Twenty-five years ago, bars on King Street never closed. Many, in fact, did not have closing times. A block from Charleston’s principal spine, Vickery’s on Beaufain Street served breakfast.
Founding City Paper editor Stephanie Barna remembers the kinds of occasionally raucous late nights in the area that led local leaders to try to smother the weird, fun stuff that drew her and fellow City Paper co-founders Blair Barna and Noel Mermer to Charleston in 1997.
As a new late-20s co-owner of the local independent weekly, Barna often used the late night scene to inform City Paper’s early community-focused news coverage.
“A.C.’s and [the now-closed] Red Hot Tomatoes were kind of the center,” she said. “They were open all night. So, you could go out until 6 in the morning, and hang out in that area.”
The block south of Calhoun Street was so notorious for late-night hijinks that in 2000, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and the city tried to force only bars in the area known as KGB (for King Street, George Street and Burns Lane), to close at 2 a.m.
“There were a lot of street kids just kind of milling around and it was always dirty,” she said. “I went and interviewed all the shop owners and everyone in that area.”
The bars under threat were pissed about changes. Retail business owners were pissed about the partiers.
“I think those kinds of things proved that we were an alternative viewpoint because I don’t think The Post and Courier would have ever written it from A.C.’s point of view, or the bar owner’s point of view,” she said.
The then-owner of Trio nightclub had the first 2 a.m. law thrown out in court to keep the party going all night. (Sounds about right, even today.)
Barna landed in Charleston with then-husband Blair and business partner Noel Mermer in 1997 after they cut their teeth in the regional newspaper chain of Creative Loafing weeklies, finishing in Savannah.
Creative Loafing wasn’t interested in expanding to Charleston, opening an opportunity for the team to take over the small existing paper called Upwith, which on Sept. 3, 1997, became the Charleston City Paper.
“We were all from Atlanta, and having lived in Savannah and then having visited Charleston, we knew that Charleston was way cooler than Savannah,” she said. “The culture and even the restaurants were a lot better. It felt 20 years ahead of Savannah.”
As the paper grew, it transitioned from pages cut and laid out by hand to digital design. So, too, did Charleston modernize.
“We documented the rise of the culinary scene. We were doing that from the very beginning,” she said. “And then it just exploded. It also exploded everywhere else, but we just were fortunate enough to have some superstar chefs who brought national attention to our scene.”
Nothing new to discover
The Holy City’s early-2000s hot streak kickstarted building, population turnover and an influx of outside money that continues today.
“As Mayor Riley’s vision came to fruition of revitalizing King Street, I think it’s been great for Charleston, but when rents go up high, you kind of lose opportunities for the interesting people to do fun stuff. It just loses something,” Barna said. “Money has corrupted us.”
Charleston isn’t the only place feeling that pinch, but Barna said it’s been surprising to witness.
“It just seems gross and sad,” she said. “It feels like there’s nowhere to discover. Every little nook and cranny has been discovered by the developers.
“They’re putting stuff in places where you could go to escape. Like when the old Tattooed Moose was Miss Kitty’s — that was a place you could escape and not deal with tourists. The mayor would be there and port workers. It was an interesting place.
“I just don’t feel like there are places that you can go to as much anymore
… It’s all tourists.”
Paraphrasing a Riley mantra, “Eternal vigilance is the price of a livable city,” Barna said the impact of the former mayor’s dogged determination has been missed.
“I think that the vigilance has sort of left us a little bit,” she said.
Back in 2000, a few months after his one-block, 2 a.m. law was tossed, Riley rallied and passed a citywide 2 a.m. bar closure. A few years later, debate swirled again to try to roll back King Street closings even earlier. Last week, city council firmed up rules on the new Business Improvement District, which is just the latest attempt to “clean up” King Street.
Lots of things change. But then again, some things never change in Charleston.
Sam Spence is former editor of the Charleston City Paper.
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