Reverend Vardrey Fleming


Vardrey Fleming

West Greenville Community Member. Pastor of Bethel Bible Missionary Church. President of West Greenville Neighborhood Association

“I say, jump right in! We have a lot of young people buying into the neighborhood. If there are problems, we will address it, any problems that you have. But it is a two-way street. Everyone has to be a part.”


Full Interview

Tell me about your first encounter with West Greenville.

The City loves for me to tell this part of the story. We have people coming in from all over the place. I think a few weeks ago we had a group coming in from Gastonia, NC, and so the City wanted me to tell the story of West Greenville. So about fifty years ago, I used to be a bus driver for the elementary school, (it was an elementary school at that time... now its used for disciplinary purposes), but I drove the city route so I had all the bad areas. I had what was Parker Street, Southernside, and all these, and I had West Greenville. I was here everyday. I picked the kids up and then dropped them off and not one time do I ever remember turning my engine off. And I would always come into West Greenville, unload, and I would get out of here as quick as I could.

Why was that?

This was like Dodge City. All of the social ills that you can think of existed here in West Greenville. So, some years later, I had no intention of coming back to this area, because I left Greenville. I actually became the first black president of the College I attended in Atlanta, so I was really focusing on my trip every week back and forth from Atlanta two or three times. African Americans, generally, when they move up education wise, move out of the area they grew up in, like West Greenville, and they don’t come back. It was my intention to never come back to West Greenville.

What changed that?

At that time I taught at Tri-County Technical College, however as our church grew because of our educational background, naturally it grew with educators. We may have had as many as ten to twelve engineers here at one time. But it was growing and we were looking for a new location. I had a man tell me one day, have you considered the property over in West Greenville? And my first reaction was that, no, I have no intention of considering that. But I didn’t tell him that. Because I knew what West Greenville was like— as I said, I never did turn my engine off. I came in and left out. But I came around, out of respect for him. At that time this building was a four-family complex. I found out later that seven people had been killed in this complex. That is just how bad it was. But when he showed me the property, it was just an alley going through the parking lot. And my thoughts were, “You do not expect me to move my folks to— or for my folks to agree to move— over here.” Many people in our congregation lived in, quote-unquote, “mixed neighborhoods,” white neighborhoods predominantly. And they were professional people, successful people, and at one point somebody in this neighborhood said, “We can’t attend that church because everyone drives new cars.” So this was a mentality that they had. The idea of us actually buying property and going down here in West Greenville was kind of farfetched. But my folks were nice enough that we came in and I said, “The property is available and what do you guys want to do?” And they said, “Well, we just need to raise the money.” I think we needed seven thousand dollars at the time. So we went and bought it. I did not find out until fifteen years later that some of my members didn’t like what I was doing. But they said they trusted me.

Did you have a vision for how you were going to impact West Greenville?

We had no idea that it would come to this. Over the years we came in and bought the different substandard houses, right in this surrounding area. In some cases we built, we tore down, and built around. In other cases we brought the city in, and in other cases, Habitat for Humanity, BGU, and that kind of thing. If we were going to change the community, this was my thing. I have some pictures that you might find quite interesting. So, over the years we worked hard to eliminate all the substandard housing. And so now, it looks like a totally different place. We worked with the city, while I have also bought a lot of the houses personally and the church bought a house of two.

When did this all begin?

Oh Mercy. That had to be 1990, that we started. So over the years we were able to deal with substandard housing and the social ills that existed, drugs and alcohol and all that. I have a little bit of an advantage over some community developers in that I worked for the Sheriff’s Department. I think that has been a platitude. People feel like the closer we can get to the church, the safer we will feel. We have a lot of renters and people buying houses right here because they feel safer. And it is my goal that a senior citizen, if they want to take a stroll at one o'clock at night, then they can walk this area without any problems whatsoever. I am trying to lobby not only for senior citizens but also for a mixed neighborhood. It is my opinion that you cannot build a strong neighborhood with all of the same people. You have to have a mix to have a strong neighborhood that sustains itself. Personally, I have recruited blacks and whites, and we have a few Hispanics. But we have more blacks and whites than anything else. It has proven to be an asset.

So you and the church began to purchase houses to create more livable spaces? Did you raise money to do that?

With my investment I am still suffering the result of that, because I did like a lot of investors and entrepreneurs and mortgaged the house and kept turning things over. But the city of Greenville was coming in with BMW and I challenged them—people were coming in and buying— “You give people incentives to move to this city but what incentive are you giving me? What incentive are you giving your current residents?” At that point they said ok, and they started hedging funds and so on. Homes of Hope and Habitat for Humanity worked with us because I felt like if we were going to get this thing done in a reasonable amount of time we would need partners. No one group would be close to raising the funds.

