Why Charleston Is America's Favorite City
It was the spring of 1982, and I’d gone to stay with my grandmother in Charleston.
My new college friends had all returned home or gone to the beach somewhere for their break. For me, it was the preamble to my debut season. It’s true: I’m a Charleston debutante. Strange for a person who hadn’t actually lived in town since the late sixties and who found the whole notion of a debutante ball old-fashioned, conservative, and seriously uncool. I resisted as long as I could, until finally I realized that there really was no choice. Granny, a sophisticated lady who’d left a publishing career in New York—where I now live—to move back in with her mother on Meeting Street, had it all planned.
That first morning when I went down for breakfast, there were presents for me. They’d been dropped off on the front porch—flowers, playing cards from Tiffany, a small crystal pot with a silver top and a powder puff inside—as if by Santa Claus. Each had a card with a greeting in nice handwriting wishing me well in my season. That week, there were teas in my honor and cocktail parties and more presents left on the front porch. Charleston was a funny old place, still hanging on to customs that most everywhere else had been lost in the march of time. It was a throwback.
Still is. The Carolina Yacht Club accepts only men as members, and a young woman will defer to an elderly man, listen to his stories, maybe flirt with him a little, where in many cities across the country this dignified old gentleman would not be given the time of day. Residents call on each other, without prior arrangement via iCal or Snapchat. You might still see a small silver tray with tiny feet on a table in the front hall that holds a collection of calling cards.
Charleston’s is a story of survival. The city has suffered many blows, from the degradation of the Civil War to Hurricane Hugo, which ripped through town in 1989, clobbering a quarter of the buildings and causing more than a billion dollars’ worth of damage, to the controversial Carnival Fantasy cruise ship idling in the heart of the city and making waves. It has endured fires, earthquakes, and upheaval, like the closing of the naval base in 1996, when 25,000 jobs were lost. Challenges that could have destroyed or at least diminished the town, as similar events have done to plenty of other small Southern enclaves, seem instead to have strengthened its resolve over and over. Charlestonians don’t just live in the place; they’ve got it in their blood. "It’s my home," said a tall lady from a prominent family, placing over her heart a delicate, age-spotted hand sporting an ancient emerald. "It’s where I’ve always been, even when I haven’t been here."
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Charleston sits on a peninsula surrounded by barrier islands. It’s often veiled by a hazy golden light that can make the cityscape—pastel two-story houses all in a row, interrupted every so often by a pointy church spire—look as if it had been painted in watercolor. At low tide, the sulfurous smell of pluff mud lingers in the air. The subtropical climate makes winters so mild that the clean-cut men in town need little more than their tweed jackets and the ladies have to wait for a cold snap to wear their furs. Summer’s humid heat will melt the ice in your sweet tea faster than you can sneeze twice.
In the 1980s, many of the old families lived in genteel poverty, much as they had since the ’40s, with threadbare curtains, stuffing coming out of the upholstery, and worn rugs on worn floors. Back then, Charleston was an old battle-ax, rattling around the big house with peeling paint, grumpy about the changes all around her, consoling herself with white wine. Still, she knew how to throw a party, and she kept her silver polished.
"Hurricane Hugo was the real high-water mark because there were still tons of poor landed gentry, people who were living in lovely big houses but couldn’t afford to paint or roof," said Anne Cleveland, executive director of the Charleston Library Society. Insurance money, she explained, created a frenzy of repair and rehabilitation. "All of a sudden, everything was in pristine condition, and more and more people started loving Charleston." Loads of them, in fact. In 2012, 4.83 million people visited Charleston, where the population is barely 125,000. In February, JetBlue began nonstop service from Boston and New York to the city’s tiny airport (which is undergoing a $162.5 million renovation). There are 1,500 new hotel rooms proposed for the peninsula. And in 2013, Condé Nast Traveler readers named Charleston their favorite city in the United States—for the third year in a row.
Somehow, Charleston manages to hang on to its identity in the face of the onslaught. Sure, some historic houses may have been razed to put up a Piggly Wiggly, and the distinct Charlestonian accent—foe not for, and woont instead of won’t—has faded into a broader regional one. But otherwise the local character is remarkably well preserved.
Occasionally in the city’s sitting rooms—some of which look lifted directly from the American Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—you still hear the Civil War referred to as the War of Northern Aggression. Yankees invaded the South more than 150 years ago, but it’s still fresh in the Southern psyche. "We haven’t gotten over secession," a dear family friend told me over fried oysters at the yacht club last winter. She was laughing as she said it, but the old Charlestonian—a liberal-minded lady—wasn’t kidding. Perhaps the recent surge of outsiders is just the latest assault. They may have prettied up the place, but the natives—chins held high with classic Southern dignity—won’t let them erase its authenticity.
