Can this community come together to honor its past, preserve its future?

August 22, 2009 

It's difficult to put a finger on the saving grace for Beaufort's Northwest Quadrant.

But one thing looks certain -- if anybody in this often-maligned section of downtown goes to hell, it's their own fault.

Just reading the names of all the churches along its quiet streets could lead to a divinity degree.

Fishers of Men, Second Pilgrim, Mount Sinai, Holy Redeemer Apostolic, and the Holy Church of the Living God -- with its two Stars of David and a plaque by the door calling it "The Pillar and Ground of Truth" -- are among them.

These aren't the steeples that define the skyline. But they link today's sense of hope in the neighborhood to its beginnings when newly freed slaves built simple, dignified cottages on dirt streets.

"The churches stood out like clean, well-scrubbed children," said Bernie Schein, remembering the Quadrant of the 1940s and 1950s when his father ran Schein's Grocery at the corner of Bladen and Prince streets to serve the neighborhood of mostly African-Americans. In contrast to the grand homes on Bay Street a few blocks away, this was where he saw porches held up by cinder blocks, and chickens scratching in dirt yards.

The chickens are gone. The city has given Bladen Street a new makeover. Volunteers working under banners like Operation Good Neighbor, Block-By-Block and Habitat for Humanity have in the past two years repaired 34 homes, pouring $1 million cash obtained by the city and untold sweat equity into new roofs, handicap ramps or total home refurbishments.

Still, officials say, 40 percent of the area is dead -- empty lots, boarded houses or vacant, dilapidated homes.

Not much business is left. A couple of venerable funeral homes survive, and there's Singleton's Barbershop on Charles Street.

A step into Pruitt's Grocery on Greene Street is like boarding a time machine back to its establishment in 1920. A Pruitt family member has run it most of that time. Today, James W. Pruitt keeps it open from 2 to 8 p.m., really to have something to do in his retirement. A Beaufort Gazette front page hangs on the wall from the day native son W. Brantley Harvey Jr. was elected lieutenant governor in 1974. Pruitt's best sellers are candy, cookies and meat -- lunch meat, souse, salami, baloney, bacon and liver pudding. He slices and wraps each order by hand in white butcher paper.

Several homes near the neat, white store with green trim are in disrepair. Pruitt softly sums it up. "If you don't have any money, you can't fix it."

Location, location, location

That's a shame because, with its link to freedom from slavery, this is one of the most important neighborhoods in America. And it's surrounded by breathtaking beauty.

Everyone says the Quadrant has always been a place where people respect each other. Blacks and whites lived back-to-back here when the Ku Klux Klan still terrorized the South. The old, all-black Robert Smalls High School refused to be inferior, teaching pride and hope on top of the three Rs.

Today, it is a neighborhood of front porches with gliders, rocking chairs, stuffed chairs, folding chairs and flower pots shaped like swans.

Canopies of trees hang over paved streets with sidewalks, white picket fences and houses that would look like doll houses if they were dropped in a new neighborhood.

People walk, ride bicycles and stop to chat. Sometimes their connections cover several generations.

The squeals of children frolicking in a public swimming pool bounce off tombstones in the still Beth Israel Cemetery.

Clothes hang on the line and window units hang from homes that generally run 500 to 1,500 square feet. A two-story, nearly new home is offered for $234,900. An 800-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath home built in the 1960s and recently refurbished is offered for $145,000.

The neighborhood has Beaufort Elementary School, but not enough children to fill it. It has the Boys & Girls Club and the Charles "Lind" Brown Neighborhood Activity Center. It has a police station and a fire station. It's right by the downtown commercial district, city and county government buildings, the University of South Carolina Beaufort, the public library and a Piggly Wiggly supermarket. It's close to the Technical College of the Lowcountry and Beaufort Memorial Hospital. You could walk to all of this if you weren't like many of its residents -- elderly, sick and shut-in.

It's a neighborhood with character -- and characters. Like "Gizmo" who rides a bicycle with no chain, poling himself along because he has one leg.

It's a neighborhood whose pride came out swinging years ago when drug dealers "festered in like cockroaches," as 82-year-old Leroy Gibbs of Congress Street put it. Residents worked with the Beaufort Police Department to form a neighborhood watch and take back their streets. Now they track down wandering lawn mowers that someone "borrows" to turn a quick $5 for a day's supply of malt liquor.

Some still call the park on Washington Street "Three Pony Park," even though the little metal horses on springs are long gone. Downtown churches serve meals in the park every Friday night to feed the poor and homeless.

When a new neighborhood association held an organizational meeting last week, people were pleased with a turnout of about 30.

'Undiscovered jewel'

Town Council member Mike Sutton has tackled the dilapidation issue primarily with his hands. He's a builder who spearheaded the Block-By-Block program.

"It's not as simple as roof repair," he says. "We've been throwing Band-Aids on it for years."

As he rides through the neighborhood, every house tells a story. They fixed one house that had 11 children, holes in the floor, no hot water and plastic over the windows.

He points with a builder's pride at a brick home built by hand by a highly decorated enlisted Marine who's now in his 80s and living in California.

"He wants to come back and taste the sheepshead," Sutton says.

Not all the stories have that nice ending.

"My question is, 'Where's the property owner?' " Sutton asks. "We need to be doing more preservation, but who's the 'we'?"

Maybe there's a new "we" coming.

Debbie and Tom Pucci bought a new 1,470-square-foot home on Washington Street last fall for $250,000. They hand-picked the neighborhood following the careful research a college professor, athletics director and collegiate hall-of-fame tennis coach like Thomas Pucci would do. They're in the process of leaving a Pennsylvania farm for the Quadrant.

"We didn't want just a neighborhood -- we wanted everything," Debbie Pucci said.

"Everything" means farmers markets nearby, gardening, a beach where she helps monitor sea turtle nests, and her morning ritual of walking the dog to the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, sitting a spell in a swing, and then hitting the shops and bank where the dog knows she'll get a treat.

They love their neighbors. They're not looking to flip property or get rich. But they see long-term value in their investment.

"We bought quality of life," Debbie Pucci said. "We're very happy. I volunteer at the hospital and help with Habitat. I can walk to church. I can walk down to the university and the art openings. It's a healthy lifestyle. It's kind of an old-fashioned lifestyle."

The Pucci home stands out like a "clean, well-scrubbed child."

Some will call that the neighborhood's saving grace. Some will not. But from these fresh eyes, the Northwest Quadrant is "an undiscovered jewel."

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