Is it possible to reconcile the pleasures of the Old South in the modern era? Charleston undergoes a new Reconstruction, reaching out for tourism in the age of woke
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
There is not so much a bright line separating Southern pride from a racist history, so much as a murky shadow where distinct boundaries are all but invisible, where principled positions are more intuited than inherent. Take down a statue of Robert E. Lee from a Dallas park in 2017? We can all get behind that. Protest the University of Virginia because founder Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner? Well, now you’re in a weirder area. If you boycott every destination with a less-than-pristine history of inclusiveness and social progressivism, then you’d basically have to back away from the entire American South… and North, and West, and England, and Rome, and the entire Middle East, and… well, I think there’s an ice floe in the Arctic Circle where nothing bad happened. Maybe.
Which poses a conundrum for a city like Charleston, S.C. Its harbor is the recognized launching point of the Civil War, when Fort Sumter was fired upon in April 1861, making its ties to the Confederacy inescapable. It’s also a vibrant city of the 21st century, populated by plenty of liberals (even gay ones!) who enjoy its climate, its culinary traditions, its age. So is it possible to reconcile one’s past with the present… and the future? Let’s hope so. (Texas was one of the Confederate States, too, after all.)
A visit to Charleston can (and should) be greeted as an opportunity to explore one of the most storied cities in America — a once-powerful economic juggernaut and cultural hub with an active gay community today — to learn about its history and reflect on it soberly, rather than judge it harshly out-of-hand. Yes, it is the location of the recent and notorious massacre at Mother Emmanuel Church and the horrific, racially-motivated police shooting of Walter Scott, but the area is also the home of Stephen Colbert, the Spoleto Festival, Gullah culture (including lowcountry cuisine) and some of the most exquisite antebellum architecture you’ll see in one place. If you dismiss Charleston, you dismiss a sizeable chunk of worthwhile enterprises with far-reaching legacies.
Located midway down the coast of South Carolina, intermediated between the raucous Spring Break destination of Myrtle Beach to the north and the lazy gentility of Savannah, Ga., to the south (Charleston, as someone once told me, “has a shorter skirt” than Savannah), the city sits on a peninsula buffeted from the Atlantic Ocean by a phalanx of barrier islands. The estuary of the Cooper and Ashley rivers forms the bay known as Charleston Harbor, which serves as a de facto gateway to the American past.
The past isn’t always pretty, of course. A still-popular marketplace of repurposed 18th century buildings never was a slave market, as legend sometimes holds, but there’s no denying that slavery was, for a time, a central driver of the local economy. But, typical of many coastal towns, Charleston has also long accepted diverse cultures and has been religiously tolerant (since the late 17th century, it has welcomed Jewish residents; its first synagogue was founded in 1749, and South Carolina was the first state to install a Jewish elected official).
That’s also true of the gay community. It’s Unity Church of Christ proudly welcomes gay congregants, while old-school Charleston society types like activist Linda Ketner (who, as an openly lesbian Democrat, ran in 2008 for Congress’ 1st District seat, near-missing with 48 percent of the vote) give queer visibility to the region, as do several gay bars — Club Pantheon is the HiNRG disco bar, while across the street, neighborhood hang Dudley’s is a center of socializing and drag shows that’s hoppin’ on a weekend night.
Still, the city’s complicated past is never far from the surface, and is best embraced head-on. Middleton Place, located about a half hour northwest from downtown, is a former plantation and site on the registry of National Historic Landmarks. It’s amazing grounds — once 7,000 productive acres, it’s now preserved as 100 acres of a living museum; it still holds livestock and farmworkers, as well as historical reenactors). Docents can tour you through the main restored buildings, or you can wander its curtilage and well-manicured gardens and old-growth trees dripping with Spanish moss. An anthropologic initiative unearthed details of the 3,000 enslaved men and women who worked the plantation (about 150 at any given time), and an exhibit of its slave history is a necessary stop. (There are also overnight accommodations at the inn for those who wish to explore in more depth.)
