A Southern Revival – Greenville, SC
HYPED AS ONE OF THE SOUTH’S BEST REDEMPTION STORIES, GREENVILLE HAS NOW EVOLVED INTO ONE OF THE MOST INSPIRED CITIES IN SOUTH CAROLINA.
Greenville is no longer an emerging work-in-progress striving towards greatness. This city has firmly cemented its place as a vibrant Upstate hub, contagious with energy and bursting at the seams with experiences like nowhere else in the state.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
The landscape we all know as Greenville was once Cherokee hunting ground and forbidden to colonists looking to settle here. Richard Pearis, a trader from Virginia who happened to live with a chief’s daughter, was able to acquire about 100,000 acres (including the current location of downtown Greenville) to set up a plantation along the Reedy River. After the Revolutionary War, Greenville County was formed and most likely named for the much celebrated General Nathanael Greene. The county seat was called Pleasantburg. Through the years following, the Richard Pearis land passed through many hands. The city was renamed Greenville in 1831 and was soon bustling with schools, churches, mills, vacation homes for the Lowcountry planters, and eventually a new fireproof courthouse designed by none other than Robert Mills.
The first Greenville and Columbia railroad train arrived at the depot in 1853, opening up the area to even more commerce, including one of the largest coach manufacturing companies in the south. Greenville remained mostly untouched during the Civil War, besides a brief appearance by Jefferson Davis as he fled with his stash of now-vanished Confederate gold. During Reconstruction, the first bridge over the Reedy was built, followed by more mills, rail lines, and subsequently free public schools, a pipe system for water and sewer, and electric lights.
Like most of the state, Greenville fell on hard times thanks to the boll weevil, a textile strike, and the fallout from both World Wars. Interstates drew traffic further and further from downtown and caused more than a few storefront vacancies. The late 1960s were a desperately needed turning point as local leaders worked to create a downtown development plan focused on transforming Main Street. Their efforts began to show most noticeably downtown, with free angled parking, new trees, decorative light fixtures, and widened sidewalks providing space for outdoor dining. Things picked up speed when large-scale anchor projects became a reality and high-powered industry followed suit.
Greenville has since collected a number of accolades including Top 10 Best Downtowns in the Country from Livability and called “a national model for a pedestrian-friendly city center” by The New York Times.
GREENVILLE OF TODAY
At the core of Greenville from the very beginning, the Reedy River leads into the heart of downtown. The waterfalls on the river (formerly obscured by a four-lane highway) are now an icon of downtown, a flowing symbol of a beautiful city once hidden. Falls Park is a must-stop, where you can lounge on the river banks and picnic or grab a bite at Mary’s Restaurant, Passerelle Bistro, or any of the number of downtown restaurants within walking distance. Falls Park is also a piece of The Swamp Rabbit Trail, a 20-mile multi-use trail network that follows the Reedy River and ultimately connects Greenville with the city of Travelers Rest.
The downtown district is easily accessible to pedestrians, but new ways to explore are now available, including Segway tours, carriage rides, tours dedicated to history and architecture, and even a free trolley that operates Thursdays through Sundays. The weekends are always hopping downtown, which usually has a charming ambiance, commonly provided by street performers ranging from banjo players to dancers.
As for downtown lodging, the Hyatt Regency is the option most convenient for browsing North Main (NOMA) Square, the largest plaza in Greenville with charming specialty shops like Oil & Vinegar and Kilwins Chocolate, Fudge & Ice Cream. Roost is a staple on this side of town for their farm-to-table lunch served buffet-style. NOMA is also the backdrop for several free community events like swing dancing, yoga, live music, and Oktoberfest.
For those who enjoy a little history with their hotel, The Westin Poinsett should be at the top of the list to visit. The Poinsett opened in 1925 on the original spot of the Mansion House Hotel, which operated for over a century before closing. The new Poinsett was the place to stay for the rich and famous, welcoming many guests of note including Amelia Earhart, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Bobby Kennedy, and Liberace. The Poinsett struggled through the Depression era, the hotel and motel boom, and foreclosure before it was fully renovated and triumphantly opened its doors again as The Westin Poinsett in 2000. The Poinsett’s restaurant, Spoonbread, is the perfect casual spot for breakfast, lunch, and Sunday brunch.
