CHARLESTON, S.C. – Fort Sumter, the scene of the first battle of the Civil War, riding low on the horizon in the harbor, is upstaged as a container-laden freighter heads for open sea.
Charleston is truly a historic city – also known for its minor but lasting cultural contributions, including the whimsy of the 1920s dance craze and the ornate bench that bears its name.
Its downtown is a fantasy of perfectly maintained and restored 17th, 18th and 19th century houses and buildings that shames anything Disney could concoct.
It and the surrounding area are growing exponentially.
Which makes it like much of the South.
But not every place has pluff mud and she-crab soup.
The former is the stinky mud that has been described as the “mother sauce of all things Lowcountry.” The latter is a delicacy that was not known to us till we took our anniversary trip.
Pluff is the South Carolina equivalent of the incredibly rich gumbo soil of the Mississippi Delta.
In Mississippi, the native music is called the blues. In the marshy islands and coast of South Carolina and Georgia, Gullah, is striving reach out and make a musical place for itself in the 21st century.
The palmetto tree is the symbol for South Carolina, and, with a crescent moon, is on the indigo background of the state flag. In Mississippi, the magnolia gives the state its name, and was, on then off its flag. Today its banner retains a Confederate battle flag in one corner, symbolizing secession from the Union, following closely South Carolina’s decision to be first.
There is a bounty of restaurants in this city. An Uber driver said, “You’d be hard-pressed to find a bad one.” We started out with a long list of recommendations from family and friends, chose some from the list and found some on our own, finally deciding that we couldn’t go wrong.
Our official 40th anniversary dinner was at Hank’s, which we chose because that is the name of our friend who introduced us, and the fact that the name of the street it is on is very close to his last name. Our poetic, sentimental choice was confirmed because Hank’s had been chosen the best seafood restaurant in the city for 17 straight years.
I had the baked grouper, a signature dish according to our waiter, and my wife chose oysters on the shell, a salad and, of course, she-
This is Pat Conroy country, just as Mississippi is Willie Morris country. Both were literary hosts for their respective states, though not always putting a smiling face on their stomping grounds.
Conroy’s “The Lords of Discipline” is his fictionalized version of his years at The Citadel, in which he took the institution to task, though he and the school made up years later.
An unofficial slogan for the city might be “a clean New Orleans,” said sotto voce with a turn of the head to see if anyone is eavesdropping.
It is not fair to compare downtown Charleston teeming with tourists with Jackson’s, but it’s what Jackson – or for that matter probably any Southern city or town of any size – aspires to, at least in its dreams.
With its single-houses — two- and three-story, one-room wide, like a beautified shotgun house on steroids — Rainbow Row on the Battery looking out on the harbor, its churches (it was known as the Holy City for its French Huguenot, Anglican, Baptist spires) it is an unreal city, an embarrassment of elegant, palmetto-lined history.
And not so elegant. The slave trade is commemorated in the Old Slave Mart Museum, one of the enclosed places where the sale of humans was carried out after the city banned the public spectacle.
Charleston is home to Catfish Row, the fictional setting for George and Ira Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” based on Charlestonian DuBose Heyward’s novel, “Porgy” and the play adaptation by Heyward and his wife, Dorothy Heyward.
On a walking tour of downtown, our guide pointed out that DuBose Heyward wrote the novel above a kitchen in a building behind one of the single-houses that dominate the architecture.
And across the street is an alley called “Catfish Row,” which had been a ramshackle tenement that was the setting for the play.
A brass marker hangs above the entry to the tunnel that leads to a gate and some nice brick apartments.
We visited the city during the first week of May, probably the last cool weather before the steamy summer, which people were already anticipating with resignation.
One almost expects to hear a cast member tuning up to sing “Summertime,” which transcends the setting and city and will be forever heard around the world.
A lullaby, its lyrics are as sad as they are beautiful, as they paint a painfully unattainable life for the denizens of Catfish Row.
The characters are Gullah, whose dialect has maintained its lilting West African sound and can be heard today on the streets of Charleston.
One place to hear it is in the City Market, where weavers of sweetgrass baskets do business. One weaver’s baskets ranged from cupcake size at $70 to a large ornate creation offered at $7,000.
“Am I reading this wrong?” I asked the lady. She smiled and said, “No. They never go out of style but they always go up in price.” She said we could talk about the price, but we smiled and went our way.
Gullah is on display at the Boone Hall Plantation, a short drive from town, where brick slave cabins have been preserved.
There we saw delightful and poignant show of the culture, including coded spirituals for communicating, including plans to escape.
Tourism is big business in Charleston. Our guide, Martha Middleton Wallace, an archeologist and a 13th generation Charlestonian whose first ancestor was a founder in 1670, said the industry means billions for the city.
Tourism goes with the Mercedes-Benz and Boeing 747 Dreamliner assembly plants, soon to be joined by a Volvo plant, and Air Force Base and its 22,000 jobs and 13,000 at the Medical University for South Carolina for the city of 134,000 and metropolitan statistical area (MSA) of 761,000.
Its MSA median household income in 2016 was $57,480 almost matching the nation’s, $57,617.
A generation ago, one could buy a piece of Charleston for a song, but not anymore, said guide Martha Middleton Wallace.
After 150 years of economic struggle – overcoming post-Civil War collapse, conflagrations, hurricanes and major earthquakes — “we’re back on top,” she said.
» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at email@example.com or (601) 364-1016.
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