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Voice: Urban pioneer stakes claim and brings others with him

Rhett Anders cannot shake the feeling that North Columbia is a place apart, distinct from a city that has moved, at least psychologically, west toward the Vista and the Congaree.

Anders has lived and worked in North Columbia as a real estate agent for more than a decade, renovating and selling the old houses that form the solid bones of the established neighborhoods.

But he cannot help but pepper his speech with references to “out here,” a slip of the tongue that reveals the psychic isolation of a place a stone’s throw from City Hall.

Nowhere else in the city, he said, can you find elegant, refurbished old mansions on one street, and grinding Third World poverty on the next.

The product of a century of racial and economic politics, North Columbia has been poised for a renaissance for so long it totters.

“We have had great successes in a tiny percentage of the communities with revitalization of houses, but — by and large — the area has just been left behind,” Anders said.

Still, Anders said he has come to love the community, easing his black Jaguar down streets that show the sweat equity of its occupants.

An illusive “karma” brought him, the product of a prosperous Forest Acres upbringing, to a place his family knew well.

His parents ran liquor stores on Farrow Road, selling to the predominantly African-American community that is North Columbia. He figures he owes those residents in a way.

So it pains him a little that the renaissance of North Columbia might come through gentrification, that the black people who moved in after the 1970s white flight and suburbanization eventually might be forced out because of slowly rising housing prices.

“By and large, the people who renovate old houses are young white people,” Anders said. “We haven’t had young African-Americans coming back to renovate.”

Anders thinks the area needs industry, retail and some plain old-fashioned TLC from the city. That includes cutting away the dense underbrush that gives an ominous feel to some neighborhoods, repairing the chipped and broken streets, cracking down on derelict homes, drug dealing and prostitution.

He stays because there is a great feel to the community, a vibrancy of mixed cultures and economics, and a cohesiveness born of the struggle to gain the attention of city hall.

“One hundred percent of something is not really healthy,” Anders said. “A community of 100 percent wealthy white people is not healthy, and a community of 100 percent poor African-Americans is not healthy.

“They (community leaders) are pushing for this nice economic, racial balance, I guess to rectify past ills. You’ve got to have the different levels of income and race to create this utopian, balanced society.”

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