Walk down the section of King Street today between Marion Square and Spring Street, and you’ll be greeted with the beautiful storefronts of bustling home interiors stores and smells from some of Charleston’s best restaurants. Upper King is one of Charleston’s busiest business districts–but it hasn’t always been so.
Business in this section of the Charleston peninsula dates back to post-Civil War when grocery and clothing stores first set up shop. The area experienced a second wave of growth in the 1940s and early 1950s, when more than 1100 businesses were operating in the district. By the 1960s, the area had a much lower retail presence, with only 916 businesses open in 1963. One reason for this decline is that the area was converted from a two-lane road to a one-lane, making the businesses more difficult to access. Lack of parking and general population decline on the peninsula also lead to the decline of the area.
Joe Riley was elected mayor in Charleston in 1975, and one of his big projects was the revitalization of Upper King Street. He began this process in the 1980s by allotting $50,000 to the rebuilding of the historic Bluestein’s building at the corner of Mary Street and King Street, which had been gutted by fire in 1983. Riley’s efforts, however, were severely restricted by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, whose direct hit on Charleston devastated the area. By 1990, forty percent of Upper King Street’s buildings were vacant; the buildings that were occupied were done so largely by low income residents rather than businesses.
The mid 1990s brought a renewed effort to restore the public’s perception of Upper King. The self-proclaimed “Funky District” wanted to become a local center for home furnishings and decorating, which built on the existing furniture stores. In 1994, the road was converted back to two-way, and on street parking was added. This change, according to a study done at Clemson University, allowed Upper King to “regain its status as a cultural and retail hub in the City of Charleston.”