Before anything else, know this article is a challenging one: not just for you, but also for me. It makes me reflect on everything I see, read about, and witness going on around me in my beloved city. It makes me reach back in my memory to remember the Charleston of my childhood, and it makes me remove myself from the present and see this specific time as a mere chapter in our city’s long history. It’s tough, y’all. By approaching this subject, I have to respect all parties, and that is far from easy. I have to honor the old guard and established members of Charleston’s society, and I have to recognize the rising rank of newcomers. This sets me up to fail in two ways: I do a disservice to Old Charleston by trying, or I ignore her and dote on the New Charleston. Clarity, though tough, must shine through.
Obviously, I have some bias with the subject at hand. I am a born-and-bred South Carolinian and native Charlestonian. My mother’s family, though a few generations removed, is one of South Carolina’s Irish political powerhouse families, with statesmen serving on state-level, national-level, and military platforms. In addition to this family, I can trace my roots to the very beginnings of the colony, with some ancestors coming to the Holy City in 1678 from Barbados. Though I may not be old guard, per se, I have the pedigree to “join the club.”
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I have portrayed myself as a local asshole who shuns anyone who is not a Ravenel or Rutledge. Let’s get one thing straight: I am not gentrified. I am not a Hibernian (unless someone wants to help a brother out), definitely not a St. Cecilian, and certainly not a born-and-bred SOB. I don’t have a stake in the family plantation nor do I have a parking spot at the Carolina Yacht Club. I am just an average guy who lives in Christ Church Parish (read: North Mt. Pleasant, known as the heart of cookie cutter suburban sprawl) and is related to some prolific South Carolinian civic servants.
Now don’t get me wrong: I am proud of my roots and feel a deep conviction to honor the state and city that my ancestors have served. But I must be careful to not tread into territory for which I am not qualified to speak. I am knowledgeable, but let me be clear: I do not consider myself as any sort of expert.
With this in mind, let’s get into the sticky stuff.
Introduction: Why Charleston?
News flash: Charleston is old. She’s not European old, but for the United States, she’s a pretty old gal. 344 years, to be exact. As such, the old city has seen her fair share of events – both on local, national, and international levels. Aside from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Charleston has had a place on the stage seen around the world. You sure love to be dramatic, don’t you? you are very likely thinking at this moment. Why the hell is Charleston so important? She is far from the only city in the South to stand out. I will be the first person to say you are right. There are plenty of other cities that stand out as economic and cultural hubs that surpass Charleston. Atlanta, New Orleans, Nashville, and Charlotte are larger, more cosmopolitan, and more economically driven. So why Charleston? As usual, this question must be examined with her whole history in mind. Before we even begin talking about change, it is important to understand Charleston and her people in regards to her history.
Act I: A Colony of a Colony
Figure 1: A Barbadian “Single House”
From the very beginning, Charleston was different than the rest of the South. Granted, at the time, the rest of the South was Virginia and Maryland (yes, Maryland was a Southern colony). While these places were heavily connected to English society and held English customs, Charleston was essentially Caribbean, with strong ties to the island of Barbados.
Before Carolina was established, the land of great fortune was this small island in the Lesser Antilles. Known for their Machiavellian attitudes and abundant lifestyles, the Barbadian English were very much bons vivants. They acquired quick fortunes, drank heavily, built lavish plantations, and fully enjoyed life. But how did these colonists acquire such wealth so quickly? Simple: they were planters, specifically planters of sugar cane. The crop boomed, and soon the island was covered with the stalks. It was in the 1660s that the charter for the Carolina colony was drafted, and the explorers who set sail to settle this new land were from – you guessed it – Barbados.
The connection between these two places is still felt today. Both Charleston and Barbados share many old families (the Middletons and Draytons being examples), building styles (the single house is said to be based on Barbadian counterparts), a vivacious lifestyle (“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”: a proverb of sorts for both groups), and an affinity for rum. Our Caribbean roots are still evident today, but the heyday of such sentiments was from our founding to the latter part of the eighteenth century.
