Poe Mill Resident. CEO of JC & Associates. Activist, entrepreneur, teacher.
“Gentrification. It is the spatial expression of our inequality in America.”
Kwadjo, where did you grow up?
It’s a long story. I was born in Los Angeles. We lived in LA, and then in Hawaii. We moved back and lived in San Diego a little bit, the military [lifestyle] of my grandfather and my father. My father was in the Marine Corps. But my grandmother and my aunt lived in Charleston. So we came over here. Then we moved to Key West, Florida, back to Charleston, to Virginia, then back to Charleston.
What was growing up like for you?
I was always having these questions. I used to be rebellious against authority, plus my grandmother was not scared of white people, of NObody. If they stepped out of line she would straighten them out. She owned three restaurants, one in Connecticut, one in California, and one in South Carolina. She was this strong and independent woman. My grandfather was in the military: independent and a big dude. He wasn’t scared of anything. He would knock them out, but he was humble. So that was my growing up. When I read the autobiography of Malcolm X, I was already obsessed. I kept finding more and more like that to stoke the fire.
My senior year of high school was when I was really exposed to Black history. All my life I was always asking these questions. For example, in Norfolk, we used to catch the bus. We used to ride a bus with all these white kids, but the way they used to do the route, it would make sense to pick them up and then pick us up. But it was the opposite. We used to always be able to see their community, but they would never ever see ours.
I graduated from Burke High School in Charleston. I went into the Marine Corps Reserves and ended up in Saudi Arabia for active duty. I came back and went to the College of Charleston when I recognized that I really missed my family. The rest is history.
What initially drew you to West Greenville?
Actually I wasn’t. It was my wife. So I’ll tell you what attracted her to it. Its proximity to downtown; we could ride our bikes downtown. Its proximity to the Swamp Rabbit Trail. The character of the neighborhood. It was a lived-in neighborhood. We could afford to buy in. We both grew up in lived-in communities. We came here because of Clemson’s Urban Planning Program. My wife is an urban planner and she wanted to go to the graduate program there at Clemson. And her best friend is from Clemson. So we had that connection. But the main thing was the Urban Planning Program.
What have you observed about West Greenville? What do you hope for this community?
That’s a loaded question. What I see, is potential. I don’t want to get into the neglect. I’ll leave that for everybody else to talk about. So I’ll talk about potential. I see a lot of people around here with skills that could be further developed. I see a big disconnect between the programs that exist and the people that are here. There is a lot of relationship building that needs to happen for programs that are out there to connect to the people. That is where we come in. I see potential in West Greenville. Mountain View Baptist Church for example. That’s potential. It doesn’t look like that now, but that is what we see with the church, the community building it. I see this community developing itself.
I was watching a video yesterday about gentrification; that is a serious issue here in Greenville. But we can get ahead of the game by giving people resources, to have the capacity to be a part of the game. That’s the potential I see.
What prevents people from connecting to resources?
The county is a big place and these non-profits have limited resources, so if you don’t make an effort to find these resources you are going to miss them. It’s not that organizations are trying to neglect those communities, but it is because they have limited budgets. Limited staffing budgets. And every year people give less and less. So as a community we have to build those relationships and make sure people connect.
Will you describe gentrification, in your own words?
Gentrification. It is the spatial expression of inequality in America. You have direct and indirect displacement. Direct displacement is rent going up and then you have indirect displacement: when you have people in their own neighborhoods feeling like strangers. When you’ve got new shops coming up, but they don’t cater to them. That is how I see gentrification. The big mistake that people like to make with gentrification is in saying that it is the same as revitalization. When people talk about the revitalization of Greenville and use the term gentrification, they think it is a quasi-good thing and it is not. If you eliminate the culture, the people who have lived the history are eliminated…Revitalization is bottom up. That is revitalization when we try to work from the bottom up. For example, my firm’s work with Mountain View Baptist Church to purchase their own land, to develop and be a part of the growth, that is the difference in revitalization.
How do you want to guide positive change?
