“Too much of a good thing,” Mae West supposedly said, “is wonderful.”
If you’re just visiting Charleston for the first time, you’ll probably fall in love with its shops, restaurants, the 2,000 antebellum homes and gorgeous gardens, museums, galleries and surrounding beaches. As for the nearly year-round humidity? That’s best enjoyed by orchids.
The city is, like a lot of places, on fire: The population has grown by 30 percent in the last dozen years, to north of 150,000. Northerners, many from New York, poured down here during the pandemic and haven’t quit coming. But more than 7 million tourists a year swing through, too, thanks to cruise ships, better air service and the general appeal of a storied coastline that runs from Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head. What was once a sleepy Navy town juxtaposed within an old, aristocratic porch society now resembles something closer to a nonstop bachelorette party or a walking club for the brunch set.
When I moved here in 1977 to take a reporting job at the Charleston Evening Post, I was a newcomer of sorts. I had long before fallen in love with the town as a visitor during my childhood. As a young adult, I thought I’d landed in heaven. Charleston was a very different place then, still showing the scars of its past and suffused with a palpable but indefinable sense of mystery. You could smell history in all its agony and ecstasy. In some places you could feel the presence of those who came before and, though dead, never truly left.
Not so today. Charleston sometimes seems like a glorified imitation of itself. Like many others, I’m alarmed and saddened by what I see when I visit: Shoulder-to-shoulder, flip-flopping pedestrians craning their necks to peer into people’s homes, loud men hawking skin products to passersby on King Street, a nail salon on George Street where the “Three Nags” bar once welcomed artists, musicians and writers. Such changes are inevitable everywhere — nostalgia is for old folks in porch chairs — but still you wonder.
When is too much really way too much? With the next apartment building? The latest boutique hotel and rooftop bar? This city has lost something much more valuable than its new economic drivers. It lost its relationship to its artistic self. Charleston’s muse was always a sultry soul full of longing and lust, a penchant for sin and an appetite for redemption. And that city was becoming marginalized by people with the best of intentions just about the time I arrived.
The big idea, fostered by then-Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr., was that Charleston could become a tourist destination. A convention center, for starters, would draw paying customers and generate much-needed revenue to revitalize a downtown in need of repairs. I doubt Riley could have imagined where his dream would lead, for good and ill.
Riley’s proposition led to intense battles between those in the old school, vintage set, who rightfully worried about sustaining the city’s historic integrity, and the marketing visionaries who foresaw what Charleston has, indeed, become.
The scheme succeeded brilliantly, I suppose. For each of the past 10 years, “Travel and Leisure” magazine’s readers have chosen Charleston as the best city in the United States. Again?!
I happened to be in Charleston the day the T & L story broke this year. Everywhere I went, people were talking about it without enthusiasm. The first time T & L readers recognized Charleston’s unique beauty and charm was sweet. Free PR is good for business. The third year was, yawn, that’s nice. The 10th year? Stop it. Please go away.
It doesn’t take people long to become proprietary about their own claim to belonging and to scorn the relative inauthenticity of the next person’s. My guess is that just about everyone here senses the loss, too. Charleston’s once-shabby inner beauty — the lush, smoldering mystery, the secret passageways that led to deeper mysteries, the lusty Lowcountry nights and the shimmering spirits that brushed your shoulder as you entered certain houses — all that is gone. Everything is over-polished (and overpriced) now. And traffic, well, there’s traffic.
Developers can replicate Charleston side-entry architecture. People can install gardens behind brick walls and pretend they’re waiting for some handsome sea captain to return with a new batch of Parisian silks or Italian pottery. They can even buy one of the antebellum houses and paint their doors a pale, ‘haint blue to keep evil spirits at bay.
But it’s impossible to resurrect the soul of a city once it’s been “improved.”