Act II: So Long Europe … Wait, We Still Love You
Figure 2: South Carolina’s Indepedence Hall
As stated, Charleston has been in the spotlight of international conflict, with the Revolutionary War standing out as the one of the most prolific. Though it may be hard to see now, Charleston was once one of the largest cities in North America, and by far the wealthiest. Her ties with England, therefore, were strong. This, in addition to other factors, is why the Revolutionary War was more of a civil war in South Carolina as opposed to an international war, more so than in any other colony. Brother was pitted against brother, and families were split in two over the issue of independence versus loyalty to the crown. Well, needless to say, the city leaned in favor of independence, and rose as one of the war’s biggest points of interest.
After the war, American sentiment was strong in the former thirteen, Charleston being no exception; however, Charleston – due to her elitist Machiavellian roots and her strong cultural ties to Europe’s latest fashions – still had an “aristocracy” that wished to pattern itself after the English. Even during the height of the Federalist sentiment, Charleston’s elite spoke with heavy non-rhotic accents, sent their children to study in England, and danced to the latest works of Romantic-era composers. In truth, Charleston was more akin to London, England than to Columbia, South Carolina.
Act III: Solidarity in the Face of Secession
Figure 3: Fort Sumter
Charleston, though a Southern town with connections to other Southern cities, was more of an outlier in the scheme of Southern culture. It wasn’t until whiffs of Secession arose in the minds of South Carolinians and, eventually, the rest of the South that the cultural bond of the South was solidified.
Before I begin this section, understand that though I do not agree with these sentiments, I realize the importance of placing one’s self in historical contexts and analyzing the mindset of certain eras. It’s not always pretty or proud, but it is nonetheless important to study our past in its entirety.
For much of the antebellum South, slavery was simply a concept. Only the very wealthy could afford to own slaves. So why did White Southerners draw arms during The War Between The States. Well, depending on your personal opinions and research, there are several reasons, but one such theory was that of of the Proto Dorian convention, as mentioned in my previous article: The Contradictions of Southerners. This was the idea that because White Southerners were “tied” to slave-owners by their race, they must support the cause. Like I said, this is just one of many factors that could have possibly gone into the causes of The War Between The States, but it helps illustrate how Charleston became unified with the rest of the South. This tie, though a very flawed thought process, was a cord that connected Charleston to the rest of the South. Charleston was a major hub of the South’s enslaved population, so the city became a very important “institution” to those of the Proto Dorian convention.
Another important tie was actually Northern sentiment. Those of the Union did not view the South nearly as segmented as those from Dixie. So, during the War and especially after, the South was treated as one unit. All White Southerners were said to be blamed for the war, and as such, Reconstruction was basically a blanket operation across the South. It wasn’t just the elite class that was defeated and beaten: it was also the rural population. So by virtue of this process, Charleston was in the same proverbial boat as the rest of the South.
Act IV: America’s Most Historic City
Figure 4: Early Twentieth Century Charleston
Following The War Between The States, Charleston was very poor. Most of the grand eighteenth century and antebellum homes were now slums. Buildings were falling apart, gardens were strewn with weeds, and streets were filthy. Even so, Charlestonians were still proud. They couldn’t afford to fix up their homes, but they made sure their current assets were in tip-top shape. Brass was never unpolished, rugs were always cleaned, and silver – if the family still had possession of it – was never tarnished. Dinner was still a grand gesture and church was still a bastion of tradition. But, at the same time, Charlestonians were closer to their fellow Southerners because of the widespread poverty and destruction. In turn, though, this poverty saved the city.
