Last Tuesday an accident on the Ravenel Bridge forced the closure of the bridge, and the predictable result was that traffic came to a standstill on almost every main road in the area. Of course, all of this happened in the middle of the much vaunted Spoleto Festival USA.
Thirty-nine years ago, Spoleto founder Gian Carlo Menotti said he selected Charleston because “it’s a community big enough to support the large number of visitors to the festival.” While this was fine in the late 1970s, when Spoleto drew about 7,000, the Holy City boasts 10 times that number today. According to the festival’s PR, more people come to Spoleto now than lived in Charleston in the 1970s. Now couple that with the fact that Mt. Pleasant’s population has increased around 10 times since then.
This brings us to the first of several troubling questions: If Spoleto is, in fact, a world-class arts festival in a world-class city, then why is traffic being crippled by the loss of one bridge, albeit a very important artery?
Over the last few years, a lot of ink has been spilled over the back-and-forth battles between developers and residents, and a lot has been said about the sudden loss of the so-called small-town charm of Mt. Pleasant and the ongoing battle to keep Charleston the town it “has taken more than 300 years to become,” as The Post and Courier editorial page recently opined. Much of it seems to paint a picture that all of this growth happened just over the last few years or so and nobody saw it coming.
That’s not the case. In fact, in the second piece I wrote for the City Paper, I quoted a 1977 The News and Courier article about the challenges of taming the area’s growing traffic problems stemming from a new population uptick. Sadly, nothing was learned in the last 40 years and little more was done than build more roads for more cars. Meanwhile, area leaders continue to act surprised that all of this is happening, all while simultaneously talking about preserving what makes the area special and gladly welcoming the influx of new people, businesses, and jobs.
Which brings us back to an interesting point. Yes, last week’s traffic holdup occurred in the middle of the Spoleto Festival, but, let’s be honest, were that many festival-goers terribly inconvenienced? I’d say no, they weren’t. And they weren’t for the same reasons they aren’t affected by a lot of things: they’re financially well off.
The day before the traffic jam, the City Paper‘s Elizabeth Pandolfi posted a brief piece on the presentation of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, complete with a live orchestra. She wondered why a performance like this — especially one featuring a populist icon like the Little Tramp — couldn’t be made free to the people. Spoleto is, after all, an arts festival and art is, ostensibly, for the people, so why not at least make one show free?
Over Spoleto’s 40 years, the festival has generated $1.2 billion in economic impact, not bad for an arts festival in a city reminiscent of Old Europe in almost every detail save one: Most of Europe has reliable public transportation, the kind that might help reduce or even eliminate our need to rely on one or two roads in order for the entire area to function properly. Let’s face it, as long as most of the businesses around here can keep functioning somewhat normally on the substandard infrastructure in Charleston, it’s never going to change.
The answer to why this won’t ever happen is pretty obvious from the festival’s own sponsorship kit. Not only is Spoleto elitist, it’s proudly elitist, as the sponsorship kit takes pains to tell prospective patrons of the arts that the “festival’s upscale audience is made up of men and women who are primarily … 54 years of age or older, college educated, married, [with a] household income of $130,000-plus.” These folks are not quite the One Percent, but they’re certainly not the type who are going to be bothered by mere traffic, if they were ever stuck in it since many of them are vacationing tourists or folks who already live downtown.
Meanwhile, we’re left to complain about bad drivers as if they were the sole cause of the problems with our infrastructure and our economy. They aren’t, but good luck explaining that to anyone who could do anything about it. After all, they can afford to wait out a long traffic jam with a few $30 cocktails that they’ll drink before eating a $150 dinner before their $200 opera and finally retiring to their $400-a-night hotel rooms or million-dollar downtown home.
And there won’t ever be a free show at Spoleto, either. Art and other comforts, like not having a long commute made longer by freeway snafus, are the privilege of the upper class, not for the rest of us.