Photo by Ruta Smith

Out with the old, in with the new

 Change is inevitable. But in a city that worships history and believes it has an overabundance of gentility, is too much change going to be what kills the goose that laid the golden egg for the Holy City?

The Charleston of 2023 is far different from what was here 34 years ago before Hurricane Hugo. Traffic is horrible now. Every week, there seems to be a new development crane that rises. At one point a year or so ago, there were 24 monster cranes littering the skyline, a precursor to corridors of blocky buildings that obstruct sunlight and evoke urban images of concrete jungles.

And then there are all of the people who now call the area home. The number of people who now live in Charleston County has exploded — from just under 300,000 in 1990 to about 420,000 now. In the same span, Berkeley County doubled to 245,000 people and Dorchester tripled to 166,000 residents. All totaled, more than 830,000 now live in the tri-county area.

The influx shows no signs of slowing. “They still wouldn’t be coming here if it wasn’t a lot better than where they’re coming from,” Charleston native Jamie Westendorff wryly observed.

It’s clear to those who grew up here and people who have lived here for decades that the Charleston area is much different. Today, compared to the past, it has many new positives, such as a greater inclusivity and diversity. Today’s Charleston also plays on the world stage, with high-quality performance venues and festivals, as well as a talented creative class and world-class chefs that pump thoughtful energy throughout the area. We also have lots of things to do and lots of new friends to make. 

But today, there seems to be a growing, palpable nostalgia for a time when there was more kindness, far less congestion and a greater appreciation for a paced, slower life. Back then, people seemed less obsessed with money and cashing in.

What do you miss?

In an effort to get a handle on what people are thinking about the fabric of the community, we posed this question on Facebook: 

“If you grew up in Charleston, what do you miss not having today?” 

Lynne Crooks, owner of Granny’s Goodies, circa 2007. | Nancy Santos/CP file photo

More than 1,800 people responded. They were not shy about current annoyances and the people, places and things they missed. They generally didn’t talk about bugaboos of the past — race, poverty, poor education or even ubiquitous peeling paint (because you couldn’t afford to paint) and lack of economic opportunities for too many.

But they did share feelings about how the community felt more connected then.

“I was on John Street and walked out to King Street, and it looked like Disneyland,” said one former reporter who now lives in Asheville. “There were crowds and a minivan blaring music and selling alcoholic popsicles. It didn’t feel like the Charleston I knew.

“It’s a different culture. The old people used to say there were people from ‘off’ and there are so many of them now and they all seem to be running Instagram influencer accounts.”

Cappi Pate Wilborn, now of Bluffton, attended college here in the late 1980s.

“I could ride my bike up King Street the wrong way and not see a car.”

Myskyns at 5 Faber Place was a great place to hear live music and rock out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. | City Paper file photo

She often ordered a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and a diet Coke with lemon at the Goodie House on Calhoun Street. At Your Place, a dive bar across from the U.S. Custom House, she remembered hopping behind a counter to help the owner serve beer.

Westendorff, 73, grew up at the corner of Warren and St. Philip streets. Charleston was friendlier and more relaxed, he said. “If B.B. King walked downtown right now, he’d say, ‘the thrill is gone.’ ”

Fewer restaurants, more dives

Years ago, Charlestonians didn’t go out to restaurants as much as they do these days. First, restaurants cost extra money that many people didn’t have. Second, most people were used to eating at home.

Burgers and fries at Your Place were among the best in town more than 20 years ago. | City Paper file photo

“To really sit in a restaurant was not an experience that most Charlestonians had often,” Westendorff said. 

Four decades ago, there were a few fancy places — Robert’s of Charleston, Marianne, Henry’s and some of the hotel restaurants. It was possible that you’d need reservations, but you didn’t have to wait months to get a slot.

Back then there were a lot more joints and dives, such as the Goodie House, Jack’s Cafe, Your Place. Facebook commentators also mentioned these:

• The Majestic Grill
• Norm’s 
• Andolini’s (two slices and a beer for $5)
• Alice’s Restaurant 
• Celia’s
• Vickery’s downtown
• Reuben’s
• Vincenzo’s
• Horse and Cart Cafe
• Swensen’s Ice Cream

And then there were the semi-relaxed clubs like Myskyn’s, Cafe 99 and Cumberland’s, where sweaty people packed a small space to listen to loud local musical acts. 

Even further back was the Garden and Gun Club, a diverse and inclusive disco that emerged in the late 1970s. Historian Harlan Greene described it like this in an article on the club’s history: “The opening of the disco the Garden and Gun Club ushered in a new democratic era in the city; beforehand, blue bloods went to the Yacht Club; college kids went to noisy bars on George; African Americans, Navy base employees, and gay men and women all went their separate ways to drink and meet. Now there was a place to cross the class, gender and racial lines that previously had seemed as fixed as the traffic lanes on Broad Street, or as immutable as the laws of physics that kept the planets (and people in Charleston) in their place. Suddenly all bets were off, all orbits mixed.”

The community’s feel is different

Several people said they missed the old 96 Wave radio station and its annual WaveFest. They talked about how families used to live downtown. Now, South of Broad and homes in other neighborhoods are second or third homes for rich outsiders, not places where kids ride bikes or sell lemonade. Several commentators added Charleston used to be affordable for working families when the gap between the rich and poor wasn’t nearly as wide as today.

96 WaveFest in 1997 was stacked with big names in alt-rock…and for just $10. | CP File Photo

Folks also talked about missing the old Charleston accent, which was heavily influenced by Gullah sounds from the generations. Bryan Thompson of James Island remembered how air conditioning seems to have broken old traditions of people sitting in rocking chairs on front porches to pass the time and share news and gossip of the day.

Then there were lots of locally owned shops, boutiques and institutions, such as Granny’s Goodies, Loose Lucy’s, Jack Krawcheck, Hoppin’ John’s bookshop, the Christian Family Y (also known as the George Street pool), Luden’s, Fulford & Egan, Horse and Cart, Med Deli in South Windermere and the downtown Piggly Wiggly.

Traffic is a bitch

Near the top of many lists was how much easier it was to move around in the Charleston of yore. It wouldn’t take an hour to get to Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island or Isle of Palms. Major bridges wouldn’t be jammed at 2 p.m. Parking was free. Roadways often were empty. And periodically you’d hear the clip-clop of police horses on patrol. 

Back then, “We thought Navy Yard traffic was bad,” one person recalled. And back then, golf carts, pedicabs and bridal parties didn’t clog streets and sidewalks. But then as now, horse-drawn wagons pulled tourists with a penchant for wearing elasticized waistbands. 

“The city used to be like one warm hug,” one Facebook user told the City Paper. “Now it feels like just another high-priced destination.”

Another person who moved away a couple of years ago observed, “How the people in charge allowed so much destruction with construction is unbelievable. Sure, they made a lot of money. But the charm of what was Charleston is gone.”

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