Charleston, SC: February, 2018
Charleston was so pleasant, the experience so nearly flawless that I had a hard time writing about it. How many times could I compliment a place before risking redundancy? How can I describe misadventures when everything goes as planned? There are only so many words for wonderful that I fear I may reach my quota before doing it honest justice. I haven’t been everywhere, but I’ve been a lot of wheres, and I can say with confidence that Charleston is one of my three favorite cities in America.
It’s actually the closest ocean port to Cincinnati, due largely to the westward jaunt the Atlantic coast takes as it moves south. Charleston is a quicker drive than Delaware or coastal Maryland, even though those two lie on the same parallel as home. The drive was easily done in a day. The mountains flatten abruptly upon reaching the border between the two Carolinas, the wavy Blue Ridges in the rearview and the wide, rolling piedmont in front. It is well over a hundred miles from mountains to coastal plain at this point and the stretch of I-26 that crosses it doesn’t look particularly dissimilar to the interstates closer to home, even in the winter. Only the earliest of trees had begun flowering white but for the most part the piedmont looked as dead as the north. It was over eighty degrees in the second half of February, but we had not yet driven into spring.
Lauren spotted our first palmetto outside of Columbia, looking intentional and out of place in front of a car dealership. It wasn’t until twenty miles later before the topography changed for good, after the bumpy Sand Hills gave way to coastal plain. First, knee high palm fronds began to populate the understory of the curbside forest, followed by the occasional live oak and slumping moss.
Entering the city, we turned off of King Street, the city’s main road, and into Radcliffborough in the west-central area of the downtown peninsula. We rented an apartment that sat relatively near the college campus, half of a now-divided Charleston Single House with a gable facing the street and a long covered front porch running perpendicular. We were greeted at the front door by two rocking chairs and a gecko. It was clean and cozy, if a bit small, but really it was a place to sleep or relax in front of the 2018 Winter Olympics, which had started a few days prior to our arrival.
Staying on or near King Street would do any Charleston visitor a disservice. I’m not trying to say it isn’t pleasant – it is. Quite, actually. The street is wider to the north, narrow to the south, flanked by bright Georgian architecture on both sides and a palmetto every fifty feet. It is a main road where one still has the ability to window shop or aimlessly browse one store before ducking into a door twenty steps later to do it again. It’s mostly upscale to be sure, Anthropologie and craft honey, but it’s the exact type of city center that was bulldozed fifty years ago for strip malls only to be longed for decades later and recreated in the suburbs in the form of “lifestyle centers.” It’s actually one of the better main streets in the country, a tiny Fifth Avenue of the colonial south with surprisingly little tourist nonsense hanging in the windows. I only call remaining here a disservice because it would steal your ability to obtain a full appreciation of the city.
The peninsula of Charleston is shaped quite a bit like Manhattan, if Manhattan were a third the size and pointed in a southeasterly direction. King Street bisects it more or less how Broadway does, arriving from North Charleston and ending at the Battery, at the very tip of the city, where the Cooper River flows in from the northeast meets the Ashley River from the northwest and, as a map hanging in the kitchen at our Airbnb explains “form the Atlantic Ocean.” The neighborhoods are then oriented based on which side of King they are located and between which cross streets. Calhoun is a wide boulevard that separates the relatively newer, northern portion of the peninsula from the older southern part. Further south is Broad Street, the colonial border of the city.
The far northern neighborhoods notwithstanding, on the west side of King, heading south, you have the mouthful that is Cannonborough-Elliotborough, our temporary home in Ratcliffborough, and Harleston (without the ‘C’) Village. The east side neighborhoods are no shorter nominally, beginning with Mazyck-Wraggeborough, continuing through East Bay-Ansonborough, and the French Quarter. Everything south of Broad is called South of Broad, including The Battery, Rainbow Row, and most of the oft-photographed colonial-era mansions. The comparison with Manhattan, shaky to begin with, stops here as there’s no doubt that New Yorkers, lacking the time to rattle off these multisyllabic names, would have begun calling this neighborhood SoBro years ago.
We woke early and walked south to explore the city. It was extremely walkable, even away from the main roads and the small, urban campus of the College of Charleston is absolutely stunning. It really must be one of the most attractive campuses in the country. Brick sidewalks weave through pastel-colored buildings – yellow, blue and salmon walls with ornate front porches and colonial windows and black shutters. Spanish moss looms overhead, allowing in just enough sunlight for the floral gardens beneath. The paths pass through arches and over manicured lawns surrounded by wrought iron fences. And it was quiet. School was in session and students were walking about but it was quiet enough to hear the birds. We sat on a bench for a while with our phones in our pockets.
