Downtown CharlestonVital grandeur
To this day, downtown Charleston, lying at the southern tip of the peninsula, is emblematic of antebellum prosperity. The boulevards and mansions of its old district remains inhabited and relatively unchanged.
It is evening in Charleston during late October. The sun sits heavy, casting rusty rays down the pastel terraces of Broad Street, and a stifled breeze from the Ashley River lightly stirs the palms lining the Waterfront. The heat of the day lies close to the ground, sultry and damp, and the air is filled with the scent of magnolias, jasmine, and crape myrtle. Cicadas chirrup lazily, gas lanterns flicker, cobblestones glimmer, marsh water laps against the shale walls of The Battery. In supernal moment like these, the faded grandeur of this Southern city can be fully taken in.
When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, following eleven years of a de facto republic in England, the King, in an act of exuberant generosity, granted the chartered territory of Carolina to eight of his most loyal friends. Charleston, then named Charles Town, was the first settlement of the new colonist community, and became the southernmost point of English settlement during the late 1600s. Over the ensuing centuries, Charleston developed into a bustling centre of commerce, a hub for the production of cotton and indigo, and an artery of the Indian and African slave trades, both of which ran directly through its ports. To this day, downtown Charleston, lying at the southern tip of the peninsula, is emblematic of antebellum prosperity. The boulevards and mansions of its old district remains inhabited and relatively unchanged.
Over the course of my week-long stay in the city, I walked from my apartment in the entrepreneurial Borough District, a grid of neighbourhoods packed with boutiques and teeming restaurants, to the old city. The route took me through the pristine lawns of Charleston College, down through the central markets and Harleston Village, to the edge of Broad. By this stage, I was gasping for air in the sweltering humidity, unlike the tanned and smiling locals, who breezed passed me as I inspected my sweat drenched map. In my desperate attempts to escape the heat, I sought refuge in the cool interior of Black Tap Coffee, where I hastily gulped their frozen blends before continuing my venture to the graceful, blue slate pavements of the old city.
Palmetto fronds, church steeples, hitching posts, piazzas, and pockets of lush garden are hallmarks of this neighbourhood. Great manors, such as the DeSaussure House, the Roper House, and Edmonston-Alton House, run along the edge of South Battery and East Bay, each uniquely designed by their original owners. At the southern tip of the city lies White Point Gardens, most famous for its view of Fort Sumter where cannons belched black smoke and grapeshot to mark the beginning of the Civil War.
While the city continues to celebrate its rich social and cultural history, it is no museum piece, but rather a place of notable vitality. This intersection of old and new brings with it a sense of endeavour and progress to a part of the United States that is so often associated with fading glories. Standing under the oaks that line the paths of the garden, I enjoyed the onset of evening, drinking in Charleston’s ability to retain the furnishings of the past, whilst somehow escaping the trappings of nostalgia.
- Words & Photos: Robbie Lawrence