The West Side of Charleston, West Virginia, has always been set apart from the rest of the city, divided from the downtown district and the money in the city’s East End by the Elk River. 

In the 1830s, five prominent Charlestonians began operating plantations on the West Side, relying on enslaved Black Americans for labor. But systemic discriminatory practices didn’t end with the abolition of slavery. Redlining and the displacement of the Black community during Charleston’s urban renewal era of the 1960s and ’70s, along with the loss of employment opportunities in the decades that followed, have left significant scars on the West Side. Like so many transitioning Appalachian cities and towns, it’s a place struggling with income inequality, a surge in the cost of living, health care disparities, homelessness, addiction, gun violence – and almost no resources to address these problems. 

Community leaders acknowledge that the underlying sources of racism and generational poverty must be countered for the neighborhood to move forward, but it’s the work of individuals and grassroots organizations – quite often faith-based – that are stepping in where government agencies aren’t. 

The West Side: A Community Defining Its Future explores the ecosystem of these day-to-day efforts to address the neighborhood’s most immediate needs with what community leaders say is most vital to transforming the neighborhood: building the capacity of its residents to advocate for systemic change. 

Reporting by Laura Harbert Allen and Taylor Sisk. Photos by Lexi Browning. 

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