Saturday, March 24, 2012

Charleston's Own Unique Story Of Its Rise From Rags To Riches

Charleston's charismatic character has been molded over a long and illustrious history dating all the way back to the 1600's. Having now stated this obvious and unremarkable revelation on my part, there is nothing further I could add to what already has been eloquently set down on paper by pen or more consistent with the times, the keyboard, about Charleston's historic preeminence. The well thought out words and phrases may be arranged in different patterns styled by the unique point of view of its author and tinted with a hint of imagination to give it textual color, but the facts are inescapably the same. Since the Holy City's inception, it has survived a revolution, a civil war, great fires, a record setting earthquake, and several hurricanes. Hurricane Hugo, in 1989, is the most memorable of the catastrophes and without a doubt the most recent indelibly branded on the psyche of its highly faithful residents.

Charleston Hotel 1901
Before Hugo made its imprint on the landscape of Charleston, the city was grappling with a more perverse threat to its continuity, an insidious evil you will not read about in any great detail, and with the influx of so many people not of Charlestonian decent, quite unknown. An adversary that threatened to voraciously consume the wood, stone and iron structures of Charleston's eminent past. It was a blight common to most cities called urban decay and indifference. This is Charleston's uncelebrated story of its rise from rags to riches.

In 1979 an Atlanta magazine described a Charleston unknown to us today. At that time, they wrote an article of an unflattering truth about Charleston's present ever-popular Historic District. It stated, "Downtown Charleston, in many ways, epitomizes the decaying American city." "We were dying," said a store owner on King Street by the name of Mariana Hay. "It was just a big blight. Downtown was really kind of a no-man's land." The new mayor of Charleston, Joe Riley, agreed with these conclusions and likened the downtown area to a poisoned ecosystem. The demolition of the 120-year-old Charleston Hotel on Meeting Street epitomized the city's decay. Downtown commerce was looking like the Ashley River in Summerville at low tide. Empty storefronts were common and pedestrian traffic was deficient for a thriving market. Property values on King Street headed south like today's Northerners.

Charleston Place
Then, plans were set in motion to reverse the city's progression into a kind of Black Death. Charleston Place was conceived. In the beginning it faced opposition, but the planners persevered. A huge, sandy lot where a JCPenney's once stood was the chosen location for the groundbreaking. The centerpiece of the project would be a four star hotel with 440 guest rooms and suites with a rooftop pool. It now houses Charleston Spa, the Mobile Four-Star restaurant Charleston Grill, and an exclusive collection of world-famous stores located on the ground floor called the Shops of Charleston. There was no stopping the city's ascension from there. Charleston's "gold bug" was found. The restoration sparked by Charleston Place set the city ablaze and the fires of transformation moved quickly from building to building like the Great Fire of 1838.

Since my arrival in 2005, the growth has continued. At that time, there were only two bridges crossing the Cooper River with a view of the bay and skyline, one called the Silas Pearman Bridge and the other named the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge. They were two majestic icons that were feeling their age. I remember the first time I drove over the narrow bridges with both hands on the steering wheel accompanied by the uncomfortable feeling of possibly going over the edge. The old bridges eventually came down section by section and were replaced by the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. This year, March 31st, the new Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge will be covered with a sea of humanity in the 10k Cooper River Bridge Run starting at 8:00am. Taylor Hicks, Season 5 winner of American Idol, and his full band will perform on the Main Stage at the Finish Line.

1939 Riviera Theater on King Street now a Conference Center
Today, the old cobblestoned streets and waterfront walkways are filled with conversation and the clip-clop of horses' hooves. The Old Market is packed with souvenir-collecting tourists and the launching point for all the highly sought after horse-drawn carriage tours. The French Quarter is filled with camera carrying amateur and professional photographers alike looking to get the perfect shot. King Street is no longer a silent, faceless collection of once-upon-a-time stores, but now prime shopping real estate for an imaginative, thriving boutique. World-class luxurious accommodations touting the famous southern hospitality are plentiful. The finest dining establishments in the country with world renowned chefs featuring their own unique take on the famous Lowcountry cuisine are ready to serve you. Beautiful old plantations, antebellum homes, museums, sandy beaches, theaters, a thriving night life, and festivals year round will satisfy the most diverse of travelers.

Busy King Street today
Like I stated earlier, what else can I say that hasn't been already said, except the following parting words. The Holy City welcomes an estimated 4 million people every year. Charleston has been named the top American travel destination by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler. Travel and Leisure Magazine named Charleston "America's Sexiest City". Southern Living Magazine named Charleston "the most polite and hospitable city in America." It was also named the city with "the most attractive people". So, don't just read about the queen of cities, come and see for yourself. It is truly a story of rags to riches.

Chalmers Street is the longest surviving cobblestone street


Mark R. Jones said...

Rick: Can't wait for you to read my take on the Charleston renaissance of the 1930s-40s in my new book, DOIN' THE CHARLESTON. It'll be out in the fall.

Vacation Rick said...

Mark: Let me know the release date.