It began to drizzle, so just outside campus, we stopped for coffee at a place called Black Tap that sells locally roasted beans. A little chocolate lab greeted us when we walked in, wagging and leading us toward the counter.
“Whose dog is this?” Lauren asked, smitten with the canine per usual.
“He works here!” the guy behind the counter replied. The dog then went and stood in line for the restroom. I was looking forward to seeing what he would do when it was his turn but when the door opened he just went around saying hello to everyone seated. I quite liked this dog. It turned out he belonged to a regular customer who works from the coffee shop by day. I drank a cortado and Lauren a latte as we waited out the rain with a window seat. Of course it was fantastic – a velvety texture and the perfect amount of espresso bitterness. A better first morning in Charleston I couldn’t imagine. A better morning anywhere I could hardly imagine. This city is something.
Rain passed and us now properly caffeinated, we continued south. Outside of the campus, the houses in Harleston Village are tall and thin and the neighborhood was the quietest part of the downtown peninsula. It was almost eerie, but not in the way that makes one feel unsafe, but more in a venerable old house kind of way. South of Broad, we walked several blocks, the mansions becoming increasingly palatial and resplendent with each passing. We followed Meeting Street, passing carriage tours and Gullah women weaving baskets, until we reached The Battery, a pleasant canopied park at the peninsula’s southern tip filled with statues and old cannons. From the elevated walkway I looked down and watched the water of Charleston Harbor lap against the stony breakwater as the sun broke the clouds -where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet to form the Atlantic Ocean.
One can truly amble aimlessly around Charleston without a map, take hours but not go particularly far and never get lost. If you keep water to your right you will always end up at least reasonably close to where you began. So Lauren and I headed north along Bay Street past its tri-storied pastel and brick homes, all facing east over the flat expanse, and I imagined the view of incoming storms that would be seen from the upper windows. Each had plaques signifying the year the house was built, usually seventeen something. Coffee sipping residents looked up from newspapers and tablets and waved from the spacious side porches that sat mere feet away from those of their neighbors.
This was probably the most publicly open and closely-quartered prohibitively expensive area I had seen outside of Manhattan – none of the who-do-you-think-you-are Nimbyism, or half a mile driveways that so frequently exist in high income areas and prevent any sense whatsoever of community. If I ever have seven figures to spend on a house, which as a geographer is about as hypothetical as situations come, I would gladly give up the land and privacy and live in a place like this. A study showed that happiest people were those that had either enough money, though not an exorbitant amount, or had frequent random social interaction. Unfortunately these two do not mix very often.
I think back to a paragraph Eric Weiner wrote in The Geography of Bliss:
“The greatest source of happiness is other people – and what does money do? It isolates us from other people. It enable us to build walls, literal and figurative, around ourselves. We move from a teeming college dorm to an apartment to a house, and if we’re really wealthy, to an estate. We think we’re moving up, but really we’re walling off ourselves.”
I suppose it’s no surprise that Charleston has a stranglehold on the title of friendliest city in America. Money can buy happiness to a degree, but really, happiness is other people.
We continued past Rainbow Row, a half block of row houses, nearly identical to each other in all but color, ranging from federal blue to salmon to saffron. Next was the French Quarter which, risking redundancy, was equally fetching. It look a bit like Harleston Village except with thinner stone streets and French names. We cut back towards King on Laurens Street because it was called Laurens Street and was, not unlike the girl who suggested it, very pretty.
By evening we had ducked into an Oyster Bar somewhere on North King. Catching our eye was an oyster shooter at the bottom of the menu that featured vodka, tomato juice, a bunch of spices and a raw oyster to swim around in the concoction. For two dollars we had a rough time refusing it and when the server brought it over he said “good luck” or something equally nefarious.
It was like a tiny Bloody Mary with a gray ball of goo floating around, hovering mostly submerged but peeking its top above the surface like a slimy iceberg.
“I guess just down it goes?” I said and down they went. I couldn’t taste the oyster but that was remedied with the meal and we left no longer famished from the day’s walking.