Because Charleston was impoverished, the citizens of the city could not afford to build new buildings. They had to make due with what they had. This, coupled with their strong sense of keeping tradition, helped preserve the historic district before such a district even existed. It wasn’t until 1920 that sanctioned preservation came to fruition with the creation of the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings, now known as the Preservation Society of Charleston. This, in turn, helped establish the Board of Architectural Review and the “Old and Historic District.” In the 1940s, the Historic Charleston Foundation was established as another preservation society, expanding their sights from architecture to include historical and other aspects. These buildings, already saved from the wrecking ball because of cost, were now saved by the letter of the law. From this, Charleston became a unique jewel of antiquity in the midst of new building that came about because of the New Deal and post-war success. Aside from the Naval Base, tourism became Charleston’s largest economic contributor.
Act V: The Beginning of the Riley Era and Hugo’s “Blessing”
Figure 5: The Aftermanth of Hurrican Hugo
Even though these buildings were saved, they were still far from pristine. Charleston looked worn and old, and still had a crime problem. Mind you, in addition to these factors, the population had not grown tremendously, aside from St. Andrew’s Parish (now West Ashley) and the North area. Charleston was still a small town when compared to other areas of the country. In all, the mentality of Charleston was focused on history and reflecting on the grand ol’ past. One person saw the city in another light.
In 1974, a young Irish Charlestonian became Mayor of Charleston, and his vision was to see Charleston as a world-class city with sights on the future, not the sleepy town intent on being a historical sight. This chapter, however, didn’t jump-start until the great disaster of 1989: Hurricane Hugo. This storm left Charleston greatly damaged. Trees were uprooted and dropped on rooftops, homes were flooded and covered in slicks of pluff mud, and the barrier islands were practically wiped clean. Most importantly, people were hurting. Mayor Riley and others say this pain and pleaded with the nation. The nation responded. Insurance money came flooding in, and soon Charleston was in better shape than in was prior to the storm.
Let me stop right here for a moment, if I may. Why stop the story?! It’s just getting good! This, ladies and gentlemen, is an important marker in our city’s timeline. No, not because of the disaster – Charleston is no stranger to disaster. Rather, ladies and gentlemen, this is the point in which Charleston began to change dramatically. Yes, in this lengthy timeline that is the history of Charleston, the period between the late 1980s the late 1990s was when Charleston had her most dramatic image change. We are now in the midst of Charleston’s Act VI: Sappy Southern? No, Cosmopolitan Chic. No, Sappy Southern. No…
Why Do I Think Charleston Has Changed So Drastically?
Mind you: this isn’t to say Charleston has not changed over the course of her 344 years. She has gone through periods of wealth and famine, has switch alliances, and has abandoned practices once thought of as beneficial (thank goodness we have moved on). It is ignorant to say she hasn’t changed, but in the same light, it is important to note that her people did not change. Throughout all of her acts, the mentality and culture of Charleston remained the same. During this latest boom, however, it is tough to say the same.
There are many others who would be quick to point out that my young age is far from authoritative when referring to Charleston as a whole, because I grew up in the middle of the big boom. And in my case, it was especially impactful. Mt. Pleasant, my hometown, experienced more growth than any other area in metropolitan Charleston, and as a result, it had the biggest change in image. (In case you are unaware, Mt. Pleasant is a suburban town directly across the harbor from peninsular Charleston.) Just in my first ten years of life, the population of my hometown more than doubled. My first house was in Snee Farm, a neighborhood that is across the road from Boone Hall Plantation and just north of the Isle of Palms Connector, and at the time it was pretty much the last major concentration of population before one reached the open road towards McClellanville and Georgetown. Nowadays, Snee Farm is in the dead center of town. The image of the town, once of a nice simple Southern town, is close to a carbon copy of an affluent Atlanta suburb or Hilton Head’s long lost cousin. Coleman Boulevard, once the “main street” of old Mt. Pleasant, is now under a serious makeover, with the addition of a high-rise apartment complex and a complete redesign of the roadway. Shem Creek, once the pride and joy of Charleston’s shrimping industry, is now lined with parks, bars, restaurants, and pleasure cruise boats; forty years ago, there were over eighty different trawlers, and now you’d be lucky to count ten. Building continues to boom, and it seems every street corner is occupied either by a drug store, a bank, or a gas station.
