I remember driving into Greenville, a city in South Carolina’s upstate, in the summer of 1987. Fresh out of grad school, I had accepted a tenure-track assistant professorship at Presbyterian College, a liberal arts school almost halfway between Greenville and Columbia. PC is in the former mill town of Clinton, population then about 10,000. But the mill had closed and the quaint little town was bleeding.
My wife was finishing her MS in counseling psychology and would want a job soon. Neither the college nor the town seemed an inviting prospect for her. Besides, we had just been living in Knoxville, a city of over 300,000. I grew up near Birmingham, AL, and she grew up in Tehran, Iran. Big cities, the antithesis of Clinton. We wanted a place with opportunity, with something of a nightlife, or at least movie theaters. Clinton had a “downtown theater,” but it had closed the spring before we arrived.
I had visited Columbia once, and even then I understood that it was considered the hottest town in the state. Temperature hot, that is. Sure, I had grown up in sultry Alabama, but given a choice, why select the hottest city in the state if you didn’t have to?
So, almost out of our hats, we picked Greenville (for whatever reason, or no reason at all, we didn’t even try Spartanburg, just twenty-five miles to the northwest of Greenville).
We drove straight into downtown Greenville from US 25. We ate at Gene’s, a-formerly-cool meat and three diner. We looked up some realtors in the yellow pages and called one, another choice I can’t explain. The agent listened to what we wanted — a nice, affordable apartment in town.
“Well, we have an old building downtown that I could show you.” He hesitated then. “That is, if you’re interested, though I don’t know why you would be.”
My wife and I looked at each other, then responded,
“An old building downtown? That would be perfect. When can we see it?”
The realtor agreed to meet us in an hour. He gave us the address on Washington Street for the Davenport Building, a three-story, red brick structure with a courtyard, that is now over 100 years old. We viewed one and two-bedroom apartments, but I was leery. I figured on my salary — $22,000 a year — we couldn’t afford such a historic and lovely place.
“So how much are these?” I asked.
“Well, the one-bedroom goes for $350 a month; the two-bedroom, $400. But there are four townhouses, too, if you want to look.”
We did, and grabbed one almost immediately. It rented for $375 a month. Two floors, three bedrooms, though just one bath, and an upper floor balcony. Sure, this was 1987, but it all seemed too good to be true. Surely we were missing something.
We lived in the Davenport for five years until our first-born daughter began trying to crawl down the staircase. Time to move into a safer space, safer, that is, for a toddler. We lived just two blocks from Greenville’s Main Street, which at that point was semi-busy during the day, and strangely quiet at night. Except, that is, on Friday and Saturday nights when cars and trucks cruised through downtown and kept circling back, repeating the cruise leading to who knows what or where?
There were a few restaurants open from Thursday through Saturday nights: Charlie’s Steakhouse, and institution since the 1920’s; newly-opened Ristorante Bergamo; Annie’s Natural Cafe. There were a couple of comedy clubs too, primarily Cafe and Then Some. We’d walk downtown on these pleasant late summer and fall evenings, but the cruisers made us nervous.
Still, despite our nervousness, nothing much happened that would have caused worry or fear. Or at least not much.
One night we saw a guy standing on the corner of Washington and Church, just steps from our townhouse door. He was wearing a bright yellow suit and a black hat.
“How much do these places cost?” he asked us.
I told him because I’m an honest guy.
And a bit naive.
My wife, in her gentle fashion, scolded me later:
“You shouldn’t give out such information to strangers. Now he knows where we live!”
I paused a moment and then considered these just fears to be dismissed.
A week later, I saw the guy sitting on our front steps. I locked the door, and we didn’t go out that night.
That was the last time I saw him, though.
Later that fall, on a beautiful Saturday morning, I was walking downtown to pick up my car from the Goodyear service center on College Street. As I turned the corner from Main onto East North Street, a Vega wagon pulled alongside me. There were three or four people riding, people in their early twenties, or maybe even younger. What they were doing riding around at ten in the morning, I’m not sure of. What I know, though, is that when they pulled up by me, the guy sitting in the front passenger’s seat yelled out,
“Shoot you man.”
He had a gun.
It was a cap pistol.
The car laughed and then squealed off.
I figured then that I had a strong heart, but I stepped back to the nearest building and leaned there a while.