We checked into a prohibition themed bar that had a New Orleans style jazz band playing on a stage in the back. It was dark and we had several gins and tonic made with their own tonic which was amber colored and gin was from somewhere relatively local. When the band went on a gin break themselves I got up to use the restroom and came back to find that an old man had taken the seat to Lauren’s right and they were talking about Macchu Picchu.
“I’m James,” he said sticking out his hand, “your wife was just telling me about your travels. It’s nice people your age still like to meet folks. I feel like everyone just keeps to themselves nowadays.”
He was short and white haired and looked like an archaeology professor. It turns out he was, a professor at least, though the gin has forbade me to recall which subject. I do remember that it was at UC Davis. He showed us more pictures from his trip to Peru.
“See, I can’t do that, keep to myself that is, since I travel everywhere alone” James said. He was in fact by himself in every one of the pictures.
“I’m sure you could get family or friends to go with you, no?” I asked.
“Well friends, a few of them, but I don’t have any family. I’m gay, after all.”
“Well why does that matter?” Lauren said and James laughed.
“When you’re my age it does. It’s just easier by myself.”
James was eighty something and had retired fifteen years prior after working years with full tenure at UC Davis and has been solo traveling the world for the better part of a decade, touching ground in every continent and U.S. State, though this was, surprisingly, his first time in Charleston. He was loving life, his own company, and that of strangers. We chatted for a good hour, at a louder octave now that the jazz band had started up again, mostly about travel but he also asked us a bunch about our wedding and future plans and the like. Eventually he got up and announced that he had a 6AM flight the next morning. It was going on eleven. He handed Lauren a business card.
“But think about it,” James said, “if you don’t get out there and talk to people, why leave the house?”
We left shortly afterward and learned that James had paid our bill. Once back to the apartment I looked at his card. It featured his full name and below it, the words El Jefe. There was an email address and a PO Box for Carmel-by-the-Sea and that was it. No company name or logos, just the previous info along with the picture of Andrew Jackson from the twenty dollar bill. Online searching brought up absolutely nothing for the name in or near any town listed for the PO Box. An interesting character this jefe.
We spent the week touring old homes, ferrying to Fort Sumter and visiting the barrier islands. Mornings and evenings were spent on the side-facing rockers nursing coffee and local beer respectively. Each day was well warmer than average for the low country winter and the trip slowed to a marvelous crawl.
We don’t normally do this, have a meal where the bill has three numbers before the decimal with the first one squiggly. When we do it is usually fairly underwhelming, paying more for the shape of the plate and the bowtie of the server than for the food itself. That said, Husk is the first and only lavish restaurant I have walked out of thinking I paid too little. Chicken skins don’t often exist in the same sphere as fine dining but they were outstanding. And the pimento cheese. Oh God, the pimento cheese. This was followed by an entrée of tilefish with root vegetables and mushroom consommé and was washed down with a cocktail made of gin and a bunch of herbal ingredients I had never heard of. Lauren’s scallops were, and I say this secondhanded, equally sublime. To avoid eating myself into a corner I won’t outright say that while I have had three meals a day for most of my thirty years, none have eclipsed the dinner I had at Husk in February of 2018, but the implication is there.
I would equally prefer to avoid superlatives about the city in general, but find myself unable to do so. At points I struggled to write this because of how much I enjoyed Charleston. Certainly I enjoy immensely just about everywhere I travel but nearly all trips since the beginning of time contain some variety of mishaps or contretemps. I felt I couldn’t convey any lighthearted misadventures or witty observations because these were honestly and truly lacking. Part of it I’m sure was the unseasonably warm and sunny weather we had, or the fact that we were set on not cramming too much into our time in the city after being guilty of doing that for our past several trips. And it didn’t hurt that we made a dinner reservation more than a week in advance for the first time in our adult lives.
Of course I realized that Charleston of the present isn’t representative of the entire state of South Carolina. There has been plenty of pain and struggling throughout the history of the state, and not everyone who has walked the streets of Charleston has done so with the privilege of free roam or the ability to splurge on a fish dinner. But, I can only give my personal perspective: When I think of South Carolina, I think of a sun drenched seventy degree wander along Meeting Street. I think of the scurrying birds on Sullivan’s Island or the pods of dolphins in the harbor. Cortados and federal colors, palmettos and gin. Where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet and form the Atlantic Ocean. I think of how I will most certainly be back.