Well, probably at least two lousy posts. As you might have guessed, last month I took a trip to Charleston, South Carolina. It was four days of straight-up historic preservation and urban planning geekery, and I now have a final paper on historic districts and zoning and how the two struggle to manage growth in this historic city.
What do I mean, you ask? I’m so glad you did. Charleston has the distinction of being the first city to pass a Historic District Ordinance, in 1931. Faced with a crisis of historic building demolition in the wake of the Depression, and an economy destroyed by the Civil War, Charleston began to consider how they could preserve their precious historic resources and promote recovery at the same time. Land-use Zoning was still a very new concept at this time, but Charleston went at it full-force, creating a Board of Architectural Review (BAR) to review changes to building facades in the designated historic district. Since that time, the district has expanded, as has the power of the BAR, which now allows demolition to be delayed or prohibited, and changes to buildings and construction of new buildings to be subject to approval. The BAR is a powerful tool allowing Charleston to maintain its historic fabric while also continuing to be a “living” city.
In conjunction with this effort to preserve history, Charleston has developed an incredible tourism infrastructure that brings millions of visitors to the city every year. Tourists visit the historic city center and its well-maintained house museums, the aquarium and waterfront, and the old market where they peruse sweetgrass baskets and Lowcountry spice blends. They enter the city in massive tour buses, which stop at a depot adjacent to the Visitor Center — a former railroad station. In spite of its role as a popular tourist destination, the city feels sleepy and comfortable, perhaps because tourism planning has focused on keeping the crowds confined to small areas. A trip to Upper King Street one afternoon, for example, was blissfully tourist-free, in spite of the architectural gems throughout the entire neighborhood.
I also had some great food when I was there, and everywhere I went people were friendly and interested in my travels and my impression of Charleston. I went to Hank’s for a terrific bouillabaise, Fleet Landing for an out-of-this-world fried green tomato and blue crab salad (and a surprise conversation with my neighbor at the bar, who was also an historic preservationist!), some excellent simple food at FIG, a kickass shrimp and grits at my hotel restaurant, Circa 1886, a massive bowl of deep fried rock shrimp at Chai’s happy houra rocking parsnip and ham appetizer and cornbread bread pudding at SNOB, and the piece de resistance, she-crab soup and buttermilk pie at Hominy Grill (worth the walk, and the wait). Other highlights included Charleston Plantation Tea and its associated vodka by Firefly, and pralines from the Market.
In future posts I’d like to talk about acknowledging the legacy of slavery in the context of a tourist city, and also about the challenges of historic preservation for a “living city.” And since I want to share them but can’t think of anywhere else to put them, check out some pictures of cool old buildings below.