Route US 17 in Charleston, South Carolina is home to more than 60 sweetgrass basket stands that display the craft of the Gullah-Geechee people of the Sea Islands and Low Country. Each year, development increases along the corridor and increases the demand to widen the highway corridor, which would negatively impact the sweetgrass basket stands. In the early 1900s, residents built homes along the two-lane road and the basket makers set up open-air stands where they weaved and sold baskets. Due to congestion, the roadway was expanded to a four-lane divided highway. With a further increase in traffic, there are plans to once again widen the highway to a six-lane divided highway with a curb and gutter drainage system and concrete sidewalks. The Town of Mount Pleasant and local stakeholders recognized the conflict between widening the highway and the sweetgrass basket stand locations. When the Federal government committed highway improvement funds, the town partnered with the South Carolina Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Division Office and South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) to minimize impacts to the sweetgrass basket makers and access to stands.
SCDOT forecasts that widening US 17 will reduce congestion, improve safety, and increase non-motorized access. During the Environmental Assessment, the Town of Mount Pleasant participated in the Section 106 consultation process of the National Historic Preservation Act and found that roadway impacts would negatively impact the sweetgrass basket stands. With the construction of raised curbs, public access to the sweetgrass basket stands is hindered because the curbs prevent vehicles from pulling over off the roadway.
Sweetgrass baskets are hand-woven by local artists who follow a weaving practice that is over 300-years-old. The baskets were traditionally used in agriculture to transport goods and to separate grain, though today the baskets are primarily seen as artwork. While the sweetgrass basket stands are built with untreated wood and do not last a long time, the artwork and craft contribute to the cultural character of the corridor.
To address highway congestion and the needs of the sweetgrass basket makers, the Town of Mount Pleasant, SCDOT, FHWA, and consultants went beyond the requirements of Section 106 regulations to minimize the impact to the sweetgrass basket makers. The project team conducted interviews with sweetgrass basket makers, held public meetings, and collected comments from residents and business owners to understand the range of public questions and concerns. The project team then responded with letters to address individual concerns. Furthermore, the project team consulted with numerous groups to gain cultural knowledge and insight into sweetgrass basket making heritage. These groups are: the South Carolina State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association, the National Park Service (NPS), the Charles Pinckney Historic Site, stand owners, adjacent property owners, local churches, and regulatory agencies. The project team created a memorandum of agreement, which FHWA, SCDOT, the Town of Mount Pleasant, SHPO, and NPS signed in the fall of 2009.
The Town of Mount Pleasant commits to several efforts to minimize the impact to the sweetgrass basket makers. These efforts include the creation of a map of the sweetgrass basket stand corridor, the installation of new signs along the corridor, and the relocation of stands during construction. In addition, the efforts will encompass providing a liaison during construction, installing additional curb cuts to provide access to stands, and finalizing the submission for the SHPO review. The efforts of the town and project team helped to ensure the continuation of the basket weaving along the corridor during and after construction along Route US 17.
For more information, contact Jessica D. F. Hekter, Federal Highway Administration, South Carolina Division at firstname.lastname@example.org.