I am a very busy individual. I have a firm, JC Associates and I do a lot of activism here in Greenville. We have the Mountain View project. We are working with them to develop the area around the church. But also, we are about to— here in the third quarter— put an offer on a piece of property here off Cornwallis, right in front here. And we are going to do a market rig housing development with a volunteer 20% affordable housing. It takes more people doing that, but it is what will create the resources around that church (near the Amtrak Station). We have got a project in Charleston; I’ll be driving there tomorrow to begin talking to the school board. So this is Archers School. An old historic school in downtown Charleston. Our group works with non-profit organizations to do these projects. We also do African American tourism. We’ve got a caucus we go every year: September 30th is our date this year. We also do Urban planning studies. We work with the city of Spartanburg. Their affordable housing/community building department doesn’t have the capacity that Greenville county and city do, so they subcontract services and so we do some of that work with them. We did an economic impact study with the University of SC, AA tourism…A lot of my activism is through my firm, but I also teach at Legacy Charter School which is a big part of what’s going on in West Greenville. I am the head of the English department for the middle school and am a mentor teacher there. I help set up the curriculum and am a big part of the disciplinary part of the piece. I’m living that mission. I’m president of the neighborhood association. We have the skate park, and are doing a lot of other things around here to revitalize this area. I have great team. Starting with my wife, who is the president of our company.
How will this help to direct West Greenville?
All I can hope for, and pray for, is that if I can do my part to help affect the lives of the people I touch with these programs and such; that is what I hope for. I’m not sure how it is going to impact the overall piece, but it is a part. The economic, political pendulum has swung in a very hard and heavy direction, so it is a significant shift. But I do know, if JC can become a significant player in the development of that area, people are going to take notice and it will become a precedence for growth in other areas. Other communities will begin to see that and start to hope. If communities don’t believe they can do it, it isn’t going to happen. Freetown: It used to look like all the other mill/liquor house communities in Charleston. But if those residents didn’t rise up and work with the county to revitalize, it wouldn’t have happened. So that is what has to take place. This community has a powerful history and lots of resources, we just have to pull them together to do what we can do.
When you look at that community now, seeing the things have come and gone, what do you think needs to happen?
I do think the City of Greenville is being very proactive: looking at policy, setting policy, taking recommendations, and things like that. But of course there is a lot more that can be done, but that is for the academics to work out through politics. I think they are being proactive. I think the County Council, especially, is very different from the City. They control their community development stuff and they have a separate agency that does that. County Council controls all this money and resources and handles about forty miles. They are the one who handles transportation. It is the county that is hurting in regards to both of those issues.
Greenville is blowing up. Every space has a new apartment building, but those apartments aren’t affordable. I don’t think anybody in this room can afford them. I mean, maybe some people could afford it, but you are forced to give up so much quality of life. Here is an example of the County and the City of Greenville being pitted against each other. Transportation is one of those issues. Let’s just talk about that for a minute. You have transportation from the County putting in a little bit of money. And then public transportation in the City putting in a lot of money. And it is the county residents that can't get jobs. It is just backwards thinking by County Council. They tax us, tax us, tax us. I could run for County office. But that is a whole other thing. I mean, I shouldn’t say that, if I have to, I have to.
What has been a guide for you, as you have thought through these issues?
Joseph Neil. He was a state representative. He passed away recently. When I say he was serious, he was by far one of the best human beings I have ever met. You look at his issues and how he fought for poor people…I don’t know if ya’ll have been to the state house but it is a mean, evil place. Those guys passed horrible legislation that was hurting people all the time. He stopped a whole lot of stuff. It could have been a whole lot worse than it was. He told me one time (because I was very anti-running for office, seeing that I like my private life) when I was on City Council for the city of Charleston and not but two weeks in, it was my worst enemy. They were talking about that resolution to do a racial bias study for City Council and the votes came down racial lines with one African American at the reigns and I said, “I don’t want to be on this Council anymore.” I said, “Hell no.” But Neil, he told me, “Alright, you have a responsibility to go in there and take care of your business.” He talked to me like I was a child. I said, “Yes sir.”
What do you recommend to individuals who want to get involved in their communities?
I was twenty-three when I ran for Council, and twenty-four when I started serving. I would love to see young people on boards, pushing for policy, advocating for their neighborhoods. Step out and get involved.