There's no denying that visitors to Charleston embrace ALL that the Holy City has to offer... its grandeur and allure, its antiquity, the arts district, and restaurants with our James Beard Award-winning chefs. Yet packed horse-drawn carriage tours narrated with tantalizing tales of Charleston's lurid past are indicative that visitors relish the dark side as well.
Natives and tourist alike bask in the eerie glow of lamplights as the guided tour guides clomp the pavers, spinning tantalizing tales of pirates, murderers, slavery, gallows, folklore, cannons, and ruins. The conclusion would have to be that the blend of Holy and Unholy is what makes Charleston Number One.
It didn't surprise me when I heard that the new Bravo-produced reality show "Southern Charm" has entered through the back door of the Holy City to capitalize on the Condé Nast-generated tide of tourist. With recognition comes growth. New bridges and roads, city beautification, widening river channels, and cruise lines vying for ports while larger corporations glance our way. Oh, and yes—movie cameras.
Charleston cringes as if responding to nails on a blackboard. In the guise of "reality," these shows eventually go south (pun intended) as they lance wounds of the past and expose the underbellies of its weak prey, vampirically drinking them dry before moving on to another venue. The wheels are already in motion and squeak with concerns. Needlessly.
I recently spent a day meandering the streets of downtown. A carriage passed by me, brimming with pamphlet-clutching, binoculared tourist. Some leaned and bobbed with cameras, trying to catch quick shots of alleys and courtyards as their guide mules clomped by at a quick pace. The mules were obviously aware that they were on the last leg of the jaunt, knowing carrots were awaiting.
I tried to envision what the passengers were able to take in within the time span it took them to pass. I tried to view the streets with tourist eyes. What spoke to them as they strolled and wheeled by in carriages and trolleys? Stately courtyards? Cobblestoned streets? Avatar-worthy oaks dripping with moss tendrils? Meridional architecture fronted with floral-laden window boxes?
I lifted my tourist glasses to look beyond the obvious. Wisteria and ivy clung to the colonial brick buildings, concealing its pain. Beneath the heady scented vines and buzzing bees laid jagged scars etched in brick and mortar from the devastating 6.6 to 7.3 earthquake in 1886. Oddly strewn earthquake re-enforcing crosses, as well as disc- and S-shaped iron works, adorned the fronts and sides of the building. A scant 23 years prior to that, cannons of the Civil War had crumbled the city, not to mention the siege by the British, which held Charleston hostage for two years in 1780, or the catastrophic 20th-century Hurricane Hugo.
Charleston is revered because of its tenacity, its re-invention, its roots that erupt through the cobblestone to climb the walls of century-old buildings and then bud with the heady blossoms of wisteria and jasmine. The scars of Charleston's past will forever pave its future.
The allure is both of joy and pain, as well as its ability to live with both as a city. My guess is that there isn't nor will there ever be a reality show that can conjure up any new revelations about Charleston's past that we don't already deal with on a regular basis. One need not go much further past the slave market or plantation tours to realize that we don't have a whole lot of skeletons rattling in our closets.
I remember going to New Orleans, another city that has a controversial history. While marveling at the beautiful porticos, window boxes and ironworks, I secretly whispered to another tourist about what I glimpsed while passing a Voodoo parlor. I lingered too long admiring the quirkiness of a Tarot house and pretended to shield my eyes as pimps pulled up alongside the curbs to talk to their girls. I experimented with strange food and felt oddly different after I ate wild gator, rattlesnake, and frog legs. Whether it is here, Savannah, New Orleans, or the Sphinx in Egypt, my ears are always tickled by the flip side of its society.
A friend described a carriage tour she went on while visiting Charleston: "The guide was graphically describing the architecture and history of one of its many fine homes when police cars, sirens, and flashing blue lights ascended to an altercation on one of the tour’s adjacent, 'not-on-your-guide'-streets next to them. As the crowds gathered, the guide continued on but the whole carriage group continued to watch the exciting real-life drama unfolding to their right."
Promenaded by hundreds of thousands of people annually, Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter, and the Battery lie serenely as the Atlantic licks nearby. Its quiet cannons are silent reminders of past war and siege. The slave markets house wares of our blended society, yet cry out its former existence. We humbly, unquestionably buy sweetgrass baskets from the ladies at their stands. At night, we grace the halls of the Dock Street Theatre, eat and drink in the award-winning establishments, relish the fanning palmettos and breeze, linger at shop windows displaying magnificent art, and finally....relax in a city which has come to terms with itself.
Charleston is so much more than the few square miles of its historic district. I feel the pride of its resistance and the inertia of its resurgence in its outlying communities, as well, i.e… standing under the Angel Oak, laughing at the many faces of the Folly River Boat, spying for a quick glimpse of the humongous Dreamliner while passing the Boeing plant, watching formerly abandoned buildings around the city re-gift us with entrepreneurial ventures. I get plum giddy thinking and watching Charleston dip its toes into industries formerly allocated to larger cities, like the technical visionary company Dig South transitioning itself to forward Charleston in many aspects for entrepreneurial activity and commerce here.
Eyes are turned toward Charleston during its Charlestion Fashion Week. Music, arts, festivals, and plays leave no lack of something to do, and when I don't want to do anything—well, I just go kick up some sand on a small stretch of beach. I don't have to be connected to the streets of downtown to feel its historical roots beneath my feet in our outlying neighborhoods, schools, and establishments.
Moss dripping from limbs, Haint Blue-painted ceilings, alligators slipping stealthily into swamps and ponds, folklore and Gullah. It's a way of life, chosen for us by all of its 360 years of circumstances. So, given the natural and unnatural disasters that the city has withstood, I view its damage from a reality show akin to a flea bite on a river dog. We are about as much as what you left us with as we are what we were before you came. We will be better off despite you or because of you. What's the worse that can happen? They take a floorboard full of sand back with them?
Let us all remember constants. When the tents fold and the director calls it a wrap, I will still marvel as I ascend the beautiful bridge. I will look to the left and right and see the visible signs that I still live in a small city. Thank God for those building ordinances put in place years ago that have helped us abstain from high rises. I will still be able to hobble the cobble on a gas lantern-lit ancient city street as St. Michael's Church bells chime melodically. I'll picnic at Marion Square, and my relatives will still come to visit.
The orange barrels will slowly dissipate and be replaced with beautiful palmettos, crape myrtle, and magnolia trees. The town criers will leave the corners just as they came. Fear and fanaticism will subside and Charleston will do as it always has—move along, slow like the Edisto and tenacious like the Atlantic. All is well Charleston. All is well.