Mack, a former teacher, inherited neighborhood property. She is spending $3,000 of her own money to paint and repair her two-story rental house at 34 Hanover. Many of her neighbors, she says, are borrowing from the city to make improvements.

The city's housing rehabilitation program is making $300,000 in federal funds available to the East Side this year for home improvements, rental rehabilitation, and rent subsidies for tenants in renovated units. The city has recently identified close to 100 dilapidated buildings it plans to buy and resell to low- and moderate-income people who can restore them.

``These programs are administered in a very hands-on way,'' stresses Ms. Crawford, who oversees the programs. ``Most of the units we've rehabbed, the original occupants are still living here.''

The Historic Charleston Foundation also plans to renovate four buildings in the East Side, two for resale to residents at less than cost. And, notes Mack, ``Outsiders are coming, wanting to buy up property and improve it.''

After a century of neglect, time is suddenly short for the residents of East Side.

``The neighborhood is changing daily,'' says Crawford. ``There is a lot of speculative interest in it.''

``I feel like once they get a lot of these houses fixed up, the rent is going to go up,'' says Ms. Alston, watching her neighbors lounge and talk in the doorway of her store. ``Some of the people are going to move.''

On the southern boundary of East Side is the neighborhood of Ansonborough. Thirty years ago it was a predominantly black neighborhood of crumbling 19th-century houses.

Preservationists led by the Historic Charleston Foundation transformed the area into a model restored community, and homes in Ansonborough now sell for upwards of $250,000. Very few of its original residents remain.

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