Along with plenty of nationally recognized names, Greenville has attracted a remarkably diverse list of locally owned boutiques. Cone & Coleman is everything plush and high-class. The owners here display a painstakingly selected collection of clothing plucked from brands around the world, and the grandly decorated space makes shopping here more of a fashion experience than a shopping errand. We Took to the Woods is the spot that merges things old and new. From award-winning handcrafted candles to home decor, everything here is displayed with a focus on season with a unique twist on items styled with attention to traditional-meets-modern.
Though only open since 2003 as a part of a larger network throughout the south, the Mast General Store is an older chapter in the Greenville history book. The building began its retail legacy in 1898 as a dry goods and shoe store before expanding in 1913 as the Meyers-Arnold Department Store. The family operation carried a little bit of everything and operated in this space until 1971. The pressed tin ceiling and maple floors are reminiscent of the old days as you peruse the current Mast General Store inventory which still, ironically, has a little bit of everything from outdoor gear to fashion accessories.
A harbor for creative souls is found right here at M. Judson Books. It is anything but your traditional bookstore and everything cultural core. Their self-proclaimed “story-centered lifestyle” is apparent in the assortment of gifts, vintage pieces, and shelves lined with Southern literature. However the community events are the spirit of M. Judson Books and feature themes such as art exhibits, author signings, and their sell-out monthly suppers with a farm-inspired menu. M. Judson feels more like a society and an on-going conversation than a store, which makes sense as it was inspired by Mary Camilla Judson, the founder of the Judson Literary Society that historically dates back to the turn of the century in Greenville.
The flourishing foodie scene that Greenville has been cultivating is no longer a secret. Inspiring dishes are the norm and can be found in every hole-in-the-wall, gastropub, and fine dining restaurant that calls Greenville home. With 100% Angus beef and dry-aged patty options as main ingredients, Grill Marks is the standout burger place. Burger concoctions range from the French Connection topped with caramelized onions and brie to the BONEafide with red wine compound butter and roasted bone marrow lettuce. One of these creations paired with white truffle parmesan fries and an adult milkshake makes a masterpiece of a meal.
Ideal for brunch, lunch specials, dinner, or even a late night snack, Brazwell’s Premium Pub plates up the classic items like wings and mozzarella sticks in addition to more unique options like the brisket quesadilla, fried corned beef, and watermelon salad.
For a new dessert place with a twist, check out Creme Shack on Main Street. The new rolled ice-cream craze is dished up here with fun flavors like key lime pie or salted caramel pretzel.
Known as one of the premier American art museums in the country, the Greenville County Museum of Art displays pieces with strong connections to the South. Here you can browse the substantial collection or partake in one of their many special events and programs. Sunday afternoons feature free lectures, musical performances, and hands-on-demonstrations. The museum is also home to the world’s largest public collection of watercolors by Andrew Wyeth along with a significant collection of work by Jasper Johns.
Just for the kiddos, the Children’s Museum of the Upstate has 80,000 square feet, 3 floors, and 19 interactive exhibits worth of entertainment. Exhibit options are perfect for all ages from the Toddler Lily Pond to the Garage Rock musical experience. Other kid-centric activities around Greenville include searching out the nine bronze Mice on Main around town for a scavenger hunt experience or exploring The Greenville Zoo, which is home to hundreds of wildlife all over the world.
Another family favorite is Flour Field. Modeled after Fenway Park, Flour has its very own Green Monster and hosts more than 70 home games for the Greenville Drive, a Class A affiliate to the Boston Red Sox. The seating maxes out at 5,700 and ensures that there are no nose-bleed sections here.
A weekend in Greenville would be incomplete without taking in a show at the Warehouse Theatre. At least six productions per year grace the stage, with this season presenting The Cake by Bekah Brunstetter (December 1-17, 2017), A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill (January 26-February 10, 2018), The Flick by Annie Baker (March 9-24, 2018), and Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare (April 20-May 5, 2018).
If you want to escape the city for a bit for the great outdoors, Paris Mountain State Park (named after the aforementioned first settler Richard Pearis) is definitely worth the short drive. The park has four lakes for fishing, boating, and swimming, 15 miles of trails for hiking and biking, camp sites, and an educational center. For stunning mountain views, be sure to venture to either Caesars Head (31 miles away) or Table Rock (28 miles away) state parks.
Admittedly, these suggestions are only a mere sample of what Greenville has to offer. The innovative and passionate spirit here will draw you in and may even convince you to stay. The initial revitalization stage is over, but transformation has never ceased. We can’t wait to see what happens next.
For more ideas on exploring Greenville, visit www.visitgreenvillesc.com.
By Grace Nelson