The Unscripted Script of Lake City, SC
There’s a steady rumbling under my feet every forty-five minutes or so as the trains come through this small, historically-important, seven-thousand-person town on the border of Lowcountry.
It is absurdly hot; I’ve made the mistake of forgetting the southern heat of July when planning my visit. There’s a newfound national frustration with this damn virus, too, as it rages out of control, especially here in South Carolina. But despite the heat and the constant awareness of the “new normal,” Lake City has to be one of the most welcoming, interesting and hospitable places I’ve ever had to the pleasure to explore.
Our tour guide for the day was the city’s architect and planner, Randy Wilson, who just so happens to be a friend, and one of the finest human beings I have the pleasure of knowing. When he originally told me about his work and this incredible town, I had to come to see it for myself.
It’s a rarity to find a city, any city, that is making the kind of investments– and at the breakneck pace– that Lake City has been making for the past six-plus years. The “before and after” of the downtown is staggering, and the public art, mixed with highly-curated botanical interventions, are some of the most thoughtful and poignant I’ve witnessed.
There’s no shortage of cute photo opportunities (and I’m a sucker for a solid historic renovation) but those weren’t the highlights of my visit to this former bean capital of the country. They provided a scenic backdrop for the humans who make this place work, and who seem to share an insanely infectious passion for that work. Here’s the story, and what these folks taught me in one long, scorching hot, perspective-shifting day.
Randy met us at the CrossRoads Coach and RV Park where we were staying (and that he helped design) at 8:15 a.m. to start our adventure before it got “too hot.” (Too hot, however, is entirely subjective; I, personally, find 82 degrees with 94% humidity to already be too hot.)
We started with a guided tour of the Moore Farms Botanical Garden, a privately-owned oasis that stretches for 65 acres. Our new friend and MFBG Marketing Manager, Haley Hughes, walked and talked with us as we wound our way around two hours’ worth of this lush maze. While learning about some of the indigenous plants and uber-intentional aesthetics, I also got an education on another very important piece of the Lake City equation: Ms. Darla Moore.
Ms. Moore is– without the slightest of exaggeration– a firebrand. As the first woman to ever grace the cover of Forbes, she amassed a healthy fortune in the fast-paced investment world before returning to her family’s hometown, where she started breathing new life into the place with the kind of fierce impatience not often associated with the southern lifestyle. I’m sure there are pros and cons to this kind of aggressive development, and certainly, this isn’t an easily replicated model (unless you happen to have a billionaire on hand), but as I have come to believe, the money isn’t actually the key to all of this.
Don’t get me wrong– the money is important. I hate when people pretend that all it takes is a positive attitude and a shovel. That’s just motivational speaker bullshit from people who have never done the work. Money speaks. It opens doors, and it makes things move a whole hell of a lot faster. I would be insulting your intelligence, dear reader, to say that the financial capacity that Ms. Moore has leveraged to kickstart this chapter in Lake City’s history is not pivotal. I do believe, however, after my experience here, that it is not the real driver of this renaissance.
After our morning jaunt in the gardens, we made our way downtown. It’s a dense, walkable series of streets, encompassing a pretty small footprint. Randy designed most of the updated storefronts, and that uniformity provides a real sense of place. The man’s a genius at bringing out the beautiful elements of the original structures. Not a single space feels disconnected from the whole. With his permission, I’ve included a link to some of his work at the end of this article, and I encourage you to take a moment to appreciate the before and after.
Around 11am, completely drenched in sweat and in desperate need of air conditioning, we stopped by to talk to Jamison Kerr, director of the Lake City ArtFields Collective. I could– and probably should– write an entire article just on ArtFields and its impact on this community, but for now, let me tell you about Jamison, the human. (If you want to learn more about ArtFields on your own time (and you should), click here.)
Jamison is a young woman, newly-married and expecting her first child, at the same time steering one of the largest arts-oriented events in the south… during a pandemic. She speaks with a slight, endearing drawl, and there’s not an ounce of pretension or cautious trepidation when she begins to tell us her story. We are friends immediately; there’s something to be said for that kind of expeditious authenticity between people.
Her story is a one that starts like a million other college graduates: born in a different small town not far from Lake City, desperate to escape, but conflicted. Jamison attended a local university and earned her degree in history, with a self-developed focus on art history. She got an internship with the ArtFields program when it was in its second year, and loved it so much that she kept showing up to work, even after the internship had lapsed. She still thought she might leave, but the drive to do so had weakened a bit with her newly-discovered purpose. Eventually, the folks at ArtFields offered her a full-time gig, and she excitedly accepted.
This is the point in my journey when the driving force of this city was revealed to me.
