In the late 1930s, the Rev. Elias Brown Holloway, a leader in Greenville’s Southernside neighborhood, lobbied the city government forcefully for a park to serve the area’s Black residents. He had reason to complain.
A decade earlier, the city had established Mayberry Park, a recreational spot for Black children who in an age of segregation were not allowed to play in the city’s other parks. Although that park became a key asset to the community, the city had taken a portion of the land for a police department shooting range, and took more land still for a stadium for an all-white minor league baseball team.
Holloway pushed hard, rallying city leaders and publishing newspaper letters, and ultimately secured a commitment from Greenville City Council for a new park.
A new park didn’t happen.
What emerged in its place were more out-of-the-way city functions — a stockade, a dog pound, dilapidated public works buildings, and cast-off trucks and police cruisers.
“The highway running through the middle of it, empty warehouses, all blighted, you never came down here,” Greenville Mayor Knox White said.
White led a tour of municipal officials through Greenville’s downtown and Unity Park — the area recently developed which includes the historic Mayberry Park — during the Municipal Association of SC 2023 Annual Meeting.
The change that would turn the area into Unity Park came when the City of Greenville sought to develop that section of the Reedy River, just upstream from the iconic Falls Park, and hosted meetings to present plan concepts to the neighborhoods.
Mary Duckett, president of Southernside Neighborhoods in Action, as White explained, “famously stood up and said, ‘you know, we’ve always wanted a park adjacent to our neighborhood.’ And this is her famous quote, circa 2010 — ‘the city has for 100 years put all its junk in our backyard.’”
With the reminder that the city had long ago promised the area a park, the city “took the plans for the park and ripped them in two. We said this park is going to be done completely differently. It’s going to be a neighborhood-driven park project,” White said. “Neighborhood leadership was absolutely involved in every iota of this park.”
Today, the headline-grabbing, wildly popular Unity Park comprises 60 acres and is home to a splash pad — neighborhood children involved in planning insisted on this inclusion — as well as basketball and baseball facilities, and a connection to the 23-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail. The city also set aside 8 acres of land near the park for workforce and senior housing development.
One surprise in the park’s development came for a row of existing warehouses situated along the Swamp Rabbit Trail. While the city was trying to buy them up, they found that another group had purchased many of the others — ultimately filling them with a food court, brewery and offices. The warehouse space closest to the heart of the park has become the city’s Prisma Health Welcome Center, which White described as an increasingly popular location for public meetings of boards and commissions.
“People are just nicer when they come out here,” he said.
Outside the Welcome Center, a mural features Elias Holloway and his wife, Hattie — a lasting reminder of their work to establish a park that could suit its community more than 80 years before it would happen.
In recent years, Greenville’s downtown often helps place it on many best-of lists — Southern Living has it as the Number 7 best city in the South for 2023, and Condé Nast Traveler has it at Number 6 on its most recent list of best small cities in the U.S. But not long ago, Greenville’s downtown was known as a challenged and largely vacant place.
White recounted a time when the downtown was known for little other than the Hyatt Regency hotel, and the iconic waterfall in what is now Falls Park was largely covered by a four-lane bridge, so most residents didn’t even know of it.
The transformation, White said, has required a focus on residential development, initially working block by block from the Hyatt to the river. The process was challenging and slow at first.
“All the second floors are residential, that was our early effort to get mixed-use downtown in the 1990s and 2000s — six units here, five units here,” he said. “About 15 years later, we graduated to 100 units, 200 units, 300 units.”
Portions of the City of Greenville tour highlighted specific accomplishments, like the recent construction of the Grand Bohemian Hotel along Falls Park; Fluor Field, home of the Greenville Drive minor league baseball team, or any of Greenville’s many pieces of public art. One such highlight was the colossal mural painted on the Canvas Tower building, commemorating school desegregation and featuring retired educator Pearlie Harris.
One stop on the tour in particular, the Camperdown development, shows what mixed-use development in Greenville now looks like. The circa-2020 project along Main Street counts 150,000 square feet of office space, more than 5,500 square feet of retail space so far, 196 hotel rooms and 241 apartments.
Combining all these functions together, White said, makes locals and tourists alike want to be downtown, and they come in such numbers that he said an ordinary day will sometimes be mistaken for a major festival.
“Close proximity equals vibrancy on the street. This place just rocks and rolls all the time,” he said. “Biggest crowds in downtown Greenville, consistently — Sunday at 3 o’clock [p.m.]. It looks like an event going on, thousands of people downtown.”