This past week, The American Theater downtown declared on its marquee that Charleston had been named one of the world’s top travel destinations. Though I am relatively new to this city, and am very fond of it, this particular bit of news was a surprise. I immediately thought, “Why?” and, “What about London, New York, Tokyo, Paris, Istanbul, Rome, Sydney?”
I am a South Carolina native, so even though I have just moved to Charleston, it has been a known fixture, at least geographically speaking, for my entire life. Up until the past few years, I had only spent wayward afternoons here, a quick hop through the market, then on to Folly for a handful of hours in the sun.
Then when I went to college, I went to Converse in the upstate and several of my friends went to College of Charleston, which prompted a series of more lengthy stays and a solid comfort level with the city, but these were vacations, simply refueling at a local treasure. Even my recent move to Charleston was meant to be temporary, one last post-grad summer hurrah before I went on and changed the world.
As they typically happen, my world changing plans have been modified, and I decided to make Charleston home. It was an easy enough decision–I had a few friends down here, some connections, a place to stay while I found something more permanent. Plus, there were beaches, a cool local art scene, and good shopping. What more could a twenty-something woman ask for?
Once I made this announcement public to my friends and family, I was met with an overwhelming chorus of, “Wow! We’re so proud of you–what a city!” and that also confused me. I was moving a hundred miles southeast within state lines, not cross country, and to a place that almost everyone I know has been to several times.
There is no mystique here, at least, not the kind that anyone I know has access to. Sure, the carriage tour guides point out the haunted cemeteries and Civil War markers, but this only serves to unshroud the mystique–our ghosts and our history are alive and open for business.
Several times a week, I walk several blocks down King to my place of employment. During that ten minute promenade that I’ve taken many times now, I have seen plenty of things that remind me that Charleston is a place like any other city. In the past month, I’ve witnessed at least four hit and runs while cars pull out of their parallel parking spots. I’ve been approached by homeless people for money or cigarettes. Construction seems a constant in Marion Square, where a large machine hammers its way into the earth, hissing out steam like a dragon each time it gets closer to its goal.
Then something happened, something that echoed across the country–the Charleston Shooting. At this point, everyone knows the details, so I won’t rehash them here. I will, however, say that that tragedy is what began to make me realize how special Charleston is.
People held hands in a country where this type of violence has led to massive rioting, looting, and further violence, I am living in a city where that violence led to mourning, led to discussions, led to prayer.
Sometime after the shooting, I was walking to work just before noon. The construction was still going on in Marion Square. The sun was high overhead, zeroing down on me. Tourists asked me where the good bars were, or where to get a good bite to eat.
Perhaps that is when I really understood how special this community is. Less than a month into living here, I was already a local. I was home.
A few weeks later, I saw the sign at the American Theater. And I did ask myself, “What, here?” but upon further contemplation, I realized it made perfect sense, because in a great wild world filled with unhomed millennials milling around, trying to figure out where they belong or what they’re doing, Charleston makes them feel at home.
I am not a particularly well-traveled young woman, but I have been to enough places to begin to understand the feeling a city possesses. Like people, cities are made up of thousands or millions of different emotions, need constant physical maintenance, and contain unfathomable memories.
Charleston is a very old city, and has harbored millions of lives, thousands of businesses, and on its land walks the ghosts of America. Not all of the memories are pleasant ones, but these memories are not hidden. One of Charleston’s biggest tourist attractions is the Market, which was once a slave market, and now houses local vendors selling pieces of Charleston’s history.
Maybe this is what makes this city so special. Sure, we don’t trade on mystique, or bury the un-pleasantries. We hold hands together and shut down roads in acknowledgement. We do not hold the legends of this land hostage–we set them free, and send them home with anyone who will listen.
Speaking of listening, on my walks to work, all I needed to do was close my eyes and listen. Patterns emerge, set to the rhythm of the construction: Melodic steps of locals, harmonic questions of tourists and musicians playing their saxophones and keyboards, dueling with the keening cicadas.
When it’s time to open my eyes again, the music persists, and I step into the melody, becoming a part of the song of Charleston, swallowed whole and willingly; walking with a sure stride down King Street.