Jamison went on to give one of the most impassioned arguments about why she decided to stay, and how important she knew that decision was to the narrative of the city. Not important in a self-righteous way, but in a self-aware way. In a way that says “it’s important because I chose to stay here when that decision wasn’t easy and I didn’t have to.” It’s setting an example for her peers and for future generations. It is just about as loud a statement as one can make when it comes to place.
She closed with a discussion about the greater community, and the interconnectedness of it all. After a few more encounters with folks who had a similar narrative, I came to refer to this message as the “unscripted script of Lake City.” None of it was disingenuous, and not an ounce of it was memorized. It was just truth, wrapped in a unified belief, and spoken through a series of different voices. It wasn’t about art, it wasn’t about the gardens, it wasn’t about food. It was all about Lake City and the people who make it.
We left our new friend Jamison feeling inspired… and hungry. This stupid virus makes dine-in a nightmare and the afternoon heat was full on, so outside dining was a precarious concept. We decided on a delightful shaded patio in the back of the very new, very delicious Green Frog Social House. The restaurant’s manager, Matt, became another immediate new friend, and we spent our lunch hour getting to know each other over shrimp hushpuppies.
Matt’s wife was born near Lake City, but Matt was not. He also had no desire to live here. He was working in kitchens in Charleston, and was climbing the proverbial ladder. However, as is customary in food service, he rarely saw his schoolteacher wife due to the crazy hours and conflicting schedules.
At this point in our day I am thoroughly exhausted, so how exactly Matt ended up agreeing to move to Lake City and take this job is something I can’t remember in full detail, but I do remember that he got bumped up to “favorite son-in-law” for having moved himself and his wife back to the area, which, in the end, is probably all that really matters. Either way, as we wrap up our time with him, he concludes with his own variation of the Unscripted Script of Lake City. He is aware– and very much values– his role in this narrative, and he is grateful to be along for the journey.
In that moment, I am grateful for a full belly and for having made yet another new friend. My children, both the human one and the furry one, are grateful that Matt made a VIP trip to serve them some ice cream from the temporarily closed Snax, a throwback ice cream and hot dog shop at the city’s main intersection, and a few quick steps away from the Green Frog Social House.
Southern hospitality is real, and it is something to which we all should aspire.
Randy tells me we’ve got one more stop for the day: a former Walmart that has been converted into a regional center for education and training in innovative and technical skills and workforce development, created through a collaboration between The Darla Moore Foundation (remember her?), Florence-Darlington Technical College and Francis Marion University. This incredible feat of design and job creation is called Continuum, and I’ve never seen anything like it.
Jeanette Altman, their Executive Director, took us through nearly every classroom and workspace in this gigantic former big box store. Like ArtFields, Continuum deserves its own article… and also to be studied as a masterclass on redeveloping shitty, massive buildings that our corporate overlords abandon without thought. Alas, this is not that article.
Jeanette, like Haley, Jamison, and Matt before her, is our focus. A Clemson University graduate, industrial engineer, and former high school principal, with a golf pro daughter and Lake City native husband. She, like Matt, had no intention of moving her family to this forgotten city. She had a good job and a good life in a bigger city, and in 2002 (the year they moved to Lake City) this place was a neglected and poorly-run city with limited– if any– opportunities for her. She was also, rightfully, wary of raising children in such an environment, but ultimately, she understood how important this place was to her husband, so she agreed to give it a shot.
She is now a key player in making sure others who want to stay here or move here have damn good reason to do so. There is no economic revitalization without a stable pipeline to well-paying work, no matter how many investors you’ve got access to. In a role that I would describe as part school principal and part workforce developer, Jeanette is building new careers out of old industries, and in doing so, breathing new life into this impressive city. As we wrap up our conversation, she dives into her version of – you guessed it – the Unscripted Script of Lake City.
I end by saying, as I have said to each new friend along our path today, that she should be very proud of the work she is doing. Like each new friend, she is quick to extend credit to a much bigger team, and seems genuinely uneasy with the compliment (maybe there’s more Midwest in the south than I would have guessed). These are good people, doing hard work, who recognize the importance of their efforts– but only as it relates to the sum total of the efforts before, during, and after them. There is no hubris here, just honest awareness of purpose.
Here, there is a unified narrative that has never been scripted; an over-arching brand message that has never been formally designed or sculpted. No two people share the same phrasing, but each says the same thing: this place matters, and I’m a critical part of what makes that true, as are all the other people who are working alongside me in their own capacities. We’re very glad you’re here, and hope you’re having a truly excellent experience. If we can make it better, please let us know how. Come back to see us again soon, it’ll be even better than it is today.
I will absolutely be back to Lake City. It has been my great pleasure to have spent time here, and I am endlessly grateful for the new friends and new experiences.
THOUGHTS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
- Does your place have an Unscripted Script? I’d love to hear about it if it does.
- If it doesn’t, what do you think it might be? What are the through lines of your place?