In the spring, Chrleston comes into its full glory. This is a city where few people rush, a place where the muted clip-clop of horses' hooves echoes down narrow streets and lanes, where the smell of the sea is heavy on the air and subtly blended with the cloying swweetness of jasmine and gardenias and just-baked bread and freshly turned earth in tiny, gem-like gardens.
In the spring, you come to understand why some people say that if they never make it to heaven, they'll settle for Paris . . . or Charleston.
The limbs of trees that were bare all winter leaf out and intertwine over cobblestone streets far below. Children play on the piazzas of stately old frame houses as did generations of children before them. These houses survived wars and hurricanes and earthquakes and countless lesser attacks of man and nature. They are painted in pastel colors that seem to glow as though lit from within; even the least of them has dignity, and all of them have a character seen now in few other places.
This is a city of old money, old houses and old society, a city where tradition and pedigree are not only important but almost hallowed, and a place where beauty, good manners and other genteel ways of the Old South still go hand in hand.
In the minds of those who first saw the city many years ago, change has been slight and change has come slowly, and that is all to the good -- although there are changes to be seen. The horses pulling carriages full of tourists wear diapers now. Traffic is worse than ever, for the tour buses come like lemmings to crowd narrow streets. Other changes are less obvious. There are more interesting little shops and boutiques, and the city, which was always known for good food, has nourished a new group of good restaurants. So far, change has come slowly and with good taste.
The old part of the city, old meaning to go back 300 years, covers a peninsula that sticks southward into the waters of Charleston Harbor. It is an area where residences and businesses stand side by side and back to back, and some people walk to work simply by going next door or across the street. A lot of the old houses are built right up to the sidewalk, and even the grand houses sit only a few feet back, because land has always been relatively expensive here. Black, wrought-iron fences with elaborately designed gates surround two-, three- and four-story residences and gardens that appear to have been trimmed with manicure scissors. The ironwork, most of it made in the city, is of a beauty and delicacy that brings to mind fine Chantilly lace.
More than anything else it is the houses of Charleston that stay in the mind and that help create the romance of the city. They range from tiny, narrow buildings that seem scarcely wide enough for a bed inside, to great, columned mansions that could have come out of "Gone With the Wind."
And, from the grandest mansion to the shabbiest clapboard, the one accent that all have in common is highly polished brass. The nameplates, the door knockers and house numbers gleam with equal brightness because the important thing is to keep one's brass polished, and whether you do it or send the maid out to do it is of no consequence. Financial misfortune can befall anyone; to let one's brass tarnish is inexcusable.
Architecturally, the houses of Charleston lean toward 18th-century English with later concessions to the city's subtropical climate. Porches, which used to be called piazzas, are common, and often on every floor. The smaller structures, called single houses, sit gable end to the street. The larger, double houses, which have a center hall, face the street.
There has always been money in Charleston, and so it is today. In the 19th century it came from rice and indigo plantations, and from shipping interests. Today it comes from commerce and law and medicine and money earned in other places by people who live now in retirement and wonder why they can't penetrate the local society.
Money cannot buy acceptance here, although things are not as bad as one tale would have you believe. A couple whose Charleston roots went back for generations was asked if they liked their neighbors, and they answered, "Oh, we haven't met them yet. They're newcomers. They've only been here 20 years."
But money can buy an old Charleston house, and if the house should be in need of extensive repair, that work can cost more than the original purchase.
And then, of course, there are the gardens. Perhaps nowhere else has the matter of turning a few square feet of dirt into an enchanting garden reached the art it has here. Many gardens are hidden from the street, but others can be seen through a fence or gate.
In places, huge old live oaks have twisted into torturous shapes, and when they are covered with Spanish moss they allow only splinters of sunlight through to the street below. This time of year, azaleas, camellias, jasmine and japonica do more for the sale of color film than all the advertising Kodak could buy.
The best way to get a peek into the gardens is to stroll up one street and down another, and there's no better place to start than the Battery. This waterfront park is down at the very tip of the peninsula, and the locals call it the Bottry. (The way you tell a native of the South Carolina Low Country is by his or her pronunciation, which comes straight out of the Gullah dialect. It derives partly from the language of the slaves who landed here from Africa, and variations of Gullah are still predominant among older blacks and whites along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.)
