Charleston is a fascinating city. It has a big imprint of very old buildings; it was one of the very few relatively large cities in the South prior to 1860. (In the 1860 census, New Orleans, Charleston, and Richmond were the only Southern cities in the top 25 by population in the United States.) Charleston stood relatively still for the next hundred and some years. More recently, Joseph Riley was mayor of Charleston from 1975 to 2016 and managed one of the great American city reinventions in our era. Riley espoused civil rights and for Charleston to reinvent itself with tourism and higher education. Charleston in the 1970’s I imagine was a stuffy place, just a little too Southern. Its architecture was like nowhere else in the world and its society was so conservative that unlike other places (like my father’s hometown of Norfolk), relatively little got torn down in 1960’s “redevelopment.” Charleston had always had unique food but it was served mostly in private homes and clubs. Now in 2018 it is one of the top restaurant destinations in America. Unlike Catholic Savanna and New Orleans, Charleston traditionally was Protestant and certainly not known as a festive place. Its motto was “City of Churches.” It had always been military friendly; local hotheads started the Civil War! Now people are coming from all over the world just to BE in Charleston. Someone told me it is where Republicans go to party. Its biggest problem now is its success. People who buy houses here are often so rich that they rarely live in them, and the houses sit empty, with their porch lights on. Is there room left for the locals?
Tootie and I have been to Charleston four or five times in the past thirty years and we agreed that we had seen Charleston; it was not first on our list of destinations for a weekend getaway. However, I had cabin fever following almost two weeks of sub-freezing temperatures, and I plotted for a reason to drive by myself down to Charleston for twenty-eight hours.
I drove the four hours from Chapel Hill and parked thirty miles out of Charleston near the town of Summerville, of course in a Walmart parking lot.
My plan was to bicycle from the Walmart to downtown, spend the night and ride back the next day.
The Charleston area actually got more snow in this blizzard than Chapel Hill, and even though it was sixty-five degrees outside there was still snow on the ground in places, and even in the streets.
While Charleston is generally beautiful many of its suburbs look really awful. Summerville was an exception, it was built as a summer resort for people from Charleston.
I would be heading into town on state route 61, along the southern shore of the Ashley River through the town of Ashley Forest. To get there, for about five miles there was a nice bike path along some kind of drainage canal. Note the snow melting on the right.
Further on I arrived at the crossroads for state route 61. The enumeration seemed romantic, even if the Dylan song is about US 61 in Mississippi!
While the two lane road winds through about twenty miles of woods and swamps, it was too narrow, with no shoulder and too much SUV and pickup truck traffic. As a bicyclist I did not feel safe. There was not much to do but press on. There were live oaks and Spanish moss everywhere. I passed the entrances to several large plantations, two of which claimed to still be in the hands of the original owners from the 1700’s. I wonder how families can hold onto so much land in 2018, so close to a major city.
I stopped for a latte at Charleston Coffee Exchange in a strip mall. I do compliment the developers, they have lots of native trees growing in the grocery store parking lot.
Back on the bicycle I pressed on through ugly suburbs with the occasional interesting tidbit.
Crossing over the Ashley River bridge, I was deposited me in a poor neighborhood of Charleston proper. Charleston is on a peninsula, pretty much limiting its core city to a small defined area. The most prosperous areas are the southern parts of the peninsula, the poorest and traditionally African-American areas are to the north. These more northern areas seem to be gentrifying or have already done so.
When you actually get inside the city of Charleston the eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture is impressive. On previous trips I had seen Charleston’s singular use of a fake front door, blocking public view of a side porch. The porches almost always open to the south or west, to catch prevailing breezes in the hot summers. I had seen these doors in the wealthy neighborhoods south of Broad Street. Now I know these doors are all over the city, including these smaller houses in more recently gentrified areas.
In the smaller houses in the northern neighborhoods just shown, I find out on Trulia that they can sell for upwards of $600,000.00.
South of Broad, houses now cost in multiple millions of dollars. Charleston is becoming La-La-Land.
Charleston is a great city to noodle around on a bicycle. Nationally, something like eighty percent of urban bicyclists are male. Most experts think this is because men are more likely to be risk takers. To me and several others a good indicator of the health of a bicycling culture in a city is the sight of women riding bicycles without a helmet. It indicates that bicycling feels safe. In these transitional neighborhoods near College of Charleston I saw this in spades.
I still did not have anywhere to stay that night. I sat on a bus stop bench and cruised hotels.com on my phone. I found a room for not much more than a hundred dollars at the Francis Marion, a large red brick 1924 hotel that I remember from previous trips as being closed and abandoned. It is fixed up quite nicely now. This was the view from the eleventh floor at dusk, looking south down King Street.
For dinner I sat at the counter of Stella’s, a relatively new Greek restaurant a couple of blocks from the hotel. The two young women sitting next to me were discussing how air fares to Aruba this spring are really low. After those two women departed, a young couple took their seats and were discussing their experiences with travel to Nepal. It felt like a different planet from the Walmart back in Summerville where I started the bike ride earlier that day. I worry about the divisions in this country.
I biked back to Summerville the next day. I saw more parts of the north end of the Charleston peninsula.
After I left the peninsula that comprises the older city of Charleston I bicycled through a much larger area, about ten miles of continuous unattractive and poor to lower middle class neighborhoods in mostly what is called North Charleston.
The last five miles into Summerville were on this narrow highway, not the most pleasant bike ride.