Figure 6: Shem Creek Full of Trawlers
But these are simply the outward signs of an inward change, for you see, the population of Mt. Pleasant is also dramatically different from that of my younger days. Walk into any coffee shop or grocery store, and you’ll be more likely to hear a New Yorker or Midwesterner than a Charlestonian. The population, though still a Southern majority (barely), is heavily made up of transplants from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and other Northern states. Obviously, these people do not have a Southern background. Fair enough: after all, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; however, their children, though they may be born here, are raised in a “blended” culture: that of a Southern environment with a Northern homestead. In a blink of an eye, our entire culture has changed, with a generation of “Northern Southerners” being a big part of the Mt. Pleasant population.
Am I a xenophobe? Absolutely not. Many of our family friends are from these foreign lands and they are wonderful people. But I must be clear to state that they have changed my hometown, and for that, I am upset.
I have given up on Mt. Pleasant, ladies and gentlemen. I have come to terms with the disappearance of my hometown and will peacefully step aside as others “Come On Over!” as our city government so cheekily says. I currently live in the middle of the transplant sprawl and silently lament (for the most part) as I see Transplant sticker after Transplant sticker, Ohio tag after Ohio tag, and retirement McMansion after retirement McMansion. I must hold my tongue when I go to an oyster roast hosted by someone from off (and I mean way off) and see said person pressure washing the oysters until they look like slender rocks (a little pluff mud is all part of the experience). Granted, we still have our native population and we are going strong, but we are but mere pockets that must conform to the “new-and-improved” Mt. Pleasant.
It would be easy to say my vantage of change in Charleston is skewed because I grew up in the heaviest concentration of such change, but sadly, this is not true. While Mt. Pleasant is the poster-child of suburban change, downtown Charleston has changed dramatically as well. I could bring up countless examples from my personal life, but as of late, we have a perfect representation of such change: Bravo’s newest reality show, Southern Charm.
If you haven’t heard of this show – personally, I don’t know how you couldn’t have – it follows the lives of Charleston’s “most aristocratic families to reveal a world of exclusivity, money, and scandal that goes back generations.” This is the face of New Charleston, ladies and gentlemen, and this evening, we shall all see a perfect portrayal of such.
Figure 7: “Aristocratic” Charlestonians
Firstly, I must clarify some things before I continue. These “most aristocratic families” are a farce. Though Thomas Ravenel, Shep Rose, Jenna King, and Cameran Eubanks are from South Carolina, Mr. Ravenel is the only aristocratic Charlestonian; granted, his reputation has tainted the Ravenel name for many folks. As for the rest of the cast, my redneck cousins have far more “aristocratic” pedigree than some these people (not to mention our ancestors were here before Thomas Ravenel’s, but I better leave that one be). I know some followers are close to and/or are related to some of the cast and the production of this show, so I shall show restraint and hold my tongue beyond this description. Let’s continue.
Even with this being a farce of aristocratic Charleston, it does portray a very real segment of Charleston: the playground of the rich and famous. Many of the old homes are but one amongst a collection of vacation dwellings. Many culinary powerhouses have sprung up in response to the newfound cosmopolitan flair. King Street, once the domain of local shopkeepers, is largely made up of corporate national entities. Charleston is the new Hollywood: a small town growing glitzy beyond its wildest dreams.
This is not to say Charleston was not elegant before her cosmopolitan makeover. She was, but not in the nouveau-riche fashion as of late. It was more as David Farrow so perfectly describes in the Charleston Mercury:
… the young man scans the rapidly darkening sky for the silhouette of birds in the Santee Delta, his ears attuned for whistles and the whirrs of wings. As the sun hits the roiling darkening clouds contrasting with an eggshell blue sky, the chap lowers his shotgun and grabs from his gun bag a half pint of brown liquid with bits of lemon floating like a science experiment.
