The sound of Greenville is the sound of water—the Reedy River whooshing beneath the Liberty Bridge in the heart of the city; the burble of the fountain at the historic Poinsett Hotel on Main Street; the steady whisk of the RiverPlace waterfall, bathed at night in the lights of the modern hotels and condos that stand above it. The sound of water belongs to Greenville just as the bleating of car horns belongs to Manhattan. But this is not to say that the city is too soft to be heard: The U.S. Census Bureau recently pronounced Greenville one of the five fastest-growing cities in America. Water is central to the story of how it got here.
Walking through Greenville, with its wide sidewalks and outdoor cafe seating, feels a little like ambling around a neighborhood in Paris. On a recent Saturday morning, two blocks of its brick Main Street were shut off for the town’s namesake market. Thousands of people milled about beneath tall red maples and willow oaks, sampling honey and tacos, fresh lettuce and squash and radishes from local farmers, soaps and jams and ice pops.
Four hundred years ago, this area was also a place where people looked for food—a hunting ground for the Cherokee and Catawba tribes. In addition to stalking deer, turkey, and other animals along the Reedy, the Cherokee established camps on its banks.
Greenville’s first recognized settler, an Irishman named Richard Pearis, traded with the Cherokee and ultimately came into possession of tribal lands, in violation of state treaty, before the Revolutionary War. Around 1770, Pearis and his wife and children settled near the falls of the Reedy, in what is today downtown. He built a plantation, planted orchards, and sowed fields in the area that’s now the glass-and-brick RiverPlace development and Falls Park. But perhaps Pearis’s most important accomplishment was his construction of a gristmill on the edge of the falls.
In the ensuing decades, this one mill powered by the Reedy became many mills for textiles and cotton, which fueled a population spike and a robust local economy. By 1930, there were twenty-two mills in Greenville, and by the 1950s, the city was known as the Textile Center of the South. But that badge of honor soon lost its luster as the textile industry began seeking cheaper cotton overseas and mills started to close. That Greenville did not become a ghost town is owed both to forward-thinking civic leadership and a bit of luck.
When the mills shuttered, much of Greenville’s job force found new employment, but they didn’t stay downtown; instead, they departed for the outskirts of Greenville, where brand-new shopping malls beckoned. Four-lane Main Street, rather than attracting residents, carried them away from the city.
A number of visionary mayors, beginning with Max Heller, worked to lure them back by reviving downtown. Heller helped bring a Hyatt to Main Street in the seventies and hired an artist to design the downtown streetscape. Main Street’s four lanes shrank to two, bushes and trees were planted, and benches were installed. New diagonal parking allowed for easy access to stores; parking meters were yanked out.
In 1990, the building of the Peace Center, a performing arts venue, drove the development of Main Street down to the river. A group of women called the Carolina Foothills Garden Club went to work on the beautification of the Reedy and the development of a world-class park on its banks. They hauled trash, and they planted flowers, shrubs, and trees. Falls Park remains a selling point of this model downtown, a place that has evolved into a charming esplanade teeming with boutiques and restaurants.
Along Main Street, people dine on Thai food, sushi, and hamburgers. They pack longtime favorite Soby’s, housed in an old shoe factory, for New South cuisine. Along the banks of the Reedy there are picnics, children playing, families watching puppet shows. Dogs chase Frisbees, run, some even swim. The Swamp Rabbit Trail cuts around the river, encouraging visitors to walk through the park, maybe take a seat on the rocks and listen to the sound of water.
That Saturday, after the market closed, the area remained packed, crowds of people wandering into the evening. Some sat beneath the shade of the trees and sipped local bourbon at the Dark Corner Distillery. Others became mouse hunters, squinting down at the ground, searching for the tiny bronze statues of the Mice on Main hidden in plain sight. Dozens of children gathered in M. Judson Booksellers, a local bookstore, and sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” At the entrance to Falls Park, a line wound around Spill the Beans, people queuing up for coffee and yogurt. In the distance, someone played the trumpet.
To stand on the Liberty Bridge is to stand in the best spot in the city, the place of its beginnings; to wonder what the native Americans saw here hundreds of years ago; to just stare at the water, the falls, loud and omnipresent, yet peaceful; and then to close your eyes and experience the city just by listening to it.
More to Explore: Eat like a local in Greenville
Start your day at Biscuit Head, known for its flaky, gigantic “cat-head” biscuits, selection of gravies, and jelly bar. Or head over to the city’s hipster-y West End for blueberry ricotta pancakes at the Anchorage.
For lunch, plan on a salad or light quiche at Passarelle Bistro at the entrance to Falls Park. After your meal, stroll to the Velo Fellow, the best bar in the city, for a house-brewed beer. Located behind the West End Market, the popular pub is quiet in the daytime. Or check out Coffee Underground; just look for the small stairway leading down from Main Street. Cap the afternoon at Soby’s with an order of fried green tomatoes.
Plan on dinner on the riverside porch at Jianna. Go with polpette (meatballs) for an appetizer and squid ink radiatore or spaghetti as your entree. Finish off with honey lavender panna cotta served in a mason jar.