As I've written elsewhere, my childhood in New York was punctuated by regular car trips to Savannah, Georgia and to Charleston to visit my mom's family. I remember quite a bit about those visits to Savannah, in part because of the city and in part due to the quirkiness of my relatives. But of Charleson I could recall little. So when I spent a weekend in Atlanta at a cousin's wedding, I decided it was time to wangle an invitation from my cousin Jane to see the place named as the most gracious city in America.
What I found is that Charleston deserves that honor, in addition to being
among the most beautiful and both historically and culturally interesting
cities in the world. And if you don't believe it, just ask the locals;
they'll be happy to confirm Charleston's position at the center of the
universe. They'll mean it too, even as they smile at their own
presumption. I don't recall being anywhere
else where people managed to have their noses in the air and their tongues
in their cheek at one and the same time. But a lot of Charleston humor
derives from their exaggerated sense of importance. This is God's country
and its citizens are the luckiest people on Earth.
The houses above are both nineteenth century. You can tell by their size
(the prerevolutionary homes were a bit smaller) and their location on the
riverfront. But they do have the important characteristic of the
traditional Charleston home: the long veranda to catch a
breeze in those benighted days before air conditioning.
(After too many years in California I'd forgotten what hot and humid are
gardens are tucked away into odd corners or down alleyways; without a guide
you'd miss the best parts. I particularly like the sample on the right.
Where else would you find a garden patterned after the owner's favorite
pair of socks?
Wandering around downtown is quite an experience. A remarkable amount of
prerevolutionary and antebellum Charleston has survived the wars, fires,
hurricanes, at least one major earthquake and the odd military action.
There are way too many churches
for a city this size, running from the more modest structures of the early
and middle eighteenth century to the rather flashier numbers of the
nineteenth. They serve to give Charleston its nickname as The Holy City.
I guess having something like a hundred houses of
worship within a few blocks of downtown does make you feel
a little closer to the almighty than the rest of us. (No, not
He isn't God, although he might be one of his older relations.)
Charleston's preservation of its history is as much a happy accident as
it is a product of wise decision-making. Following the Civil War, the
city's fortunes went into something of decline. And no money meant no
ability to tear down the old and replace it with something modern and
wonderful as they keep doing in Atlanta. (That was sarcasm, in case it
wasn't obvious.) The preservation efforts really began in the 1920s,
when people began to realize that what they had matters. One side
benefit of this protective attitude is that Charleston is a grand place
for filming revolutionary dramas. Throw some dirt on the road, move the
cars and the parking regulation signs and you have a remarkably authentic
movie set. What must it be like to live with so much history?
One of those responsible for recognizing the value of Charleston's
architectural heritage (gee, I love using phrases like that!) was
DeBose Hayward, a poet and writer who is best known as the creator of
& Bess. The building at left is Cabbage Row, which Hayward
called Catfish Row and made the setting of his novel. Porgy was based
on a real local character named Goat Cart Sam, whose life was easily
as interesting as the character he inspired. There was even a Bess of
sorts, although Hayward didn't know it. As for Cabbage/Catfish Row,
it's just an anonymous (and, when I passed, vacant) storefront among
many along a tree shaded street justly known as Rainbow Row.
The row of shops at right is more interesting to me because it represents
a kind of connection to history I can only imagine. Along this row are
a pair of restaurants called
Aaron's Deli and Hyman's Seafood.
Aaron and Eli Hyman are brothers; their restaurants occupy a building that's
been in their family for more than a century. Hyman's is more popular with
tourists than with locals, which is the locals' loss. In addition to the
quality of the service and the food (I admit to being a sucker for Southern
cooking), I had the honor of eating at a table occupied by Mel Gibson during
the filming of The Patriot. And how much is an experience like that worth?
Charleston is of course famous as the setting for the shots that began the Civil War, referred to by some of the locals as The War of Northern Aggression or (my personal favorite) The Recent Unpleasantness. Those first shots were fired on Fort Sumter, a small island fort that still bears the results of the thirty-six hours of shelling it received before the Union forces surrendered. In the picture at left you can see one of the shells from that barrage, still embedded in the wall where it landed.
One fact I hadn't known until my visit: that
the first casualties of the war came here. But not because of the shelling.
Instead, it happened during the hundred gun salute the Confederates permitted
during the lowering of the American flag after the surrender. Shot number
forty-seven went off prematurely because of some unburned powder in the
cannon. One soldier was killed outright; a second died from injuries in
the blast. History is never as clean as we're taught in school. But far
To me, one of the more fascinating aspects of the Civil War is the weird combination of advanced and primitive technology employed by the combatants. A prime example appears at right: the C.S.S Hunley, the world's first more or less practical military submarine. This is a replica that graces the entrance to the Charleston Museum; the real Hunley was recovered from the Atlantic a few miles outside Charleston harbor in August of 2000, nearly 150 years after its crew set sail into history. Set sail only figuratively; this vessel's motive power was provided by her crew operating a hand cranked propeller.
The Hunley epitomizes the determination of those fighting the war to
do incredible things with stone-knife-and-bearskin technology. Crewed
by a captain and eight sailors, she was powered by hand and lit by
candles and could stay submerged only as long as those inside could
keep from passing out. Despite everything, she managed to score a
victory before disappearing into history: sinking the Housatonic, part
of the Union fleet blockading Charleston. One can only imagine the
shock aboard the Housatonic when they first saw this metal monster
inching its way toward them from just below the surface.
I must have visited Charleston a dozen times growing up; we'd generally
stop to visit my aunt on our way to my mother's other family in
Savannah. What's shocking is
how little I remember of the city from those earlier trips. About the
only thing I do remember is our entrance to the city over the Cooper
River Bridge. That's the newer bridge in the picture; you can just
barely make out the original span in the distance. This is a bridge to
gladden the heart of any child, as it rises two hundred feet over the
water below and swoops up and down like a straight and somewhat tame
roller coaster. As an adult I can only admire my father's intestinal
fortitude to have used this bridge so many times over the years.
My one time driving over it convinces me that its
designers must have had motorcycles in mind. Or maybe horses, but
certainly nothing so wide
as a modern automobile. Forget Confederate artillery; this is my idea of
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California