History is inescapable in Charleston, even in the city center. Visit the century-old Gibbes Museum of Art in the French Quarter, or roam the streets of the Battery (especially Rainbow Row) on your own (King Street is a popular high-end shopping district); be sure to stop into City Market along Meeting Street, four blocks of 18th century buildings that now serve as vendor booths for all kinds of tchotchkes and whatsits, as well as some unique snacks and charming local crafts. For a more structured and informative experience, sign up for a walking tour or horse-drawn carriage tour. Old South Carriage Co. is one of several relaxing rides around downtown that has updated its look for the current climate. The previous uniforms of the drivers included a French kepi-style forage cap of Johnny Reb; that has been replaced by a wide-brimmed boater less evocative of the Confederacy (still, the gray suit with red sash remains). The rides are informative and fun — learning about the city’s past is illuminating. And touring the amazing architecture is its own reward — verandahs peppered with rocking chairs and pitchers of iced tea overlook moss-covered centuries-old live oaks.
For a faster frolic around the area, Coastal Expeditions offers high-speed boat tours through Charleston Harbor, that bring you within shooting distance of Fort Sumter, Sullivan’s Island and the low-lying marshes of the environs.
Southern charm has currency in this city, and there’s no more charming home base than Belmond Charleston Place. Although undeniably a large hotel (more than 400 rooms) with a mixed-use concept that includes high-end boutiques and salons, its courtyard entrance oozes discreet elegance; the lobby then welcomes you with its grandeur (dual staircase and an amazing chandelier). The club level — a key-card-only access floor — serves complimentary continental breakfast, afternoon tea, evening apps and a full bar. Stop in for a treatment — facial, manicure, massage, you name it — at the luxurious Spa at Belmond, which also boasts a full-sized enclosed swimming pool.
Its fine-dining restaurant, Charleston Grill, makes for an easy and rewarding celebratory dinner. Chef Michelle Weaver has divided the menu into paired categories: Roots & Stems, Waves & Marsh and Field & Pasture (as well as the Social & Shared to lubricate a social gathering). You can mix-and-match dishes from each category to tailor your own culinary experience; the Bourbon-blackberry foie gras and Colorado lamb chops with mint chimichurri are surefire hits for discerning carnivores, as are the tartare and mini crab cakes.
Charleston is a foodie city by any standard, and a cornucopia of inviting aromas waft along the winds: pralines, barbecue and especially lowcountry cuisine, named for the area of Carolina and stretching down the Georgia coast where essentials of soul food (blackeyed peas, shrimp and grits, pork and okra) got their earliest expression in the New World, the foodstuffs of West Africa imported during the slave trade.
As its name suggests, Hominy Grill is a breakfast destination for lowcountry flavors, especially shrimp and grits (natch) but also its famed “nasty biscuit” in a down-home setting … literally: It’s housed in a converted family residence. On East Bay Street, stop by for lunch or dinner at Magnolias Uptown Down South, where chef Kelly Franz whizzes together breathtaking dishes like a Gullah take on bouillabaisse (chock full of scallops, mussels, okra and grilled bread) and the most refined fried green tomatoes you’ll ever taste (strips of country ham and onion chutney seal the deal).
Oyster bars are common here, though oysters are hardly the only draw. Leon’s Oyster Shop is a buzzy hang, with good cocktails and specialties like whole fried fish as well as the necessary po’ boy. And Darling Oyster Bar is an inescapable brunch destination, not just for its smoked salmon benedict and raw bar, but The Captain — a massive bloody mary garnished with hush puppies and a king crab leg. It’s intoxicating in multitudinous ways.
Lone Star State loyalists should make the effort to pay a visit to Lewis Barbecue, where a transplanted Texan brings the joys of smoked brisket to a region that considers “barbecue” to be pulled pork in a mustard sauce. Pitmaster John Lewis and company serve up prime beef, pork ribs and hot links to rival any Hill Country smokehouse — further evidence that even a city as old and settled as Charleston continues to progress and learn. █