Wherebaskets once thrived, now there are mostly cars

SERIES: AT A CROSSROADS Where will growth take us?

ByChris Dixon

Sunday,April 23, 2006 
Edition: FINAL, Section: NATION, Page A1


Ifit takes a week to create a sweetgrass basket, then a couple of yearsof Mary Alice Bostic's life are piled up in a corner of her livingroom. She hasn't had anywhere to put all her baskets since theDepartment of Transportation began widening Highway 17 about a yearago. Changing the road from four lanes to six made her basket standall but inaccessible and has left her house all but uninhabitable,she said.

The stand hasbeen sitting across the highway from her house since Highway 17 was atwo-lane road, and her community was not known as Mount Pleasant butwas simply called "Four Mile." Bostic, who will be 77 this month,said a couple of generations ago she could watch the stand from herfront porch and hurry across the quiet street to greet any customerswho might stop.

Today, the standsits behind a high curb and a dirty line of black fabric fencing. Itleans precariously to one side in the shadow of soon to be "UpscaleOffice Spaces." Pointing to the stand, she struggled to make herselfheard from a front porch that is now less than 15 feet from athoroughfare that carries as many as 50,000 vehicles a day.

"I didn't dreamthis would have happened," she said. "Tell the truth, if I had themoney I'd move this house. Really, it's too close to the road forme."

Bostic is notalone.

With 3,500 homeson the books and a proposed road through historically black andunincorporated communities between Highway 17 and Rifle Range Road,many basket making families are facing similar dilemmas or will incoming years. Sitting mere feet from the road though, Bostic'sdifficulties are obvious and immediate.

Her modest,two-story home is squeezed between Highway 17 and Olive BranchChurch. It bides its time amid Starbucks, CVS, Advance Auto Parts,bulldozers and 18-wheelers on an unusual little slice ofunincorporated property surrounded by Mount Pleasant town limits.

Next door toBostic's house, under a massive old pecan tree, stands an emptylittle green cottage with a tumbledown front porch whose veryexistence seems in open rebellion to all the modernity. Here, she andfive of her siblings were born, and in its shadow she and her familystill sew baskets to this day. But she won't go inside anymore. "Toomany snakes," she said.

Though no oneseems to know for sure, she thinks the home was built about 100 yearsago, when her grandfather, Isaac

Snype, moved downfrom a community called Cooshaw near Georgetown to work the farm ofAlfred Jennette on Rifle Range Road. "People were wondering how thatold house was standing after Hugo, and then all these other housesblew down," she said. "Yessir."

Making lunch inher kitchen while her sister Ethel Coakley, 71, sews a basket,"Alice" as her vast family knows her, recalls her childhood in theheavy African patois that most in the Lowcountry would considerGullah. But she doesn't consider herself Gullah. To her, Gullah folklived around Hamlin Plantation, "but maybe some word I speak soundin'Gullah," she said.

Squeezed bydevelopment

Bostic movesslowly, hobbled by a bad heart, shortness of breath and failedkidneys that send her and Ethel to dialysis treatment twice a week.Relatives, including her 11 children and many more grandchildren,visit often, she says, but it's not like it was when she was young.

"No, no. Used tobe, in days past and gone, you get up in the morning, wash theclothes, lay 'em on the line, clean your house and then you could gowalk around from neighbor to neighbor and talk. In the evening time,all the neighbor chirren' would get together and play hopscotch andall kind of things. Can't do that no more."

According tocounty records, Bostic lives in an Awendaw tax district. Though shegets her water from Mount Pleasant, the toilets empty to a septictank and the family pays a private company to collect garbage. "Funnything though," she said, "when we pay tax, it says that we are alsopaying for garbage, but we don't get no service."

Bostic says shewas asked several years ago by Mount Pleasant to annex into the city,but she declined because her yearly tax payments might have climbedfrom $579 to $2,500. She has also received sales queries fromdevelopers. But so many family members could have potential claims toa portion of the ancestral land, settling title to the land couldleave her with very little compensation. She finds herself at thesame difficult intersection with the state DOT.