Along the Battery, cannons and mortar still line White Point Gardens and face out into the harbor, from whence came attack by sea. There is a long walk atop the seawall here and it is a place where you can spend hours watching gulls hover in midair and pelicans tumble as they make clumsy landings in anxious pursuit of fish in the dark waters below.
Sometimes you can find a parking place around the Battery, and if you do, grab it, for that is a rare commodity. You won't need the car anyway. The way to see the city is by a slow walk, and it is so laid out that you can do it comfortably. Many of Charleston's finest old houses are between the Battery and Broad Street, an area that local wags call SOB, meaning South of Broad. Some of these houses have been handed down through generations; others "fell" to outsiders.
There is an air of durability and gentility in Charleston that you learn to identify only after spending considerable time here. A large part of it is based on tradition and heritage; non-natives constantly see gentle reminders that they are not true Charlestonians. A small indication of the pride, but not arrogance, of Charlestonians of an earlier day comes from a book published in the 1930s. It says, and you can't be sure if this is meant facetiously, "the traditional geography lesson of a Charleston child is, Charleston is where the Ashley and the Cooper Rivers meet to form the Atlantic Ocean."
A hint of the gentility lies in the tale about the Englishwoman who, after touring the United States, finally reached Charleston and said, "Ah, at last, the only civilized city in America!"
And Lawrence Thompson, the city's director of revitalization, comes close when he says, "This is not a city where people dress up in funny clothes and stand in front of old buildings, like Williamsburg. This is a city where people live and work in old buildings."
In this city of durability, things merely a hundred years old are considered to be approaching middle age, 200 years lends respectability, and things dating from the 17th century are definitely taken seriously.
Charleston is a survivor, too, a survivor of wars and invasions, of major fires and of earthquakes that largely decimated the city. Seismologists say it is the center of a zone prone to have earthquakes, and that more will come. Many of the old buildings even now have steel "earthquake rods" running through their upper floors on the theory that this will help hold them intact in major tremors.
Yes, Charleston is a city of pride, of gentility, of durability. And it should be savored with the senses. It is less than 10 miles from the ocean, and Charleston Harbor is tidal water, so the smell of the sea is often in the air, especially when the wind is from the east.
And every day, the muted sound of horses' hooves on the pavement and the soft slap of water on pilings contrasts with the snarl of jet engines bringing an Air Force cargo jet back from Europe or Africa to land at Charleston Air Force Base, just north of town.
This is not a place where you see how it was in olden days, but where you see how it still is. Charleston is not a museum. Because people still live and work in these old buildings, they have to have their privacy, and that accounts for the walls and gates.
Zig-zagging back and forth on such old streets as Tradd, Limehouse, Lamboll, Church and St. Michael's Place, you find the old houses painted in pastels and even in tints of pastels. There is one house painted a Pepto Bismol pink and next to it is another of lime green, and they blend beautifully.
One view often seen in photographs, paintings and etchings is up Church Street where, peeping through the branches of old oaks, you see St. Michael's Protestant Episcopal Church, established in 1751, and another Episcopal church, St. Philips. Its first building went up in 1690, the present structure in 1835. Nearby is the Dock Street Theatre, which opened in 1736. It has been magnificently restored and still shows a variety of productions, occasionally including "Porgy and Bess," which was written here.
Running off the narrow streets are alleys that are even narrower. Here, the unrestrained spirit of Charleston residents is displayed in quaint touches. In front of one house, for instance, there is a black and yellow parking sign that admonishes, "Don't Even THINK of Parking Here." A plaque in front of another says, "La Maison de la Grand Me re."
True, change has come slowly to this city steeped in antiquity. But it has come. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), the city and an outside developer have begun work on a $75-million project smack in the middle of town. It will have a 500-room hotel, a parking garage, a 1,000-capacity conference center and 40 swanky shops. The site is between King and Meeting streets, just up from the old Market. The development has been more than seven years in the making. Preservationists took the city, whose idea it was, to court over it, and major compromises in the size of the project mollified opponents considerably.
It was inevitable that eventually such change would come to Charleston. But as it has for 300 years, the city continues to absorb outside influences without losing its basic charm, character and beauty. And after a few days, when you've fallen under her spell and found a new romance, then you begin to understand why there are those who say if they don't make it to heaven, why, they'll just settle for Charleston.