About Charleston's West Side
In the heart of Appalachia, nestled among the rolling hills of West Virginia, the state’s capital city of Charleston rests upon the bank of the Kanawha River. It is the largest city in West Virginia with a population of 48,018.
Charleston’s population differs from that of West Virginia at large because of its relative diversity. With an African American population of 14.3%, the city boasts just shy of 7,000 Black people, a large number of whom live on Charleston’s West Side, a historically Black neighborhood.
The West Side is situated between the Elk River, which runs through Charleston before feeding into the larger Kanawha River, and a smaller tributary branch of the Kanawha.
The neighborhood is divided into two sections by Washington Street, with the residential Hills lying to the north and the more urban center of the Flats situated south of Washington Street.
Hundreds of smaller homes, many of which were built in the 1920s and 30s, line the streets of the West Side. Community members sit out on their front porches to watch the traffic, both car and on-foot, go by.
At the intersection of Virginia Street, Central Avenue and Delaware Avenue, locally known as “five corners,” the smell of smoking ribs and brisket floods the air as Adrian Wright fires up the smoker outside of his restaurant Dem 2 Brothers and a Grill. The restaurant has been a staple in the community since it first opened 11 years ago.
A block up Delaware Street, Dural Miller tends to the strawberry and tomato plants he is growing outside of the Keep Your Faith Corporation building. Drivers honk and wave when they see Miller outside in the garden.
Just a few blocks away, there is a steady stream of foot traffic around the Dollar General and Family Dollar that sit across the street from each other. People on bikes buzz by with bags of dollar store goods hanging from their handlebars.
When school lets out, local kids flood the large yard outside of West Side Middle School, running around playing tag or sitting in the grass talking. At the same time, school buses make their rounds dropping off the elementary schoolers at street corners where groups of parents are waiting and conversing amongst each other.
It’s a lively community where everyone knows their neighbor. However, the West Side has a bad image.
Homelessness and drug abuse rates are high. Of the roughly 9,000 residents, one third are considered impoverished. According to census data, some tracts have poverty rates as high as 40%. The national average in the United States is 11.4%.
An abandoned, rusted railroad bridge with vines coiling up its support beams borders the elementary school property and cuts its way through the neighborhood. On every street, there are multiple abandoned, boarded up buildings or empty plots where a building once stood.
Crime rates for the city are high. According to the FBI National Incident-Based Reporting System, there were 424 reported violent crimes in Charleston. Nationally, during the same time, the average violent crime rate was 398.5 offenses per 100,000 individuals.
Media coverage of the community tends to focus solely on the crime and occasional shootings within the area, causing many to perceive the community as a dangerous place.
Community members feel that there are other issues in their neighborhood that do not receive the attention they deserve. Locals stated that they wanted to see reporting on other things in the community, such as the high number of abandoned buildings in the neighborhood, local food insecurity, and after school activities, among many others.
Despite the challenges that the West Side faces, the neighborhood has maintained a strong sense of unity. There are countless organizations and charities—such as community gardens or mobile soup kitchens—that aim to help residents overcome food insecurity, substance abuse or poverty.
Regardless of how the community is portrayed in the media, local residents, like Tina Beatty have not lost sight of the positive aspects of their home.
“They highlight the bad things but don’t really focus in on what the good is on the West Side,” Beatty said.
“I love the West Side. The West Side is the best side, that’s what I’m going to continue to say. The West Side is the blessed side, and there is a lot of good here and a lot of good things and great things happening here.” -Tina Beatty West Side Resident
“I love the West Side. The West Side is the best side, that’s what I’m going to continue to say. The West Side is the blessed side, and there is a lot of good here and a lot of good things and great things happening here.”