“Chahlstun,” you’d say if you were speaking like a native. We’re heading down to this languorous antique of South Carolina on our cruise of America’s Historic Atlantic Shores, in late September of this year, and in May and October of 2010, and just in the nick of time Forbes.com has a delightful piece on the changes and continuity seen in the city where the Civil War began.
“Come Hell or High Water” – that’s the title of a great book on Charleston my dad (born in Georgetown, halfway up the coast between Charleston and Pawley’s Island) had on his bookshelf; and that’s the way it goes when you live in Hurricane Alley. 1989’s Hurricane Hugo blasted through the town, leaving in its wake “a degree of devastation unprecedented in anybody’s living memory,” according to Charleston’s once and present mayor, Joseph P. Riley, Jr. But, as Forbes reports,
“…what came in Hugo’s aftermath was a surge of investment and prosperity that has washed over Charleston and left it sparkling in the Low Country sun.
The city that once liked to say it was “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash” has reclaimed its magnificent downtown; inaugurated a nearly year-round slate of tours, exhibitions, and festivals (including the 17-day culture party, the Spoleto Festival); spawned a culinary awakening; and erected a new signature structure, the sail-like Arthur Ravenel, Jr., Bridge. Oh, and ponied up for the paint–lots and lots of paint. Charleston is more fun now than it has been since the predawn fireworks show of April 12, 1861, when P.G.T. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter. You might even say the city has been transformed. Sort of.
“That’s true!” she answered. “But, well…not true. For instance, I can look at the bird’s-eye map of Charleston from 1850 on my office wall and still recognize every street. I could use it today to get around town.”
That’s Charleston for you: The place, to put it mildly, is not afflicted with the amnesia effects of American Progress. Around here, the new must always accommodate itself to the stubborn tenacity of what came before. It was Charleston where Oscar Wilde claimed he had complimented the moonrise over the harbor only to be told, “You should have seen it before the war!”
This is a city famously marinating in self-regard. The old wheeze about Charleston being located “where the Ashley and Cooper rivers join up to form the Atlantic Ocean”–you will not leave town without hearing it–is meant to be taken as self-deprecating: See, we can joke about thinking we are the center of the universe. The subtext: Actually, that is exactly what we think.
Here are a few of the American “firsts” claimed by Charlestonians during my visit: first historic district, municipal college, country club, golf course, water buffalo, fireproof building. Charlestonians have convinced themselves that they invented the cocktail party, too. Perhaps it’s just that parties elsewhere didn’t count.
Read more of this really entertaining article that definitely captures the spirit of Charleston, SC.