Taking a slug from the Rock ‘N Rye to stave off the bone-chilling 45-degree emerging twilight, he notes his companions, their heads barely popping out of square boxes on the red-glow lit horizon, finished with palmetto fronds reaching toward the incoming flights of waterfowl. Taking another long pull, he feels the familiar warmth spreading through his well-dressed extremities as his thoughts turn to the girl he escorted to the soirée at the Hibernian Hall some four hour earlier. ‘Bang, bang.’ A hen and drake blue-wing teal floated in the shallow water that flooded the rice field…
A boozy breakfast at the Big House, a power nap and several hours later, the boy adjusted his wrinkled black tie; he is back at it and back in it. He stepped back away from the full-length mirror and grinned widely. He mother is right, he said to himself. He does cut a fine figure of a man in his simple but elegant tuxedo…
From Wednesday night to Sunday afternoon, the two engaged in a whirlwind of parties, formal affairs, after parties lasting well into the single digits, oyster roasts and some sort of college football game on Saturday.
Like the Thanksgivings his parents and grandparents experienced, the weekend is divided among ballrooms, rustic cabins, drawing rooms filled with portraits of long-dead ancestors and the carriage house of generous and trusting parents.
The food is magnificent: Meeting Street Crab, venison tenderloins, sweet potato pie and Huguenot torte. The liquor is free flowing and, by Saturday morning, it has marinated everyone still standing in formal attire. The late morning kicks off with mimosas and bloodies at brunch, cold draft beer comes in the afternoon oyster roasts in the country and brown liquor is standard at formal ‘dos.’
By the end of the lubricated weekend, the couple is an item, kisses stolen and promises made before the girl climbs in the back seat of the station wagon chock full of other girls and enough luggage to carry most men to Siberia for a month. As the car drives off into the sunset, the boy, as with his father and grandfather before him, gazes upon the amber light bathing St. Michael’s spire and feels a sense of well-being and continuity. Charlestonians have always followed these same rituals through wars and economic collapse; the best of times and the worst of times, as it were…
The aforementioned, a tale of a Thanksgiving debutante weekend, is a great representation of the rugged enchantment that is Old Charleston. Gentlemen who would sit in the duck blind whilst still in black tie, who would throw back a cold beer by a fire, and equally sip a scotch (with “sip” being used liberally) in Hibernian Hall. On the surface, Charleston is an image of grace and uprightness, but below the layers, it is still a bit irreverent – no doubt a trait carried over from Barbados. And I love that, y’all. I acknowledge that our past is not one of moral solidarity: it is peppered with vices and stories. But when the time comes to show one’s best foot, Charlestonians will hide the grit far from sight and will have the manners to shame a Vanderbilt, if need be.
Figure 8: “Huntsman in Tuxedo”
This contrasts with the cosmopolitan flair of modern Charleston. Nowadays, Charleston’s social life is similar to that of New York or Los Angeles, albeit with a Southern twist. This places it in the realm of Atlanta and Charlotte, being an institution of the New South (see Charleston: Old South or New South for more on this subject). Granted, as I have mentioned before, the old Charleston is still here, but this modern cosmopolitan Charleston is very prevalent.
The Additional Faces of “New Charleston”
It is highly inaccurate to say Charleston has changed because of one single group. The Charleston we know today has many different facets and representations. We have addressed two of these – suburban and city transplants from the North – but there are still other groups who have changed our city’s image:
Huh? Now you’re contradicting yourself, sir.
Allow me to clarify.
This does not include all natives. Some are still very much grounded in Old Charleston. But there are a few prominent natives who have profited from and/or helped further the change of the Charleston area. And mind you, these are not bad people, and their intentions are not necessarily bad either. Former Mayor Billy Swails, for example, was a big proponent of changing Mt. Pleasant’s image. Mayor Swails is a native son and loves his hometown, but he saw the town as a potential hub itself, not just a suburban community of Charleston. Mayor Riley, as I mentioned before, is a big proponent of change in Charleston. He may even possibly be the figurehead of Charleston’s change. Under his leadership, Charleston has become a world-class city of high art, fine dining, and high-brow culture. Others include a myriad of developers and those in the tourism industry.
