Lake City, South Carolina
NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2021 FINALIST
Beauty, pain, joy, grief, peace, unity, and hope, all celebrated through the arts.
The quiet beauty of Lake City is typical for a South Carolina town: tidy small homes lining peaceful, leafy streets. Freight trains loaded with produce lumber across Main Street. The sweet smell of curing tobacco lingering everywhere.
Also typical for many Southern towns, Lake City has a history of discrimination, segregation, violence, and lynchings.
That’s why, once a year, this historically Black town turns to the arts to celebrate all facets of its history and its future: the pain, the beauty, the challenges, and above all, the hope. And it’s all made possible by the generosity of local benefactors and hundreds of volunteers.
“School kids come from all around, and their eyes just light up,” says Lake City Mayor Levitt Anderson. “You get intimate time with the artists. You get insight.”
Lake City is a flat, green town of about 6,500 people, eighty miles east of the state capital, surrounded by some of the nation’s richest farmland. About 70 percent of the residents are Black, with the rest a mix of other races. Produce and tobacco put it on the map; it was once home to one of the world’s largest bean markets.
Today, farming is still the town’s main business, but the historic National Bean Market building has become a community center, and Lake City is home to more retirees than field workers. But what makes Lake City special today is its annual arts festival, called “ArtFields,” whose mission is to make room in Lake City for everyone, no matter what their race.
“While many small Southern towns might boast on their Southern hospitality, sometimes that charm is only reserved for certain people,” says local Roberta Burns, who nominated Lake City for Nicest Places in America. “Unrivaled kindness and vibrant Southern hospitality are shown to everyone who passes through this town.”
Made possible by an interracial group of Lake City natives that includes philanthropist Darla Moore, ArtFields brings world-class paintings, sculptures, and installations from around the world to venues all over town, with thousands of dollars in prizes at stake.
It’s a diverse and vibrant effort that puts the work of internationally acclaimed creators alongside that of local students and Southern artists. Many of those works directly confront the nation’s painful history of racism, cruelty, and violence. The Grand Prize winner for 2021: a portrait of a young Black girl who “would not be broken,” by painter Charles Eady, whose mission is to give voice to “a population silenced from history.”
But many other works are purely for fun; one of Anderson’s favorites was “a giant panda, made of yarn. I don’t even know how they got it in there,” he says when encountering the huge work inside a small gallery.
Each spring, about 200 people volunteer to spruce up Lake City and welcome visitors. Among their efforts: making sure the freight haulers slow down. “Those trains just creep through town during ArtFields,” says Anderson.
And when the festival is over, Lake City remains a place where hard work and humility go hand in hand, he says: “They teach you to respect each other,” Anderson says.
Few embody that spirit more than Moore, the ArtFields founder and billionaire philanthropist, who went from a tobacco farm to Wall Street. Moore’s support for a number of projects has helped her hometown thrive. “I’ve heard her tell the story many times,” Anderson says. “She’ll say, ‘They thought I was just some little country girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. And I kicked their butts.’”
And while the event has helped Lake City draw visitors and much-needed business, what Anderson values most about it is that it brings people together to spend time with artists – and each other.
“What I like is that the youth can compete with the adults. Art brings people together, crosses all barriers,” Anderson says.
While many small Southern towns might boast about their Southern hospitality, sometimes that charm is only reserved for certain people. In Lake City, South Carolina, unrivaled kindness and vibrant Southern hospitality are shown to everyone who passes through the town. Lake City welcomes an influx of visitors primarily during ArtFields, an annual art event based on a celebration of art and community. The downtown becomes an art gallery as hundreds of artworks from Southeastern artists are displayed in all the local businesses—from renovated warehouses to restaurants, boutiques, and barbershops. All kinds of art from all kinds of artists are part of the show and nine days are dedicated to showcasing the art and welcoming visitors that travel from across the country for the event.