After we moved to a quieter neighborhood, we were the victims of mail fraud. Almost every day, we’d receive something from some Heirloom Collection house. On the other days, we might receive a copy of Penthouse or Hustler magazines. Then the phone calls started. The police finally figured out that the perpetrator was a paroled sex offender — someone who liked to expose himself publicly. He had become pissed off at me because I had been a participant in The Greenville News’ reader movie reviews. I had given Spike Lee’s Malcolm X a five-star review. Even in the early ’90s, Malcolm made some people nervous.
Over the decades I’ve lived in Greenville, I’ve seen it grow into a place people want to move to, not cruise by. I’ve learned about the vision of former mayor and Holocaust survivor, Max Heller, and I’ve seen his vision of a downtown that is friendly, accessible, and welcoming come true, thanks to our later mayors and planners, including current mayor, Knox White. Maybe we’re going too far with the high-rise condos, but who am I to say?
Up until recently, though, I didn’t know much about Greenville’s history. I did know that Greenville has had a strong Jewish population and that back in the 1940’s the USO toured the city and performed at one of the synagogues — a place formerly downtown. Supposedly Zero Mostel performed there. Cool. I know this because I wanted to research it, given that I’ve written about and teach courses in Southern Jewish History. Also, given that my father’s family is Jewish, and I want to belong, secularly speaking.
So I knew some things, but until I read an issue of the online journal The Bitter Southerner back in late July, I didn’t know the sordid, seamier, truly dangerous side of my adopted home. You can find that story here:
The Hard Half of the Story: Murder Etc. - THE BITTER SOUTHERNER
In 2001, Brad Willis, a South Carolina TV news reporter, broadcast a story he believed was righteous because it kept a…
The story will also link to the weekly podcast, Murder, Etc., written and narrated by former Greenville TV reporter, Brad Willis. The story concerns a man named Charles Wakefield, Jr., who was accused, tried, and convicted for the murder of a former Greenville City detective, Frank Looper, and his father, on a sunny winter’s afternoon in 1975. Wakefield served over thirty years in the state pen for this crime.
He was paroled several years ago.
And he might be innocent.
That’s what the podcast is seeking to discover. It’s ongoing and Willis thinks it will take till the end of the year to finish, at which time, he may or may not know who actually killed the Loopers.
I’m addicted to the podcast, which claims what many know to be true: in the 1970’s Greenville was so corrupt and filled with crime that it was deemed the murder capital of the state.
In 1975, when the Loopers were killed and when more murders took place than, perhaps, any other year in Greenville County, I was a college sophomore, worried about girlfriends and whether or not to major in Social Work, Political, Science, or English (the latter two won). Likely I hadn’t heard of Greenville, SC, back then, or the various murders taking place there to give it such a monicker and reputation.
And what if I had?
Would I have remembered on the day we drove into the town and successfully bargained for our new townhouse dwelling?
And then would we have kept going and settled in Simpsonville, Mauldin, or Fountain Inn?
And what of our realtor that day? What was he trying to tell us? Did he know the crimes that I know now? Was he issuing a warning, or thinking that we knew about Greenville and wouldn’t want to live so close to the “action?” Should he have told us about “the Dixie Mafia?”
I suppose that events occur for reasons we don’t, can’t, understand. We could see for ourselves back then that there were parts of town that we should be wary of, even steer clear of.
Like the extreme western end of town, which used to be populated by sleazy-looking bars, prostitutes, and a “nightlife” that seemed tolerated, if not managed.
That part of town, today, is comprised of fancy places like Hall’s Chophouse, Jianna, Hampton Inns and even a Persian restaurant, Pomegranate. Further west is the locale of former baseball great, Shoeless Joe Jackson, the Pendleton Arts District, home to many artisans and retail businesses, including my favorite coffee house, The Village Grind, and my yoga studio, Indigo Flow. These latter two places were written up in The New York Times just two weeks ago, featured as Greenville’s most up and coming new attractions:
Five Places to Visit in Greenville, S.C.
One of the Upcountry city's most intriguing areas is West Greenville, an enclave that has been transformed into an…
I love this section of town; it’s the kind of space I’ve always envied and longed for when I’ve visited places like Decatur, Georgia, or the Avondale section of Birmingham.
A block away from my yoga studio, though, is a vacant lot, used by the Greenville Children’s Theater. On that lot, used to sit somebody’s house.
The Looper house.
Behind which was Looper’s garage where Frank and his father were executed one winter’s day.
I drive by it at least twice a week. I’ve stood on the lot. I’ve wondered at life’s choices. I have no conclusions.
Read more about this era in the links I’ve provided, and listen, please, to the podcast. Too many innocent people have suffered. Too many criminals have gotten away with larceny and murder.
And too few people know these stories, while many who do, know to keep quiet about them.