Florence, South Carolina is a conundrum.
I came upon it entirely accidentally. After leaving Baltimore, I passed through Virginia Beach and Fredericksburg on my way to Orlando to see friends. I woke up early in the morning at a truck stop in Dillon, SC (just past South of the Border), got some coffee and headed south. (If this were a novel, this entry would be called a flashback. But it’s a blog, so I guess it’s just called talking about something that already happened.)
I had a ton of work to do, so checked Google Maps for nearby libraries and saw one not too far away with all 5 star reviews.
I pulled off the interstate and towards town and was immediately suspicious that a 5 star library could possibly be nearby. (Oh Google Maps, you keep burning me, and I keep coming back.) The road to Florence is paved with, well, some empty fields mostly. As you get to the town itself, you see the familiar signposts of a lot of small towns in America: empty buildings, for sale signs.
I kept driving. Hope springs eternal and all that. And then out of nowhere, like a mirage in the desert: the library.
Seriously. I hung out for a while until I needed more caffeine so I checked Yelp, which pointed me at a coffee shop right down the road. I drove back towards empty buildings and a desolate downtown and came upon this auditorium: Where did that come from? I hung out at the homey Clay Pot coffee shop and had some tomato pie. As I was leaving, I saw this poster on the door, for a concert at that crazy beautiful auditorium: Well. You may not know this about me, but I’m an Amy Grant fan from way back. A close reader of this blog may recall that my very first concert was way back in 1980: Amy Grant at the Mabee Center in Tulsa, OK. I have seen her in concert many times since then, the most recent being just last year at the Greek Ampitheatre in Los Angeles with my sister (who I went with to the first one) and my niece (who was seriously not born in 1980). And this concert was only two days away. So what do you think I did next? Obviously I walked right across the street and bought a ticket. The woman working the box office told me that it was a great venue for concerts. “It’s really too bad you don’t live here”, she told me. So now I had two more days in Florence, South Carolina. I found an RV park just outside of town with a duck pond. That night, I checked out the local fancy hotel with fancy bar and restaurant. It was a hip hotel you might see in any cool downtown. Except Florence’s downtown looks like this: Yet in between the abandoned buildings are lovely, peaceful, park-like areas, like this: The next day, I hung out at the library again, then decided to check out another coffee shop: Lula’s. Clay Pot has the cute cafe vibe, whereas Lulu’s is all hipster love. After I’d been there a while, a couple of people came in with guitar cases. Cool, live entertainment later. But then some more people came in with guitar cases. Pretty soon I realized the place was jam packed full of people will guitar cases.
Open mic night. A couple of things about open mic night in Florence, South Carolina: everyone plays guitar. Everyone is exceptionally good. 70% sing gospel music. 100% of the audience knows every word to said gospel music. And 150% of the audience is completely supportive of absolutely everyone on stage. I only heard more singing along and clapping and yelling and whistling and encouraging shouts at, well, maybe no where. You can hear a little bit of it here:
At first, I was thinking, oh wait, is this a Christian mic night? But then I remembered what it was like to go to high school in Oklahoma. This was just regular southern small town open mic night. I heard gospel sure, but also some pop stuff, country, Christian rap, the usual.
Then, concert day! Fresh off open mic night, I wandered over to the downtown Friday night street concert. The street (the one surrounded by abandoned buildings) was full of people.
Free concert! A photo posted by vanessajfox (@vanessajfox) on
I hung out for a while until it was time for my own concert.
So what is the deal, Florence? What’s with your fancy library and your fresh faced young people singing gospel music and your hipster hotel remade from an old timey bank and your abandoned buildings and your large police presence?
Oh, did I forget to mention the large police presence? Once I started looking, they were everywhere.
I did some online town stalking, as you do.
First, I came upon this news: on Thursday night (not long after I left the singing, fresh faced teenagers in their organic , commune-like coffee shop, five people were shot in a drug deal gone bad two miles down the road.
Wikipedia put the puzzle pieces together.“The city of Florence has recently undertaken a massive redevelopment of Downtown Florence… The historic downtown district running from the central business district toward the McLeod Medical Center, features a number of historic buildings that have been rehabilitated. The redevelopment started with the $18 million Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation Library [Editor’s Note: The Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation seems to be behind most of the investments in refurbishing Florence. But just who Drs. Bruce and Lee are, where they got all that money, and why they love Florence so much are questions I could not find answers to.], and today now has the new Florence Little Theater, some 60 new apartments and the Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center which opened in September 2011… New office space has emerged from once abandoned buildings, and a police substation was added on once crime ridden Dargan Street.”
The police substation, yes (it’s right on the corner with the hipster hotel and the homey coffee shop and the tea house and the Friday night street concert). The office space emerging from once abandoned buildings? That might be a little aspirational.
Actually, quite a lot of the Wikipedia entry seems aspirational, like perhaps it was written as part of the redevelopment effort, perhaps by someone on the redevelopment committee. Portions just seem, oh, a bit optimistic:“As of 2013, the city retains its status as a major hub, both for industry and infrastructure, while establishing itself as a regional center for business, medicine, culture and finance… Florence has blossomed into a strong center for medical care…”
And maybe a little reaching:“Florence has benefited being located at the intersection of I-95 and I-20, approximately halfway between New York City and Miami, Florida…. his has allowed Florence to remain competitive and bringing in and sustaining major manufacturers.”
Look, I have an English degree too. I certainly admire crafty use of language.
The entry tells the tale of our world, the tragedy and triumph of our modern age:“Special efforts are being aimed at the downtown area, which was once the center of the city’s activity but remains dormant after retailers and shoppers left for suburban malls.”
The section on crime is a study in contrasts, in contradiction, a microcosm of the town itself:“In 2006 FBI crime statistics ranked Florence fifth in the nation in violent crimes amongst 350 metropolitan statistical areas. The city also ranked fifth in the nation in 2005 and first among comparable American cities. At the time, Florence police chief Anson Shells attributed much of the violence to gang activity, and said that “[e]very city, especially metro areas, suffer from violent crime. I’ve never considered the Florence area to be a particularly violent area. I consider this to be a very safe area.” In his 2012 state of the city address, Florence mayor Stephen Wukela stated that in November 2008 the crime rate in the city “was one of the highest in the country.”
Not surprisingly, the article about the Ku Klux Klan enclave there in the 1950s is relegated to a footnote.
Florence is slightly larger than Hudson, OH (around 30,000 vs. 20,000 people), but about 20% of the population is living below the poverty line there vs. less than 2% in Hudson. The median household income is a bit different too: $35k compared to Hudson’s nearly $113k (unrelated tangent: in Hudson, the median income for males is $87k compared to $38k for females). You remember Hudson? No downtown revitalization efforts, just a magical, movie set of small town America.
What causes such a difference? History? Proximity to larger cities? Nearby opportunities? I dunno.
As it happens, I’m back in Hudson right now. It’s still pretty magical. I started having brake problems again as I was driving west from New York and figured Hudson wouldn’t be a bad place to be stranded for a while, if in fact I needed to be stranded. Turns out, I didn’t. The Chevy dealership fit me in despite having a booked schedule, gave me a ride to the library, fixed everything up in a couple of hours, and then came and picked me up.
Someone who knows me from the internet saw I was in town and hung out with me and bought me dinner. I had fast wifi all day and a peaceful place to work from.
But Florence was pretty awesome too. It also has a great library and hip coffee shops. Plus overflowing talent at open mic night and free outdoor concerts. And Hudson doesn’t even have a cutesy hotel or a beautiful auditorium, as far as I can tell.
So visit Florence. And visit Hudson. And experience the wonderment of the vastness and contrasts of America.