Heirs property

Because theBostic parcel was built by Mary Alice's late grandfather and remainsin his name, this becomes a classic heirs property dispute case. Inthousands of instances across South Carolina, blacks in particularhave deliberately not transferred land title through generations onthe belief that if a title were difficult to trace, it would be moredifficult to break up long-held parcels of land.

While this hascertainly come to pass, it also means at least two generations ofrelatives can lay claim to a portion of the two remaining familyparcels. Bostic has 11 siblings and 11 children. Thus, securing cleartitle could involve contacting and financially settling with scoresof relatives, including many who may not even live in the area orknow Bostic at all.

And if one familymember decides to initiate an action to claim his or her share, itcould mean dissolution of the entire property.

"The propertygoes and we don't hardly get nothing for it because so much wouldwant it," Bostic said.

Offers declined

According to DOTAttorney Chris Murphy, Bostic and her heirs were offered $101,603 forthe taking of land in front of her home and $65,528 for the loss ofthe land where her basket stand is located. If the case settles, aMaster-In-Equity or circuit court judge will decide how to divide themoney among Bostic's heirs, and Bostic will not be required to vacateher home, which still stands on family land.

But Bostic hasnot accepted the money, and according to her attorney, Faith Rivers,she does not intend to settle until she is moved. She has a piece ofproperty near two sisters on Venning Road where she would be glad toresettle.

A distant nieceof Bostic's and a lawyer for the Center for Heirs' PropertyPreservation, Rivers said the Snype family has endured a history ofdifficult change at the hands of the DOT. Generations ago, Highway 17originally followed a right of way that took it behind the housewhere Mary Alice was born. When 17 came through on its current routeas a two-lane road, the DOT rotated the house 180 degrees to face thenew road and split the family property in half. "Through a series ofcondemnations," Rivers said, "they have basically destroyed thispiece of property. And they don't even want to compensate them forit."

Rivers recentlymoved to Vermont to teach at the Vermont Law School. She said she wasprepared to argue the case, but the DOT filed a motion and made anoffer and then waited over a year before settling on a final courtdate. With too short a notice, she was unable to return to SouthCarolina to argue on behalf of Bostic.

She has askedthat the court reconsider a relocation on the grounds that the noiseand exhaust-racked home is essentially unlivable. "Relocation is afederally funded program," she said. "There is no reason to denythis."

But Murphy saidthat granting relocation funds is not a proper use of taxpayer fundswhen Bostic's home does not lie in the right-of-way of the actualroad. The right of way, he said, could even have taken out Bostic'sporch without requiring a relocation. "I'm not saying she's in anideal situation," he said. "She's got 50,000 cars a day, but herproperty has dramatically increased in value."

Yet he didconcede that once the property was divided among Bostic's heirs, shecould be left with little money to settle elsewhere.

Plea for federalhelp

It's preciselythis sort of situation and fears for the future of basket makingculture that has brought scores of black residents to recent meetingsof a task force that has formed to help steer growth and findsolutions for basket makers and others impacted by the explosivegrowth along Highway 17.

One member ofthat task force is Mary Alice's cousin Louis Jefferson. A retiredU.S. Customs Agent, Jefferson took a seat on the task force to pushfor the preservation of basket making culture and to ensure that ifHungryneck Boulevard is extended from the Isle of Palms Connector toPorcher's Bluff Road, the impacts are low and residents are properlycompensated. He is also among several now advocating that a federallyprotected basket making corridor be declared along Highway 17.

Jefferson saidhis cousin has been squeezed out of her livelihood and made aprisoner of her own home by the state's intractability and thedifficulty of dealing with her heirs property dispute. He said thatwere the compensation money earmarked to move Bostic rather than tobe distributed among the heirs, Mary Alice could have moved to herproperty on Venning Road.

"They could havevery easily relocated her," he said, "It impacts her and reduces herquality of life to almost being homeless. What's she going to doother than get bitter and die that way? It's about the worst thingyou could do to a person."

But Bostic saysshe'll persevere.

"The Lord willmake a way somehow," she said. "Oh yes. And I'm not going to let itbother me. Because if I let it bother me, I'll have to go home beforeI'm ready to go."

Reach Chris Dixonat 745-5855 or cdixon@postandcourier.com.

Part of anoccasional series