RIGHTING A CENTURY-OLD WRONG

First imagined in 1907 and discussed during more than a decade of study and planning, Greenville is turning the vision of a 60-acre park into reality – to transform and in some ways restore a largely unseen and often forgotten part of the community.

Unity Park will reshape Greenville.

Greenville is staking out this ground for generations to come as a park for everyone. It will attract tourists and visitors from across the region and beyond. It will help manage growth by balancing it with green space. It will restore a half mile of the Reedy River upon which the city was founded. And it will knit together surrounding neighborhoods with rich histories that transcend blight and impoverishment fueled by the city’s segregated past.

As part of the Unity Park project, nearby land owned by the city through a quirk of history has been dedicated for affordable housing – a bulwark against the pressures of gentrification already impacting this area.

A HISTORY OF NEGLECT

Unity Park is located on the west side of Greenville. Nestled among three neighborhoods – Southernside, West Greenville and Hampton-Pinckney – the park area was once home to the city stockade, a trash incinerator, a landfill and, in recent years, the city’s garbage trucks and broken-down vehicles.

The area of Unity Park has long been treated as Greenville’s backyard – a reality not lost on its neighbors, some of whom have lived their entire lives here.

In the early 20th Century, Greenville’s Municipal League commissioned nationally known landscape architect Harlan Kelsey to imagine and recommend improvements and projects that would beautify the city. His recommendations were published in 1907 under the title “Beautifying and Improving Greenville, South Carolina.” The plan identified a series of potential parks along the Reedy – one would become Cleveland Park less than 20 years later. Another surrounding the extraordinary downtown falls wouldn't be built for nearly 100 years but would eventually become Falls Park.

Upstream from the falls, less than a mile from downtown's Main Street, the 1907 report identified the site for Unity Park as the third park along the Reedy River and labeled it "Hudson Athletic Fields."

A PARK FOR AFRICAN-AMERICAN CHILDREN

After voters approved a $110,000 bond referendum in 1924 to build Cleveland Park, the city set aside $15,000 (the equivalent of more than $200,000 in today’s dollars) to purchase 15 acres on Mayberry Street to build a park for “negro children” not allowed to play in the segregated parks elsewhere in the city. Hemmed in by three railroad lines and prone to flooding, the usefulness of this land was otherwise limited. Mayberry Park opened in 1925. A few years later, the city committed additional funds for an athletic field with bleachers and playground equipment. Soon, the park was being used for football, baseball and as a circus fairground.

At the time this area amounted to little more than marshy meadowland. Some in the adjacent Southernside neighborhood worked in the nearby textile mills that ringed the west side of the city. Others worked for the railroads that provided freight and passenger service to Greenville. Records of the time reflect a profound degree of racial diversity along Southernside’s streets.

In 1933, as part of a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression, the Reedy River was deepened and diverted into a new channel that sliced through the middle of the floodplain. The work largely drained the swampy marshland but did little to mitigate routine flooding. And as the textile industry grew, so too did the stench from the river.

TAKING BACK LAND FOR A BASEBALL STADIUM

But less than a decade after creating Mayberry Park, the city began nibbling away at it. A strip of land 50 feet in length was fashioned into a police shooting range. Open to the public on certain days, neighbors describe errant bullets piercing the paper-thin walls of their nearby homes.

And in 1938, Greenville landed a professional baseball franchise to be named the Greenville Spinners. The city voted to lease land inside Mayberry Park – at least half – at no cost to a Baltimore businessman to build Meadowbrook Park for an all-white minor league team. More land was taken for stadium parking and to extend left field.

E.B. Holloway, a prominent member of the black community and the city's first African-American mail carrier, attended a City Council meeting to complain that the city had taken back part of the neighborhood's park. An exasperated mayor gaveled him down by declaring the city hadn’t taken the neighborhood’s land but had given them a baseball park. To which Holloway responded, “And one in which we are not allowed to sit in the stands.” Black fans were later relegated to a small section of seating near the outfield fence.

Despite its diminished size, Mayberry Park became a source of pride for the neighborhood residents who held community gatherings there, picnicked on the grounds and cheered their student athletes. Sterling High, a segregated all-black school nearby, played football and baseball in the park and held track and field events there. In 1953, police blocked off a section of a nearby street three days a week to allow black children to roller skate. The park was home to Black Arbor Day events and the city constructed a small community center where dances were held.

Though Mayberry Park remained long after public parks were integrated in the 1960s and outlived Meadowbrook Park, which burned to the ground in 1972, the city did little to maintain it. In 1977 the park consisted of five swings, a three-person merry-go-round, a slide, three inches of mud on the athletic field, and two rough basketball courts missing basketball nets, according to a newspaper report.

A TRANSFORMATIVE PROJECT

In 2002, the Reedy River Master Plan compiled by Clemson University for the city and county called for construction of a new park in this area, along with the creation of a 20-mile rails-to-trails project stretching from downtown Greenville to Travelers Rest. The Swamp Rabbit Trail opened in 2010, bringing hundreds of thousands of walkers, runners and cyclists through the area annually and introducing them to a part of town few previously knew existed.

Greenville wins awards. Urban planners visit from other cities to see for themselves how Greenville transformed a typical Southern mill town. Greenville did so by staying true to a long-range progressive vision, by maintaining an enduring respect for conservation and sustainability, and by recognizing its shared history and heritage.

Unity Park represents each of these in ways that pay homage to the legacy of three of downtown’s proudest neighborhoods – Southernside, West Greenville and Hampton-Pinckney – and the people who brought us to where we are today.

Toward that end, areas of the park will be named Mayberry Field and Meadowbrook Green in honor of the rich history of Mayberry and Meadowbrook parks. Unity Park will also afford many opportunities to recognize Greenville’s roots and to tell the narrative of the individuals, businesses and cultures woven into the tapestry of Greenville that have helped shape the community.

Once a place of division, this area will soon be a place of unity. Unity Park is designed to mend the past in recognition that the strength of the community derives from its diversity of cultures and backgrounds. Unity Park is a forward-looking acknowledgment that the achievements ahead will be defined and measured by the ability to unite as one community behind a shared vision having learned the lessons of its history.