You don’t have to be a history buff to know that the Upper Peninsula has deep and important roots. Appreciating the history of this unique area of Charleston can help connect us more deeply to the land, the people, and the culture so we make wise decisions for an inclusive community moving forward.
Originally the Upper Peninsula was considered everything north of downtown, first starting north of Broad and then expanding to the modern “Neck” area — north of Huger Street.
Much like its boundaries, activities in the Neck have continued to evolve and shift. Growth during the American Revolution catalyzed a myriad of changes: Race Street was the entrance to the New Market Race Course, and the Barrel Factory, which employed residents from all over the Neck, found its home on Cool Blow Street. A little later, in 1796, Hampstead Mall was established. The oldest park in the city, Hampstead Square Park, located in Charleston’s Eastside, is still a popular gathering spot for neighbors.
While the Upper Peninsula is now home to GrowFood Carolina and Lowcountry Local First, agriculture has always played a strong role in the area. For most of the 18th century, the Neck consisted of open, sparsely populated pastureland and fields where cash crops were grown. At the corner of Ashley and Huger Streets sat an enormous strawberry farm, employing hundreds of workers – an industry which persisted in evolving forms for many years. Although the strawberry farm was by far the largest in the Upper Peninsula, artichokes and asparagus, among other organic vegetables, were also grown north of Line Street on King.
Until the American Revolution and more sparingly afterwards, indigo was grown in large quantities in the Neck. This plant has had a lasting impact on the culture and history of Charleston as a whole. Today, local indigo artists – in partnership with Enough Pie – are shining a light on indigo and the importance of its art, history, science, and culture. With the upcoming Indigo VAT SHACK at the Joseph Floyd Manor Park, the communities of the Upper Peninsula and beyond will once again enjoy engaging with indigo.
Before the Civil War, the Upper Peninsula saw a demographic shift. Subjected to profound oppression and surveillance in more urban areas, the Neck allowed fugitive slaves and freed African Americans a chance at greater freedom due to its scarcity of law enforcement officials and the rareness of white visitors.
Additionally, looser building ordinances allowed lower-income people to build their homes and businesses more cheaply. These factors, however, also facilitated the establishment of seedy businesses, like gambling centers and strip clubs, and the reputation of the Neck plummeted.
In a rapidly industrializing world, the Upper Peninsula managed to keep its unique character through the 19th century with industries such as phosphate plants and oil facilities sharing the land with growing berry and vegetable farms. Meanwhile, a new trolley system allowed downtown residents to travel for work at the Navy Base, connecting neighborhoods to opportunity.
However, the Upper Peninsula’s history of poor oversight and racism finally caught national attention in 1934, when Charleston’s housing was declared to be the worst in the nation. According to the federal government, over 20% of Charleston homes did not have running water, compared with a nationwide average of 5%. Since then, Charleston has scrambled to try to catch up with the rest of the nation, most famously with the establishment of the Joseph Floyd Manor in 1981.
By 1950, the city slaughterhouse – fittingly named “The Abattoir” – and other undesirable industry were pushed out of neighborhoods south of Calhoun Street. In recent decades, the city had also begun introducing diesel buses and extended roads, making the trolley system obsolete – a type of community transportation Charleston is seeking to revisit today. In May 2016, Enough Pie, Flyway and The Sustainability Institute will launch Charleston’s first solar powered, live travel times bus stop to 1600 Meeting Street, which we hope to be a step in the right direction to increasing the viability of mass transit.
Since early days, the Upper Peninsula has been shaped by utilitarian need, innovative collaboration, and active industry. Today, the community is hard at work to make sure that the Upper Peninsula is just as engaged and connected as the residents and small business owners who work and reside here.