Charleston, SC Lacks A Soul and Backbone

By Mark A. Leon

The headlines read, “the end of an era” and “progress is upon us”.  We have heard those words time and time again over the last two years as more and more legacy businesses have fallen.

This week we learned that on the day a major developer signed the paper work to take over the property of the James Island Carmike Cinema, the theater was closed and all staff were immediately out of jobsSeveral companies invested $100M into two apartment developments on Upper King and Spring continuing the expansion North.  Nearly $50M has been invested into seven new area storage facilitiesThe cost of living in Charleston, SC is 31% ahead of the national average and 51% above of the remainder of South Carolina.  Is this growth and pace healthy?

Yet with the hundreds of millions of dollars put into the “progress” of the city, the average Charleston driver is spending $1850 annually on car repairs due to bad roads.

At the end of the day, the definition of progress in Charleston is simple:  Bring in tourists and revenue and put your own citizens in the corner to suffer.  That is where the lack of passion and soul comes to the forefront.  We have elected officials that we have chosen to represent us and council meetings that hear requests for zoning modifications and approvals monthly.  How many step up and force the hand of our elected officials and say “Stop, we have had enough”?  Power in numbers is what drives change and we just aren’t there.  We have a responsibility to let our voice be heard and in numbers.  Off the cuff comments and unsubstantiated gripes on social while we hide behind our smartphones and desktops will not ignite change.

I recently spent time in Southern California and Lower Manhattan and experienced two vibrant cultures showered in individual expressiveness, warmth and an edgy, yet relaxed sense of comfort.  Two places basking in the arts and culture, fired by the loins to take-action and fulfilled with a sense of community support.  Both these areas have tourism boards and self-proclaimed proponents of the amenities they offer, yet the one element they lack is the in your face bragging that has saturated the Charleston culture.

In a recent Travel & Leisure piece naming the top 100 restaurants in the world, not one Charleston restaurant made the list, yet we prominently brag of our dominance in the foodie world.  It is evident based on the percentage of visual posts on social dedicated exclusively to food.  Chefs are celebrities and the prominent wealthy will drop hundreds to say they experienced what is claimed to be the best.

While at the same time, an entire tent city of homeless is wiped out.

Also, when we make it on some digital or print publication’s top list, regardless of whether we are 15, 33, 45 or 80, it is a moment of celebration.  I’ve often questioned, at what level on a list is a city worthy of celebration.  Then again, do we need to celebrate or can we take comfort in knowing we earned something special?

We claim to have the best Southern chefs in the country; the most promising BBQ scene around and the most creative menus this side of the Mason Dixon.  Yet we lack diversity in food in every sense of the word on the peninsula.  How many Vietnamese, Malaysian, Korean, Dutch, Brazilian or Peruvian themed restaurants are on the peninsula?

Let us move away from the food topic for just a moment, away from the numerous pop up companies promoting tee-shirts, hats, towels, blankets, Instagram accounts and anything that regards Charleston as “Heaven” and focus on the soul of this city.

Without the benefit of chatter trends, it is clear many have openly vocalized their distaste for increased traffic issues (with the supporters sticking to “It’s far worse in New York, San Francisco and Chicago), population growth and cost of living tsunami that has hit Charleston in the last five years.  Yet, how many attend the zoning ordinance meetings that vote on approval of all this new construction?

We want Charleston to remain quiet, historic and full of its “Southern Charm”, yet we don’t use the voice we are given when we elect our city and county officials.

For those of you that have ever been involved in a protest, it has value.  It is a collective public voice promoting change.  Its core values date back thousands of years and it has served to ignite some of the most important movements in history.  It fuels the engine of process.  How many protests have you witnessed in your lifetime in Charleston?  For those that are going to say the Unity Walk for Mother Emanuel or the Woman’s March, those were events of solidarity and unity, not protests for change.  The Charleston Five was a protest and that set a fire that carried all the way to Columbia.

I would like to shift gears once more and look at priorities in Charleston.  These are the top priorities as I see them from monitoring trends online:

  • Restaurants
  • Beaches
  • Windows and architecture
  • Festivals
  • Drinking (We do have the #1 seller of PBR in the US and as many breweries as shopping centers)
  • Dogs
  • Shopping

I welcome the debate, but I don’t see the following as high priorities

  • Education
  • Cost of Living
  • Roads and infrastructure concerns
  • Career opportunities and growth
  • Public safety
  • Flooding

In fact, we turn our heads to negative as if it doesn’t exist.

At the blink of an eye, we are missing a community that is ready to explode with a creative renaissance and a thirst to promote change in conservationism, the arts, homeless support, coastal restoration and technology.  From the thriving theatre district that struggles to fill shows outside the spotlight of Spoleto to the incredible work being done for sea turtle rehabilitation and dog rescue to a poetry scene that has elements of Greenwich Village in the 1960’s when singers, poets and activists united.

Charleston wants to show the world that we care about our planet and all its creatures, have a creative force that could compete worldwide and want to show a community committed to sharing, equal rights and support.

We are desperately missing the boat and we aren’t even interested in trying.

The numbers do not lie.  Charleston is one of the fastest growing cities in the South and becoming one of the fastest growing in the United States.  The cost of housing is 31 basis points above the United States average index and 51 basis points above the South Carolina average.  Classrooms are overcrowded, tourism has taken over as the top priority, yet we mask marketing media around “buy local”.  The historic societies fought behind the scenes for over 200 years to keep the peninsula’s rich history and esthetics intact and after one year, we have a mayor that has destroyed this blueprint.

It is fine, because we are Charleston nice.  We will continue to say good day to you, nod our heads and smile because that is who we are.  Southern charm is alive and well in the South.  I just wish we would look in the mirror and try to find the heart and soul to fight for a city we used to love.

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