It all started in 2012 when philanthropist Darla Moore saw a need to revitalize her hometown and create a platform for Southern artists to share their talent. A group of women got together to brainstorm what the best way to achieve these goals would be and ArtFields was born. Since 2013, ArtFields has awarded over $100,000 each year to competing artists and become a preeminent cultural venue for the entire region. ArtFields’ success has inspired many other events to blossom in the town.
Lake City, simply put, is a family. When you come to visit, whether for a day, a week, or a month, you leave as part of the family. Business owners eagerly greet you and tell you about everything happening in Lake City. People on the streets wave hello. Gym owners welcome you to an evening exercise class. The history guru of the city, Mr. Kent, tells you all about stories of the town’s past. The fruit stand owners remember your order and bring it out to their less mobile customers. Residents are surprised sometimes with their prescriptions being paid for by a program of the Greater Lake City Community Resource Center. Residents young and old participate in city clean-up days. Community programs thrive because of the willingness of residents to pitch in. Longtime community leader and dedicated volunteer Hubert McFadden says it best, “I think we all have a responsibility to do our part to help our city grow and shine.” Jonathon Strickland adds, “I think we learn selflessness by helping the world and we learn how to love by helping people. Through service, you learn courage, magnanimity, ambition, and integrity.”
Individuals and groups work year-round to bring positive energy and nice vibes to Lake City. The year starts with the Moore Farms Botanical Garden Open Days and Wine Stroll, where thousands are raised for local charities. This is soon followed by ArtFields, where over 200 local volunteers come together to ensure the event is a success. Soon after is May Day, a local plant sale that will incorporate a farmers’ market and free COVID-19 vaccines for this year. Then Lake City hosts the Dramatic Coffee Beans Showcase, which is a youth enrichment group aimed at helping teens tackle tough situations through drama and performance. The summer sees Games on the Green, an annual outdoor event that brings the entire community together for old-fashioned fun in one of our green spaces. Fall marks the arrival of the MFBG Beer Fest, another event at Moore Farms Botanical Garden whose proceeds are donated to the Florence County Disabilities Foundation. Spooky season brings a city-wide trick or treating event down historic Main Street, plus numerous other Trunk or Treats for local children. Residents are well taken care of for Thanksgiving as the community rallies to provide meals for the needy or homebound. The year ends with Hometown Holidays, another town-wide event complete with a tree decorating contest, letters to Santa, an ice rink, and more!
It’s not only during these events, but also during a normal day in Lake City that you find a helping hand, a ready smile, and an impactful conversation. Our people and the love they show everyone truly mark Lake City as the nicest city.
“What we first loved about Lake City was everyone had time to talk. We’ve made sure we always make that same time wherever we go…We’ve formed lasting friendships every time we’ve been to this place in time that is ArtFields. The biggest win for us has been and continues to be the human connection,” shares Sarah McWilson of Hand in Hand Creative.
During COVID-19, there were many mask/sanitizer give-a-ways, restaurants donated meals to the most vulnerable that couldn’t leave their homes, small businesses rallied with each other to make it through, and when a beloved community leader passed away too young, the town showed up for a socially distant funeral procession that lined the streets. A community task force was started by Roosevelt Bryan to make sure that all voices were heard during Black Lives Matter protests. And the town seemed to make a silent vow that whenever we could celebrate and be nice to people in person, we would do it better than we’ve ever done before.
During ArtFields 2021, two community change-makers were painted on a mural by Broderick Flanigan to celebrate the African American experience. An Atlanta artist, Joe Dreher, completed portraits with glass separation to bring back the eye-to-eye experience so often missed during 2020 to create a portrait of the community. The Portrait Contest honored healthcare heroes as models for the event. Socially distant drum circles, dance performances, and artwork viewing brought more joy than ever. We fist-bumped and shared stories via artwork about the hardships of the past year and danced and celebrated with renewed vigor. While so many can be mean for no reason, Lake City is nice for no reason and every reason.