See, y’all? I’m not just singling out the Yankees; other Southerners are also part of the change. As I mentioned earlier, the South is not a blanket culture, but rather a series of related, yet totally different splinter groups. These people, though less noticeably so, make up the majority of Charleston’s influx. Their influence is noted in the way Charleston has more so assimilated with the rest of the South – mostly noted in the outdoorsy groups labeled rednecks or Good Ol’ Boys. This change, though far less dramatic, is still a change in the culture of Charleston.
The College Population
Both the College of Charleston and The Citadel have had students come from faraway places, but it seems that more and more are coming and staying. These people eventually fall into one of the previously stated categories.
Where Does That Leave Charleston?
In a phrase: I’m not sure.
Charleston will always have a native population that dates back to the early colony. The Hibernians will always march down Meeting Street on St. Patrick’s Day and St. Philip’s will always be a meeting place of tradition and religion. The debutantes will continue to, well, debut and their escorts will continue to run off to the duck blinds.
Figure 9: The Banner of the Hibernians
But even so, Charleston is going to change drastically. Who knows: Charleston may become the next Atlanta in the near future. The peninsula may become a mixture of Manhattan and Disneyland, with neighborhoods becoming museum attractions and the thoroughfares becoming booming retail districts (i.e. King Street after further development). More high-rises will be built and more wealth will come pouring in. The suburbs will also change, most likely being a more dramatic version of Mt. Pleasant’s transformation. The North area will boom with more and more Boeing employees relocating in the Lowcountry, and Johns Island could become developed like its neighbor: James Island. And let’s not forget Cainhoy, with the Guggenheims planning to develop the area into a neighborhood larger than peninsular Charleston.
All of this isn’t necessarily bad. Charleston is a unique and magical place. I have traveled the world, and I still am captivated by Charleston’s beauty and aura. And it is this beauty that draws others from off. As a dear friend from New York once said over a dinner conversation, “I sometimes feel that transplants appreciate Charleston more than natives. We fell in love with Charleston and moved here by choice, and I am thankful every day because I made that choice.” Now, I obviously (but respectfully) disagree with him, but he brought up a valid point. These people move here and love the natural beauty of our area. They may be confused when we refer to Haint Blue or when we bring a bowl of Pilau to tennis practice for a pre-game meal, but we must be patient and try to teach them our ways.
In spite of all this, I am not too worried for Old Charleston’s survival. Yes, I am uneasy with her influence dwindling, but she will always be a part of our culture. And even though the phrase, “I’m a native Charlestonian.” now makes people starry-eyed and full of awe, there will always be Ravenels and Rutledges, Pinckneys and Prioleaus, Balls and Butlers. The accents will assimilate and the culture will morph, but the natives of Charleston will always retain elements of each of the city’s acts. The Machiavellian attitude of our Barbadian ancestors will still be engrained in our underlying irreverent demeanors. The “too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash” mentality of all Charlestonians – both White and Black – following The War Between The States will still be evident in how we treat our homes and valuables. And we will always remember the hardships of post-Hugo life (or at least the stories of such). In spite of our volatile environment, whether from excitement or uncertainty, I have hope that Charleston will be true to her roots. In closing, ladies and gentlemen, I leave you with these final words from David Farrow’s account of a debutante weekend:
“It’s comforting in these ever-increasingly alarming and interesting times to know that some things never change.”
-Figure 1: http://www.scnhc.org/story/the-single-house
-Figure 2: Personal Photograph
-Figure 4: http://www.preservationsociety.org/
-Figure 5: http://www.examiner.com/article/charleston-remembers-hurricane-hugo-20-years-later (originally The Post and Courier’s Wade Spees)
-Figure 8: Social Primer
-Figure 9: Personal Photograph
-Figure 10: Personal Photograph