Charleston, SC vs. New York, NY – Are We Really That Different?

By Mark A. Leon

I spent most of my youth and young adult life just outside of New York City or “The City” as we knew it.  I worked there and gathered a number of memorable stories over the years.  Now I call Charleston home for a good part of the last eight years.  To most, the differences between Charleston and New York are very simple.  New York bore itself into an industrial haven of opportunity, prosperity, diversity and financial strength.  From intellectuals to capitalists, NY has defined itself in fashion, finance, architecture, arts and small business opportunity.  It is the land of opportunity with the Statue of Liberty as the cornerstone of entrance.

Charleston took a different path.  Its foundations were laid on the principles of farming, historic preservation, hospitality and small intimate community with generations of wealthy land owners donning the streets and buildings of this quiet city of cobblestone roads and church steeples.

Times are now changing.  New York continues to reinvent itself in a slow mature sustainable manner.  Charleston, on the other hand, is converting to what some are calling the East Coast Silicon Valley, homes and hotels are the forefront of development, the culinary arts have taken on a life of their own and growth has hit record numbers.

Two weeks ago, Bill Murray was a guest bartender in Brooklyn, NY.  For those that remember, Bill Murray made his start on the humble streets of New York along with Belushi, Curtain, Aykroyd, Murphy, Sandler and more.  After each live performance the cast would go to a small club in the West Village.  The club is still there with Christmas lights around the entrance situated on an unassuming street block.  That club still stands as well as the reminder that New York and Charleston both stand for acceptance and love, but show it in different ways.

Now that these two cities are moving in different directions, are they all that different?  Let’s take a look

  • Hospitality – Charleston is known for friendliness and hospitality.  Saying hello to strangers and neighbors is a way of life.  Servers not only take your order, but converse and get to know you.  It is a happy and humble culture.  In New York, pedestrians are glued to their headsets, eye contact is few and far between, cashiers rush you through the line and horns honk like a symphony.  Maybe we have to look deeper to understand.  I was in a small stationary store purchasing postcards.  When I walked to the counter, the shop owner stopped what he was doing and took my money.  He was quiet, but polite and very courteous.  He didn’t smile or try to get to know me, but he showed all the respect I needed with excellent customer service.  Sometimes a perception and a reality are very different.
  • Deep Roots of Acceptance – The country and world stood proud as Charleston retaliated from the devastating events at Mother Emmanuel with a show of solidarity and non-violent measures.  Even today, in the wake of Charlotte, NC, comparisons are being made to Charleston’s peaceful approach.  As I walked through the campus of NYU and sat on the grass in Washington Square Park, I was surrounded by diversity and individualism.  NY1Homeless playing chess with students, acrobatics and yoga, musicians playing Jazz, diverse couples laying on the grass and an overall feeling of unification.  New York is a melting pot and one that has found a place of balance and unity.  Later that afternoon, I stumbled on a pick-up basketball game.  As the players cursed over fouls, businessmen looked on and enjoyed the free entertainment.  No matter what the score was at the end, all the players exchanged hugs and handshakes.
  • Festivals – Charleston is a festival haven.  We thrive, unite and rejoice in our festivals.  New York does as well.  The difference is that New York is so expansive, it is difficult to find them as easily as our small community.  The 92nd Street Festival extends 16 blocks on Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side, while at the same time the famed San Gennaro Italian Festival is filled with song, dance and food on Mulberry Street in Little Italy over four miles away.  Though the set up and themes may differ, the common front of community and celebration remains.
  • Natural esthetics – We are not here to compare acres or quality of natural land between Charleston and New York.  The land allocation will not allow for apples to apples comparison.  New York and Charleston both embrace the need to recharge and public parks both are a vital part of the make-up of each region.  Whether it is Marion Square or Central Park, the need to grass and flowers in the center of concrete jungles is critical to life balance.
  • Bridges – We are both proud to say we have some of the most iconic bridges in the United States.  Between the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge and George Washington, these two port cities have something very special to be proud of.
  • Staying Connected – Offering WIFI in the public spaces is one area that Charleston has taken the lead.  Offering free WIFI in the county parks is an innovative way to get the community to be outdoors and give back.  New York offers patches of free WIFI including Washington Square Park, but they are not quite there for the entire parks system.
  • Embracing History – Both New York and Charleston offer rich experiences including carriage rides and historic tours.  This country would not exist today if not for the brave settlers that took a tremendous risk for an unknown.  Through their courage, we have established a foundation of freedom.  Both the North and South along the Eastern seaboard played and continue to play a critical role in maintaining these freedoms and remembering how we got here.
  • Food – This debate can go on for hours and hours.  Who has more Michelin restaurants, who has more quality chefs, how has more eclectic food offerings? Who offers the most unique dining experience?  There is no reason to dive into this black hole, because there is no winner.  We retract.  The true winners are the guests who have embraced both cities for its culinary achievements.
  • Mass Transit – The edge must go to our friends in the North.  New York, though there is no time of day where there isn’t traffic, has created an above and below ground mass transit system that others around the world have emulated.  We can get there Charleston and we need to.
  • Affordability of Entrance – We are fortunate in Charleston to have no tolls.  Very fortunate.  Whether you travel between New Jersey and New York, Staten Island and New York, Long Island to New York through the Midtown tunnel, you will be paying between $8.00 – $16.00 to enter and in some cases leave Manhattan.  It is costly and we should be thankful we are not at that point.
  • Theater – Charleston has created a proud family of live performance art from Threshold to Charleston Stage, Footlight to Woolfe Street.  I have witnessed some of the most amazing theater I have ever seen.  The quality of acting in this area is overwhelming.  That message needs to get out more.  Patrons and community members need to know the quality of the arts here in Charleston.  The redesign of the Gaillard is a strong stepping stone in the right direction.  New York is Broadway and Broadway is world class live performance art.  We have potential to achieve.
  • Family – Believe it or not, I think this may be one of the strongest connections these two areas have.  New York and Charleston embrace family.  We have beautiful suburban communities in Mount Pleasant, West Ashley, Summerville, James Island, Daniel Island and John’s Island.  New York has Long Island and Staten Island.  Charleston peninsula is growing into a metro haven with a focus on safety.  Whether parents and children play in the park or run on the concrete streets, family is still a foundation of values and comfort.  This is one thing we should both be very proud of.
  • Beaches – Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, Folly Beach – Our three coastal salvations.  Long Island Sound and Rockaway Beach.  Are ours easier to get to? Yes (though some may argue Folly Road and IOP Connector can be nightmares).  Do we offer more beachfront?  Yes.  Still, beaches are a big part of the culture of both.  Plus, New Yorkers can go to the Jersey shore and gamble in Atlantic City.
  • Day Trips – In this case, Charleston is a victim of land distribution.  We have opportunities to go to Beaufort, Santee, Columbia, Savannah and Myrtle Beach, but the proximity of available day trips is limited in comparison to New York.  The tight land formations of the New England and Mid-Atlantic states allow for daytrips to Boston, Providence, Mystic, CT, Hamptons, Jersey Shore, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Kilington, VT and so much more.

There are fourteen comparisons between New York and Charleston; two cities built around different cultures and early country development moral and political values.  Today, those separation points are a little more blurred and it turns out we have more in common than we thought.

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