There’s a controversy brewing on Charleston’s west side. It seems some residents are concerned that a business owner on a main traffic artery sets up a barbecue grill in front of his store on weekends and sells some of the most succulent ribs I’ve ever tasted. Some residents in the area are concerned that the grill and crowd of patrons it draws detract from the predominantly black, middle-class community.
The past couple of years, I’ve lived down the street from the corner where the ribs are sold. It’s not a problem for me, but apparently some of my neighbors think it makes the area seem too “black.”
Maybe I’m prejudiced.
You see, my late father was a barbecue cook, and his first restaurant was the trunk of his car. Forty years ago my dad drove around Charleston and North Charleston selling barbecue pork and chicken sandwiches. During the summers when school was out, I’d go with him on his lunch route, stopping at local businesses to sell his sandwiches.
The old man made a meager living, but our family never went hungry, and he was able to send all his kids to college who wanted to attend. The experience has left me with an affection for barbecue vendors whether they ply their trade on street corners or elsewhere.
I’ve always felt like street vendors give their communities some character. And that’s how I see the barbecue guy in my neighborhood. But one of my neighbors complained that the vendor and his patrons, many of whom stand around to literally chew the fat with friends, make the neighborhood seem more like a ghetto.
I’ve rubbed some folks the wrong way recently with my views on black folks who, in my opinion, want to forget their roots. But here I go again: Street vendors have been a part of black society for generations.
I remember the vegetable trucks that used to drive through black neighborhoods years ago offering fresh fruits and vegetables grown on local farms. And I’ve heard stories from some older Charlestonians about the black Mosquito Fleet fishermen who rowed their boats into the Cooper River decades ago to catch fish and then sell them on downtown streets upon their return. That tradition helped inspire the musical Porgy and Bess.
This one old guy told me that blacks typically conducted business and social meetings outdoors under shade trees and on busy streets. He explained that because there weren’t many bars open to them, many black men gathered outdoors in cities after their daily activities to wind down with friends.
That custom continues in my community where a group of elderly gentlemen gather every day, rain or shine, sleet or snow. They don’t gamble, raise hell, or get drunk, though I suspect they may have a beer or two. Those retired old guys are the barbecue man’s chief clientele.
One of my neighbors, citing Charleston’s new loitering ordinance, says those guys are getting away with murder since the cops don’t hassle them.
Me, I say those old guys and the barbecue grill help us retain a part of black culture that is fast disappearing. We live in such a homogenized community, the sight of old guys eating barbecue under a tree lifts my spirit. I just wish more folks saw the value in a community maintaining its unique character.