Students examine the dynamics of a city with walks through Spartanburg.
With all the changes that have transformed the city of Spartanburg over the last 15 years – new shops, restaurants, housing, neighborhood redevelopment – Colby King had the perfect case study for his urban sociology class.
King, an assistant professor of sociology, wanted his students to look at the ways a city’s organization and structure shape the people who live there, and how residents in turn continually refashion the place where they live by the choices they make and the ways they describe it.
“The way the city is built, where the buildings are situated, how the neighborhoods are situated relative to downtown, whether there’s public transportation, all those things shape an individual’s experience as they navigate the city,” King says.
At the same time, he adds, “the decisions that individuals make every day about how they go about their life in the city, changes the nature of the city every day,” from the organizations they belong to, to the activities they participate in.
To give students an on-the-ground look at these issues, King organized a series of walking tours that took his students to different neighborhoods in Spartanburg and allowed them to interact with city and community leaders. Students learned about the city’s trail system from Ned Barrett of Partners for Active Living; economic development from Katherine O’Neill of OneSpartanburg and city manager Chris Story; downtown history from librarian Brad Steinecke; and changes to the Northside from Tony Thomas of the Northside Development Group.
Kyla Stafford-Simmons, a senior majoring in psychology, says the class made her think about who shapes decisions in a city. At a council meeting she attended virtually, she noticed most of the people there in person were retired or older. Because the meetings are at 6 p.m., large groups of people can’t be there, she says – people like her with evening jobs, or working parents running errands after they leave the office. That gives a minority of people an outsized voice, she notes.
“They’re telling the council their ideas of what they want,” Stafford-Simmons says. “It’s majority rule for them, and it can’t be that. You’re implementing ideas that are not going to be fair for everyone else.”
Stafford-Simmons’ observation underscores the kind of discrepancies King wants his students to notice. “Every change that happens in a city benefits some people and doesn’t benefit others,” King says. “There’s multiple processes happening at once.”
For Natasha McDaniel, a sociology major and Spartanburg native, the class gave her a chance to quiz leaders about redevelopment’s impact on residents. McDaniel, who grew up half her life on the Northside, and the other half in Highland, wanted to know what was being done to ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing in her old neighborhoods.
“My main concern is dislocation, and how are they going to make sure the residents of those communities still stay there,” she says.
King says he was impressed to see his students asking thoughtful questions that demonstrated a genuine desire to see a city that lifts up all its residents. “They’re eager to help work on the changes they want to see in the community,” he says.
That’s certainly the case for McDaniel, who would like to eventually open a clinic that provides a variety of support services to underserved residents, such as financial counseling and mental health.
As McDaniel notes about the people she met on the tours, “Everyone is really just trying to make Spartanburg better.”