So that was initiated because you went in and had a conversation with the city?

Yes. I tried to make them feel bad. It worked.

Your first priority was livable spaces around the church. Then did it grow from there?

Yes. Pretty much, but we didn’t just limit it to here. We also moved around the corner and so forth. So in a sense, we didn’t just start here and then move out, but were working around.

How did the people feel when the Village began to be revitalized?

To some degree they felt threatened, okay, because there was that fear that gentrification would revive itself. Which it has. Now to some degree I have a different take than what some people would take. I think it is bad if people are forced out of their homes, because we need to secure them in their homes. But we are in a capitalistic society; we are free to invest and all that stuff. But I think that also you have to consider the have-nots. There was some concern. And there is still some concern because one of the things that the Village has done is put in high cost apartments. On Pendleton. And the people knew that there was no way for the people to afford that. That is a little concerning. That is where I come in and there are some cases when we just totally object, but we try to balance the situation out and live and let live.

What is an example of something to which you might object?

The Village is really promoting studio housing. Studio on the first floor, etc. The biggest concern with that is that it is pushing the value of the property up around here. The people who do own their homes are going to be taxed out, price wise. Now there are some provisions that the city has made, supposedly, but we are talking about politics, so you might look in one direction and see where it's safe, and then look at another area and ask how did it happen there. But it is the American way.

As the President of the Neighborhood Association, what is your role in this?

So normally when something is going to happen in the Village, I am generally contacted, the city will have them contact me, and I’ll sit down and talk with them and see where their interests are. I’ll hear how they are going to benefit the community, and I am constantly in touch with them. So, the Village has worked. They have done a lot in many ways to accommodate us.

Who runs the Village, per se?

It’s really a townshare of Greenville. But there are still people who run the Village. Sherrington. She is a mover and shaker in that area.

What contributes to the success of West Greenville, and why is it getting so much attention?

I’d say, it’s relationships. That’s true with anything. I am the most unpaid person to stand outside of City Hall, nothing for it. I remind them every once in awhile: you need to put me on the payroll as much as you guys have me up here for meetings and so forth. They owe me a lot of money and so do a lot of other folks. Our community meetings are advantageous to the community. And I try to get people who have the power to make things happen come to these meetings. The mayor, the city manager, the fire department, the police department- we try to bring all of these people in so they can build relationships. This has been really helpful for the Village, because, while it is art and so on, they have opened to the community and so on.

There seems to be synthesis between these two groups.

The community association meetings have been going on for fifteen years. At least, that’s how long I’ve been the president!

Historically, there wasn’t always this cohesion. What was it like in this area during the civil rights movement, for example.

Greenville did not have some of the major problems that other cities had. I’m sixty-four. Some of the kids around here say that I am as old as dirt. I’m not old as dirt, but in the 60’s, I left here to go to Atlanta, and that was really when everything was at its peak. As a matter of fact, I was one block away from, what do you call it, SCLC, which was part of their civil rights organization. I could probably see them from the college dorm. We had some problems. Some tension with the integration of schools. But what contributed to this smoother transition was that the Bible belt, while it may not be all that it should be, it did have some influence.

I heard someone refer to Bob Jones [University] as the buckle of the Bible belt.

Well, since you said it, let it go on the record that she said it. With Bob Jones, some of the things you heard was just them trying to make it sound juicy. They wanted the story to look good, and so therefore, they did what they always do to movies and everything else. They kind of doctored it up a little bit. But some of it was true. I grew up in the Cherrydale area which is where they have their radio now. It is called Piney Mountain. I had to go 150 miles away to go to another school at the time. With the grandson coming in, things changed a lot. There were times that I had to marry mixed couples from Bob Jones, but also our music pastor is from there and they run our kids’ church, so, no- this is a new day. Even back then in the sixties we had white kids come down and mingle because they didn’t know any differently. Things have changed. In many cases the Village is a welcome addition.

How do you encourage young people to get involved?

I say, jump right in! We have a lot of young people buying into the neighborhood. If there are problems, we will address it, any problems that you have. But it is a two-way street. Everyone has to be a part.

This community is so lucky to have a champion like you!

This is a big commitment, but it is worth it. Because it is not just adults we are talking about. It’s the kids too. We are doing a lot of programing right now for kids. Our goal is to try and cover the whole spectrum.