We’ve driven across the country a few times now, as far east as NY, as far west as possible, as far south as the FL panhandle. Most of the time, it feels like we’re driving down the same street lined with the same mini-malls selling the same things. You see the same restaurants and the same stores. Sure, there are some regional variations: you won’t find a Dunkin’ Donuts in CA — they go for the mom-and-pop donut shops. McDonald’s and Walgreens and Walmart change their architecture from place to place, bowing to local regulations and restrictions, but go inside and you could be anywhere.
This monotony makes the exceptions stand out and shine. Even regional chain restaurants are exciting, not to mention regional food traditions and variations. And then there’s the architecture. I’ve fallen in love with Santa Fe and Taos, NM’s adobe buildings and desert style. I’ve come to notice things like the fact that Sedona, AZ, must have strict signage regulations, because McD’s doesn’t voluntarily forego a skyscraper sign and color their M teal anywhere else.
So I was all set up to fall in love with Charleston, SC. Charleston is like a living history museum, a demonstration that old doesn’t necessarily mean bad. In the past, strict regulations created interesting design features, like the grand and unexpected two-story side porches on homes with just a single door opening onto the street. Now that the majority of the downtown area is a National Historic Landmark, there are lots more restrictions on what can and can’t be done. There are restrictions on the smaller things, like colors — homes can only be painted certain, pre-selected colors. There are restrictions on the larger things, like building sizes. Even if there were empty lots in downtown Charleston, no new building can exceed the height of the tallest church steeple. And nothing on the historic register can be torn down. Add to that Charleston’s natural geographic limitations (the peninsula thing), and the opportunities for new buildings are extremely limited.
But there’s a problem with living in a museum. As Paul’s former coworker, Abby, said, “there are just no jobs here.” There’s no central business district, so there are no large businesses. There are tons of cute houses, but there are no jobs to provide the income to purchase and maintain these homes (a seriously expensive business). It seemed like one out of every four houses was for sale. There are lots of law offices, real estate offices, restaurants, shops, and small branches of larger banks and agencies, but there are no corporate headquarters. There are colleges and hospitals, there’s a port, there’s a military presence. But there are no big businesses, because big businesses take up big space. Just for fun, I checked out CareerBuilder for Charleston (jobs within five miles of downtown only). Of the 332 jobs posted for this area, about 10% were posted by temporary agencies. It’s a good place to be rich, but it’s a hard place to get rich.
Charleston also has a dark history, one that is hard to reconcile with the bright, colorful city. The Civil War started in Charleston. SC is the only state that was always a slave state. We learned that about half of all African Americans living in the US today are descended from slaves brought through Sullivan’s Island, outside Charleston. Only whites were allowed to vote in South Carolina’s Democratic primary until … 1947. 1947! Paul’s parents were born just after that. It’s easy to forget that all of this happened not that long ago. Charleston’s houses and the surrounding area’s plantations and forts are living witnesses to a major part of this country’s history, which isn’t all pretty. But Charleston…it’s so pretty. I can’t help but love it.