Charleston is booming. We can see why. Set on a peninsula at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, there is a lot of waterfront to walk, seafood to sample, dolphins pods to follow, sailboats to dream about, and parks, cemeteries and gardens to wander through. Although thoroughly charming, it is not provincial like Savannah; it feels like a real city with a downtown, filled with workers and tourists all vying for seats at noon in the top restaurants. The downtown is bordered by historic residential areas so the parking is impossible of course, but the “lowcountry” vantage makes it perfect for walking or taking a tour by horse and carriage. We ambled around following the “Horse Poop Trail”, listening in on some of the driver stories. The horses wear BIG bags so there is no danger of stepping in it really, just that wafting grassy odor that is like perfume to me.
There are also delightful, narrow pedestrian alleyways like Latitude Lane. We loved it when the local middle school kids crammed into it with us and fought for “facetime” in front of the camera. Although there have been only 3 hurricanes here in 300 years, Hugo in 1989 was devastating. None of that is evident now, although some of the original buried town walls in the Battery are visible now.
We sampled some fine restaurants as several family members are in the food industry here and know the lay of the land. Our favorite was the tiny Bon Bahn Mi, a Vietnamese “salad/taco/sandwich” place with yummy lemongrass chicken and red curry short rib toppings. We also have enjoyed 2 visits with the Tango community here, and as we have come to expect in lowcountry, a relaxed and very friendly group they are. Nearby is the oldest City Hall in the country made with pink marble. Also this City hosts the annual Spoleto Festival, May 24th this year for 17 days. The largest arts and opera festival in the nation, it has introduced the talents of young Renee Fleming and Yo Yo Ma among others. The Dock Street Theatre was built in 1736; community and repertory productions are plentiful, affordable, and sophisticated here.
The City has had one very effective mayor Joe Riley for over 30 years keeping the sprawl in control. Traffic is intense when navigating bridges off the peninsula and other islands. Yet the country feel is maintained, partly by growth restrictions that limit buildings to 3 stories to allow views of the dramatic steeples, and by keeping commute roads narrow so the trees form a lush canopy over you…a slow commute, but a pretty one. Unfortunately the most dangerous driving we have seen in 6 months of cross country travel has created some near misses for us with reckless daredevils in and around this city. Five years ago, a James Beard Awarded young chef in the family and his wife were hit head on by a drunk driver on a bridge here; Brett was killed and his wife Jill (General Manager, “High Cotton Restaurant”) had her feet crushed. A 10 year sentence for the perp does not come close to mitigating the enormous loss to Brett’s family and the community.
Due to the French Huguenot influence, there is a feel of New Orleans here, except the gorgeous old houses and inviting gardens are set all around you in the downtown area, called the “French Quarter”. It is a casual, elegant city and if I could stand the summer heat, bugs and humidity, I would consider it to be another perfect city for retirement, and less expensive than San Francisco, the standard bearer of livable big cities for cool weather lovers.
Charleston was the largest Jewish center in the U.S. until New York became the center during WWII. We saw a wonderful community theatre piece called, “The Whipping Man”. It is a story about a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier who comes home after the war to find two freed Jewish slaves who worked for his father. They need to depend on each other for survival, but ugly truths surprise them all, erupting at a Passover seder dinner. There are 11 full season community theatre companies in Charleston and a wealth of talent so the production values are very high. We miss our Shotgun Theatre subscriptions in Berkeley, but are enjoying the Southern version here in Charleston.
Now to the explanation about the featured image. This slick graphic is this very political city’s call to arms to fight the cruise industry invasion of the port here. The heavy diesel used by the ships creates havoc with the marine environment. The Carnival Cruise Line’s iconic “whale tail” smokestack in the graphic specifically targets the company that owns most of the cruise ships that visit here. Such a stylized and elegant logo seen all over town….maybe my brother who is a Senior Physician for Carnival Cruise Line will also appreciate it, at least as ‘Protest Art’.