Charleston Part II: Going to the Mountain Top

Mayor Joe Riley is finishing his 10th and final term.

Mayor Joe Riley is finishing his 10th and final term.

If you love cities, going to see Joe Riley is like watching LeBron James play ball.
He’s just the best. So when you have a chance to see him and hear him speak about building a great city you drop everything and you go. Especially when your invited to share your story with a national audience. I never miss a chance to promote Delray.
After 40 years as mayor of Charleston, one of America’s great cities, Mayor Riley is calling it a career. And what a career it has been.

At 72,  Mayor Riley is sharp and vigorous and there’s more to do (there’s always more when your a mayor who matters) but he’s decided to move on after having shaped, preserved and grown his city for 10 terms. He’s also influenced several generations of Mayors and place makers worldwide.
Charleston is a magical place, imbued with history and character. It’s Main Street, Kings Street, defies all planning logic: its one-way, doesn’t have the widest sidewalks, it’s pavement pocked. But it works, even though some bemoan the presence of a ton of national retailers where independents once operated.
Mayor Riley spent a lifetime shaping modern day Charleston by preserving the past but carefully ensuring that his city would not be a museum piece. Change happens whether we like it or not or as Riley memorably puts it: “the only human that likes change is an infant wearing a diaper.”

Still, he believes that mayors are the primary sales people and architects of their cities and they need to be both every day. And so for 40 years he has sold and promoted Charleston and then shaped the growth he has attracted with a design ethic that has made him a legend.
Every piece of public infrastructure in Charleston is thought out and made beautiful like the Romans used to do. So you will see interesting pump stations, granite sidewalks and beautiful architecture when you visit his city.
All of this costs more, sometimes a whole lot more,  but Riley is a believer in the public realm and Charlestonians have been eager to help him via generous donations over the years.
“The public realm belongs to every one. So the poorest person owns the city park as much as the richest person in town does. When you invest in the public infrastructure of a city everybody feels like they have a stake.”
The Riley Symposium, hosted by ULI at the College of Charleston was a chance for real estate professionals, architects, developers, planners and others to celebrate Riley’s legacy.
Delray Beach was selected to participate because we have a unique success story and have used innovative strategies, financing and policies to revitalize our urban core.
It was an honor to be selected and it’s a privilege to share the story with other communities and professionals seeking to move the needle in their towns.
I often feel that we don’t fully appreciate the place we live. It’s special and people from across the country recognize it. That bears repeating: Delray is special and people know it.
Mayor Riley told the symposium that Charleston exists for its citizens and businesses but also welcomes and values visitors.
“When you create a special place people want to come and experience that place,” he said. “It’s a challenge to manage but you must strike a balance.”
Charlestonians–at least the small sampling I met–have an enormous amount of pride in their city as they should. They debate events, development, business mix and affordable housing with gusto but also with a sense of pride. They know they live in a special place.

So do we.


Charleston: Part I

love‘This is such an aberrant incident that we just naturally come together and honor those that we’ve lost, they are good good people who are important parts of this community and they’re our neighbors. We love them.'”–A resident of Charleston.
A wonderful sentiment, but I only wish that the murder of 9 worshippers in an historic Charleston church last Wednesday was “aberrant.”
Sadly, it was not.
Violence on a mass and horrific scale has become common place in America.
I happened to be in Charleston last week and left one day before the shooting. I was with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley at an ULI Symposium celebrating his remarkable career.
Riley is a legend in Charleston and he has six months left on his 10th and final term. He has served 40 years.
Much has been said about Charleston in the past few days, about race, violence, guns, mental illness etc.
I read a lot of it, but kept thinking about Mayor Riley and the people in the community and in that church family.
First, the mayor.
When you are in a position such as mayor, you get credit when good things happen and blame and responsibility for when things go south.
The credit part may not be entirely fair, since it takes a team to build a great city, although a bad mayor can kill a town faster than a good mayor can make an impact.
But when things go wrong in a city, it’s a mayor’s job to be chief listener, healer, problem-solver and if possible the person who can keep hope alive even when facing the worst news imaginable.
In great tragedies, there are always lessons; teachable moments that can bring a community closer together.
When I read the quote from a Charlestonian on I was struck by the phrase “they’re our neighbors…we love them.”
It’s always a common theme; an antidote to hatred, racism, intolerance and violence.
Love can cure, but it doesn’t always heal. The nine worshippers gunned down in church will not come back regardless of how much we love them. It won’t bring back the children and the teachers who were murdered in Newtown, Connecticut either.
But yet love is the answer to some of the worst afflictions plaguing our society.
We have enough hatred. We need much more love.
Charlestonians take a great deal of pride in their community. And they should. It’s a beautiful, historic city.
But much of that history is difficult.
The church where the attack took place was built by a man who led a slave revolt.
Denmark Vesey led the revolt in 1822.  He was convicted in a secret trial in which many of the witnesses testified after being tortured. After they hung him, a mob burned down the church he built. His sons rebuilt it. Last week, it was turned into a shooting gallery by an avowed racist.
Still, the Confederate Flag flies at the state capitol, an affront to many.
Spend any time with Mayor Riley and he talks about these issues, the importance of making the public realm beautiful for everyone, rich, poor, black, white or other, the public square belongs to all and that’s why it must be made beautiful.
He has devoted the last several years to acquiring land and raising money for an African American History Museum in Charleston. He plans to continue his work at the museum after he leaves office in six months. He told the symposium last week that it was important for Charleston to host the museum and tell the story of the African American experience in America.
Mayor Riley is beloved and respected in his hometown. A place he has devoted his life too. But the great mayors–and Riley is undoubtedly great– aren’t devoted to policy or things, buildings or monuments, they are devoted to people.
His love for Charleston is synonymous with his love for its people. And last week, the community came together. Those who expected rioting, “do not know us”, said a pastor at Emanuel Church yesterday. He talked about love, he talked about forgiveness and community.
Love: that’s what will sustain Charleston in this darkest of hours. It won’t bring back those who were tragically gunned down while studying the Bible, but it will enable that beautiful city with a complicated past to endure.


