Come hell, high water and even reality TV, Charleston survives

  • Tuesday, October 1, 2013

There’s no denying that visitors to Charleston embrace all that the Holy City has to offer: its grandeur and allure, its antiquity, the arts district and restaurants with our James Beard award winning chefs. Yet packed horse drawn carriage tours narrated with tantalizing tales of Charleston’s lurid past are indicative that visitors relish the dark side as well.

Natives and tourists alike bask in the eerie glow of lamp-lights as the guided tours clomp the pavers, spinning tantalizing tales of pirates, murderers, slavery, gallows, folklore, cannons and ruins. The conclusion would have to be that the blend of holy and unholy is what makes Charleston No. 1.

It didn’t surprise me when I heard that the new Bravo produced reality show “Southern Charm” has entered through the back door of the Holy City to capitalize on the Conde Naste generated tide of tourist. With recognition comes growth: new bridges and roads, city beautification, widening river channels, cruise lines vying for ports and larger corporations glance our way. And yes, movie cameras.

Charleston cringes as if responding to nails on a blackboard, painfully aware of what reality shows are. In the guise of reality, these shows eventually go south (pun intended) as they lance wounds of the past and expose the underbellies of it’s weak prey, vampirically drinking them dry before moving on to another venue. The wheels are already in motion, yet they squeak with concerns. Needlessly.

One day last spring, I walked the streets of Charleston. It was a beautiful, pleasant spring day. A carriage passed by me, brimming with pamphlet clutching, binoculared tourist. Some leaned and bobbed with cameras trying to catch quick shots of alleys and courtyards as their guide mules clomped by at a quick pace. The mules were obviously aware that they were on the last leg of the jaunt, carrots awaiting.

I tried to envision what they were able to take in within the time span it took them to pass. I viewed the streets with tourist eyes. What speaks to them as they stroll and wheel by in carriages and trolleys? Stately court yards? Cobblestone streets? Avatar worthy oaks dripping with moss tendrils? Meridional architecture fronted with floral laden window boxes?

I lift my tourist glasses to look beyond the obvious. Wisteria and Ivy cling to the colonial brick buildings, concealing its pain. Beneath the heady scented vines and buzzing bees lie jagged scars etched in brick and mortar from the devastating earthquake in 1886. Oddly strewn crosses, disc and S shaped iron works adorn the fronts and sides of the building. Earthquake re-enforcing rods. A scant 23 years earlier cannon balls of the Civil War crumbled the city as well. Not to mention the siege by the British which held Charleston hostage for two years in 1780 or the catastrophic 20th century Hurricane Hugo.

Charleston is revered because of its tenacity, its re-invention, its roots that erupt through the cobblestone to climb the walls of centuries old buildings and then bud them with the heady blossoms of wisteria and jasmine. The scars of Charleston’s past will forever pave its future.

The allure is both of joy and pain and its ability to live with both as a city. My guess is that there isn’t nor will there ever be a reality show that could conjure up any new revelations about Charleston’s past than what the city deals with on a regular basis. One need not go much farther past the slave market or plantation tours to realize that we don’t have a whole lot of skeletons rattling in our closets.

I remember going to New Orleans, another city with controversial history. While marveling at the beautiful portico’s, window boxes and iron works, I secretly whispered to another tourist about what I glimpsed while passing a Voodoo parlor. I lingered too long admiring the quirkiness of a Tarot house and pretended to shield my eyes as pimps pulled up alongside the curbs to talk to their girls? I experimented with strange food and felt oddly different after I ate wild gator, rattlesnake and frog legs. Whether it is here, Savannah, Ga., New Orleans or the Sphinx in Egypt, my ears are always tickled by the flip side of society.

A friend described a carriage tour she went on while visiting friends in Charleston. “The guide was graphically describing the architecture and history of one of its many fine homes when police cars with sirens and blue lights flashing ascended to an altercation on one of the tour’s adjacent “not on your yguide tour list” streets next to them. As the crowds gathered, the guide continued on but the whole carriage group left him for the exciting real life drama unfolding to their right.”

Promenaded by hundreds of thousands of people annually, Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter and the Battery lie serenely as the Atlantic licks nearby. Its quiet cannons, silent reminders of war and siege. The slave markets house wares of our blended society, yet cry out its former existence. We humbly, unquestionably buy Sweetgrass baskets from the ladies at their stands.

At night, we grace the halls of the Dock Street Theatre, eat and drink in the award-winning establishments, relish the fanning palmettos and breeze, linger at shop windows displaying magnificent art and finally relax in a city who has come to terms with itself.

Charleston is so much more than the few square miles of historic district. I feel the pride of its resistance and the inertia of its resurgence in its outlying communities as well: standing under the Angel Oak, laughing at the many faces of the Folly River Boat, spying for a quick glimpse of the humongous Dreamliner while passing the Boeing plant, watching formerly abandoned buildings around the city re-gift us with entrepreneurial ventures.

I get plum giddy thinking and watching Charleston dip its toes into industries formerly allocated to larger cities. such as the technical visionary inaugural company of Dig South transitioning itself to forward Charleston in many aspects for entrepreneurial activity and commerce here.

Eyes were turned toward Charleston during its fashion week. Music, arts, festivals and plays leave no lack of want of something to do.

And when I don’t want to do anything. Well, I just go kick up some sand on a small stretch of beach. I don’t have to be connected to the streets downtown to feel its historical roots beneath me in our outlying neighborhoods, our schools and establishments.

So given the natural and unnatural disasters that the city has withstood, I view its damage from a reality show akin to a flea bite on a River Dog. We are about as much as what you left us with as we are what we were before you came. We will be better off despite you or because of you. What’s the worse that can happen? They take a floorboard full of sand back with them?

There are constants and when the tents fold and the director calls it a wrap and folds his chair, I will still marvel as I ascend the beautiful bridge. I will look to the left or right and see the visible signs that I still live in a small city. Thank God for those building ordinances put in place years ago which have helped us abstain from high rises. I will still be able to hobble the cobble on a gas lantern lit ancient city street as St. Michael’s Church bells chime melodically. I’ll picnic at Marion Square and my relatives’ will still come to visit,

The orange barrels will slowly dissipate and be replaced with beautiful Palmettos, Crepe Myrtle and Magnolia trees. The town criers will leave the corners just as they came. Fear and fanaticism will subside and Charleston will do as it always has: Move along, slow like the Edisto and tenacious as the Atlantic. All is well, Charleston, all is well.


And contrary to popular belief piddlin’ is not always leisure time. Piddlin’ can be anything from bush-hogging a field to snapping a bushel basket of green beans on the front porch. Visit Renae Brabham’s website at www.renaebrabham.com.

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