When we lived on Limehouse Street in the late ’60s, after Sunday school we’d go to have dinner with Great-granny at her house on Meeting Street. My brother, Ben, wore a little jacket and tie, and I’d be in a Liberty-print dress with smocking and my Mary Janes. My parents, still young, were there too. We sat up straight, sipped iced tea through the straw that was part of the handle on extra-long silver spoons, and used the finger bowls as we’d been taught. Great-granny depressed a buzzer under the Oriental rug with her foot to summon Leona the maid, who would push through the swinging door from the kitchen to serve okra—a slimy green tube with strange white pellets inside—and red rice that, to me, tasted of nothing but sour tomato mixed with yesterday’s rice.
Resistant to change as the locals may be, they’re not complaining about the food these days. McCrady’s, Sean Brock’s flagship restaurant off East Bay on Unity Alley, has been transformed into a laboratory for Brock’s nerdy culinary experiments, which in turn have catapulted Charleston’s culinary scene onto the world stage. "In a period where we’re all very inspired by the history and culture of the Lowcountry," he told me, "we’re rebooting a cuisine that had disappeared."
Since Brock took over the kitchen at McCrady’s in 2006, he’s become a name in the company of New York darling David Chang and the poet of Copenhagen, René Redzepi, on account of his zealous commitment to Southern ingredients and his mastery of Lowcountry cooking—"the oldest cuisine in the United States," with its English, French, Mediterranean, Caribbean, and West African influences. Husk, his newer, more casual restaurant on Queen Street, which is devoted to anything grown south of the Mason-Dixon Line, was named best new restaurant in the country by Bon Appétit almost before the first knob of corn bread was served.
"Sometimes a place speaks to you," said Brock, a roly-poly fellow with a quick wit and a penchant for Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. A self-described hillbilly from Virginia, he first came to town to check out the cooking school. "I fell in love with Charleston on the first day. It’s the architecture, the cobblestones, the attitude. This city is so proud of itself."
Brock’s ascent coincided with the wave of youth—he is thirty-five—that is changing the landscape. Not just with cafés like Kudu (coffee and craft beer), restaurants like Butcher & Bee (an industrial space that serves inventive sandwiches at communal tables), and an Apple store on King Street, but with an Charleston continued from page 134 open-mindedness and a spirit of possibility. The gay population has grown and is active in neighborhood associations. Graduates of the College of Charleston (chartered in 1785) end up settling down here. You can open a small business in town, and everyone wants you to succeed.
Whenever I visit—my father’s living in the house on Meeting Street full-time now—I like to walk. The sidewalks crag at the base of old trees, where the roots push granite slabs aside and bulge up between them. Oyster shells carpet pathways on the Battery, where children play on the pyramids of old cannonballs. The stone steps on the sidewalk that Southern belles once used to climb up into carriages remain, and Stolls Alley, where servants who worked in the big houses lived, is gentrified now. Here, the smell of tea olive blossoms perfumes the air, pelicans swoop down over the seawall, and it can be seventy degrees in February. Why don’t I live here? Something has always stopped me—something smug, or provincial, or small.
Winslow Hastie returned to Charleston from San Francisco, where he worked as an urban planner for the city, to take the chief preservation officer job at the Historic Charleston Foundation. "It wasn’t this hermetically sealed place anymore," he said. "In the early 2000s, my wife and I would come back periodically, and we noticed that interesting people were either moving back home or moving here for the first time. I think younger people began to realize that quality of life—rather than their job—could determine where they live."
His family has owned Magnolia Plantation and Gardens since 1676; since 1870 it’s been open to the public. Hastie, now forty, is on the board of directors. Last November, during election season, the BBC came sniffing around Magnolia and interviewed him on the spot to the tune of: What’s it like to have a black president? Hastie comes from a family of slave owners. "Do you feel bad?" he was asked of his past. "I really don’t," he told me. "I don’t condone it, but it happened. It’s part of my identity. And the best thing to do is treat it with respect and tell stories as truthfully as possible." The slave quarters at Magnolia, dating back to 1850, are now the focus of the plantation’s "From Slavery to Freedom" tour, which recognizes the role that Gullah people—descendants of West Africans with a language and culture all their own—have played in the history of the Lowcountry. "There are families working on our property who are descended from slaves," Hastie said. "They feel an incredible connection to the property and the gardens. This is a shared history. It’s not a black story or a white story."
On a Saturday night last December, I sat at the zinc bar of Bin 152, waiting for my friend Ann Bacot McGehee, who was born and raised here. The chic boîte serves cured meats and plenty of things by the glass, and it’s owned by Fanny Panella, who’s originally from Nice. Charleston, she said, reminds her of a southern European town.
Ann Bacot arrived in black velvet. She only had time for a drink because she was on her way to a fancy party at Hibernian Hall, a Greek Revival building that went up in 1840. "Charleston has done a darn good job of not losing its traditions," she said when I asked about the future. "And it embraces the modern world with its graceful old-lady arms. It’s still kind of a snobby society. But it’s become more diverse, with more texture than just the old guard." She thinks some of the newcomers have brought a cosmopolitan influence and earned the embrace by proving their commitment to the old lady’s beloved town.
And as I walked home that night in the warm evening air, back to the old house on Meeting Street where the wrought iron gate creaks as it opens, I found myself wondering yet again: Why don’t I live here?
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