Water Cooler Wednesday: In Praise of Joe Riley

Mayor Joe Riley has led Charleston for 40 years.

Mayor Joe Riley has led Charleston for 40 years.

The New York Times ran a great story Sunday on Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, S.C.

The Times called Riley possibly the most loved politician in America.

Cynics may think that’s like naming your favorite disease, but Joe Riley is proof that politics can be noble and that good politicians can get things done and leave a remarkable legacy.

I was fortunate to meet Mayor Riley some years back at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting. He spoke about place making and believed strongly that mayors should be the chief architects of their cities.

After his speech, I had a chance to speak with the mayor and invited him to Delray. We traded dates, but sadly it never quite worked out and that’s unfortunate because Mayor Riley has some great lessons to teach about cities, places, preservation, new development and leadership.

The Times article notes that Riley made a big bet on culture back in 1977 when he brought the “Spoleto Festival” to Charleston. The festival raised Charleston’s national profile and positioned the city as an arts haven.

Here’s how the Times’ Frank Bruni described his thinking: “Almost as soon as we sat down together, he talked up the annual Spoleto performing-arts festival, a renowned Charleston event that has bolstered the city’s profile. I wasn’t sure why he was choosing to focus on it or how it factored into any political philosophy.

Then he explained his reasons for pushing for it back before it was first held in 1977. “It forced the city to accept the responsibility of putting on something world-class,” he said.

Yes, he wanted the tourists who would flow into the city and the money they’d spend. Sure, he wanted the luster.

But he was also staging a kind of experiment in civic psychology and doing something that he considered crucial in government. He was raising the bar, and Spoleto was the instrument. It simultaneously brought great talent to Charleston and required great talent of Charleston.

“You need to commit a city to excellence,” he said, “and the arts expose you to that.”


Riley, 71, has been mayor since December 1975. He will step down in 2015 after 40 years of leadership. During his tenure, he has been embraced and sued by preservationists and environmentalists, evidence of how hard it is to make and keep friends when you make decisions on the local level.

Unlike state and federal politics, local elected officials vote around the block from where they live. There’s no hiding and the decisions are often personal affecting neighbors and friends. Once those decisions are made there’s no place to hide. And that’s the beauty of local government. It’s the government  closest to the people and increasingly the only level government that seems capable of getting things done.

Says the Times:  “What people want from government, Riley stressed to me, isn’t lofty words but concrete results. They want problems solved and opportunities created. Mayors — ever accountable, ever answerable — tend to remember that and to wed themselves to a practicality that’s forgotten in Washington, where endless ideological tussles accommodate the preening that too many lawmakers really love best.”

It’s important to share Mayor Riley’s philosophy because of the wonderful opportunities available in Boca Raton and Delray Beach especially if local leaders engage the communities they serve and embrace the real power they have. The great thing about cities is the work is never done, even when you experience success; especially when you experience success. The challenge is to stave off complacency and to leverage the opportunities you were given by the hard work of those who came before.

I find Mayor Riley an inspiration. Here’s a sample of his thoughts. We hope you enjoy:

  • “A great city is one that has a dynamic economy and jobs for its citizens. With the work of generations, we have made Charleston a most desirable place to live. We must create and attract more and better jobs here so our people and their children and their grandchildren can stay or come back home and work and live in the community they love.”


  • “A great city works to make sure we remember those who might be forgotten.”


  • “What does it mean to live in a city?  A great city is not only lived in but it is carefully and diversely used. A long time ago it was said that “Charleston was too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.” That has long since passed. A new affluence has graced our city. And with that, there may be on the part of a few the misunderstanding that they live in or have moved to a place that is like a gated community – affluent and exclusive. But that is not a great city. Great cities are a part of a larger public realm.  There will always be sights and sounds in our city – the announcement from the Coast Guard Station; or on another part of the peninsula ships arriving or embarking; fire engines; and sometime long ago, vendors with their wonderful songs and calls announcing their fresh crabs or vegetables; children romping, healthfully engaged in athletic activities on our playgrounds; students going to college; workers coming to the hospitals; cranes lifting huge containers; scientists and software engineers coming to work; streets and sidewalks bustling with people engaged in commerce, parks and public spaces busily and diversely used and shared; quiet zones for repose, reflection, solitude.  The answer to that question is that a great city, as Charleston is, is a real city – a public place, diverse people and activities working, living, energizing each other and happily sharing their city.”


  • “Never, ever, ever take for granted the citizens that you’re serving and always be asking yourself, ‘Is this the right thing?”


  • “Leaders should lead. Leaders should not be worried about the next election. They should be worried about the next generation. They should be worried about the next generation looking back at their time in office and say that they did the very best that they could to make sure that now, 25 to 50 years later, we have what we have. “


  • “The need for beauty is embedded in the human instinct. There is never an excuse for anyone, but particularly a government, to ever build anything in a city that doesn’t add to the beauty of the community.”


  • “The restored public realm is something. There is a yearning in the heart of every resident of a metropolitan area. They may not articulate it, but they want it. They need it. And if you give it to them, they will rejoice in it.”


  • “Do Americans want beauty in the city? They desperately want it! They crave it! Life is harsh and cruel and plastic enough. Will our people support this? They will support it. They will rejoice in it. They need it. It is our responsibility to give it to them.”