Would the Real Charleston Please Stand Up?
One blazing August some years back, I began my career as a student at the University Of South Carolina in Columbia. I knew barely anyone, as a very large proportion of my friends had stayed in Charleston to attend CofC. So I began trying to get to know the other girls on my dorm floor. Everyone was pretty nice for the most part, but one person really seemed to just flat-out dislike me. I found this confusing, and finally asked someone else what this person’s problem was. Her reply? “Oh, she thinks that you are stuck-up because you are from Charleston.” Me: “What are you talking about?! She doesn’t even know me!”
Ya'll. I grew up in the suburbs of West Ashley in a regular neighborhood of brick ranch homes. My dad worked for the railroad. My mom was a homemaker. I went to a public high school that just happened to have a fancy name. There is nothing about my upbringing or temperament that would make someone concur that I am stuck up in any way. However, this young lady’s perception seemed to be that everyone from Charleston was some kind of rich snob, when nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, there is an elite here—but show me a city where there isn't one, really?
Recently, I have been paying closer attention to the general public’s perception of Charleston, especially given all the accolades the city has received in the last year or so. Charleston truly is beautiful beyond belief, has an amazing food culture, vast historical significance, and is located in an amazing little spot on the planet. But it seems that many people’s perception is that Charleston is only the historic district on the peninsula and that we all live lives of idyll bliss whilst sipping mint juleps on the veranda. (Not that I would turn that down given the opportunity.)
Here is another example. Our friends over at Charleston City Paper recently held a photography contest. The issue that followed the contest had some comments that people had written regarding the outcome. I’m summarizing here, but one person basically made the statement that he thought it was supposed to be about Charleston, and all those pictures were from the suburbs. The eewwww was implied.
Newsflash bro, Charleston city limits include some suburbs. Yes, some of those places look like Anywhere USA, but they belong too, verandas notwithstanding. To be perfectly fair, the first non-native Charleston residents actually lived in West Ashley before building on a swamp that we now call downtown.
To be perfectly honest, I think I have to put more than a little bit of blame for this on the media. The idea of this Charleston versus the one where so many of us live is kind of weird, if you ask me. Yes, some of our residents do live like that but others, like almost everyone I know, live in various levels of suburban hell and sometimes shop at Food Lion. And some of us even own plantations, which brings me to my last example, one that I heard about only yesterday. Apparently, there is going to be a new reality show on Bravo called "Southern Charm." Here is the description of the show, from Bravo’s website.
"The notoriously closed society of Charleston, South Carolina unlocks the gates of their centuries-old plantation homes for a real-life look at how modern-day Southern aristocracy lives. Get charmed by the social scene which is bound by tradition and ostentation unlike any other culture in America, through a group of the city’s most charismatic gentlemen and their Southern belle equals."
Local Thomas Ravenel is going to be on the show. People have all kinds of opinions about this guy but I don’t know him. I have never met him, so I’m not going to offer an opinion about him as a person. But again, the romanticized image of Charleston (and so many other places in the South) as perpetuated by the media is really more what I’m trying to get my head around. Beautiful, historic and amazing Charleston also has suburbs. And crime and poverty and bland strip malls and even brick ranch houses. Instead, there seems to be only two sides of Southern life portrayed—the Honey Boo Boo and "Myrtle Manor" category and the Gone With The Wind and "Southern Charm" niche. These are both very real things—they are just not ALL the things… Charleston is way more interesting than that.