A couple of weeks ago my husband and I were sitting on this thing we have which has a variety of names — porch, balcony, piazza, or loggia — depending on the level of pretension we peninsular Charlestonians are up to displaying on a given day. It was Friday night, and we were celebrating the survival of another week like the boring parents we are: by reading magazines and nibbling on snacks we’d picked up from Ted’s Butcherblock. The street was quiet, and as we were settling in the air had the weight of a comfortable, cozy blanket. Just as we were entering that content, self-congratulatory mode most transplants experience when faced with such a perfect scene, the smoothness of the air was broken by the squeaking sound of an overused pedicab and the voice of its driver, who was saying, “…these side streets in Charleston can really get kind of ghetto.”
Wait … what?
I know it’s been awhile since I’ve written anything for City Paper, but those of you who’ve read my work here before have probably noticed — among other things — I can be a little prissy. Some friends — black, white, Indian, artist, retailer, and executive — have even called me bougie. So when I posted this moment to Facebook, hilarity ensued in my comment section. But still, I was bothered by the idea that a neighborhood which doesn’t bear the usual, cookie-cutter, whitewashed accoutrements of gentrification can quickly be cast off as “ghetto” by a de facto tour guide.
About a week later, as we sat in a similar situation, we heard a similar comment from a passing pedicab.
Then, about a week after that, it happened again.
This time I was walking home from an errand, and the pedicab driver and his two passengers passed me as I approached my front door. I’m fairly sure this was a different driver, but my spine snapped into a stiff rod as I heard him explain that my peninsula neighborhood is getting “besieged upon by people on welfare.” It doesn’t even matter that he spoke these words while pedaling past what has for years been a consistent mixture of million dollar and middle class houses, condos, college rentals, and properties held in the same black families since the 1800s. It doesn’t matter that yes, we have homeless men for neighbors, or that the border of the Eastside — a place which, some might be shocked to learn, isn’t simply a lawless wasteland of black people with guns — is within walking distance. What matters here is the perpetuation of the Charleston Lie. If you’re a regular City Paper reader, you probably know what I’m talking about. Or you’re at least a little more likely than most to have alluded to this phenomenon — the presentation of the Holy City as an idealized, Southern paradise where there are no downtrodden, marginalized people. And if such people do exist, it’s their own fault for not falling in line with the happy, bland stereotypes that keep earning accolades from Travel & Leisure.
What would happen if Charleston were to be announced as one of the Top 5 Cities for LGBT folks to travel, or for people of color? I can hazard a guess: nothing. None of the local PR firms would tweet it out, no more than two (smaller) local publications would mention it, and not a single banner would be printed. Accolades celebrating diversity in any way other than a skewed, fantasy-driven depiction of plantation life threaten the sustainability of the outdated marketing model that looks more like the unearthed remains of North American dinosaur life with each passing year. Instead of fighting to remain relevant in any meaningful way, Charleston’s tourism industry uses its perception of its own power to belittle and diminish the very thing that gives a city its soul: its network of varying and blended neighborhoods. These are what make a city into a community and give it depth and personality, but only if a diversity of race, income, age, and occupation is acknowledged as part of the tapestry that not only makes people want to visit, but makes people want to stay.
Those pedicab drivers were wrong about who or what is besieging the peninsula’s neighborhoods. It isn’t the low-income people who wouldn’t be included in a glossy magazine feature. It’s a tourism market that, until it evolves, fertilizes the great Charleston Lie.