Left Coasting : Doing the Charleston

In which our correspondent shares a multimedia experience of Charleston, South Carolina

by Rosalea Barker

If, as the old song says, nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning, then I’ve recently had the fourteen finest mornings of my life. In fact, they were not just fine but hot and steamy, the expected late-May weather having been replaced by mid-July humidity and temps already in the 80s by 9am, courtesy of a big ole high that parked itself over the Southeast for the duration of my stay. I travelled to South Carolina to visit the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, but stayed an hour’s commuter bus ride away in North Charleston in a hotel on a former rice plantation.

Charleston has always fancied itself as a center of culture, and various historical preservation societies have turned the entire harbour end of the peninsula on which it sits into an historical district. The city is completely given over to tourism as its major source of prosperity, and I have to say it does it well. The Visitors Center in a former railway station serves as a central place to book any of dozens of tours that leave from there every day. I recommend the Sights and Insights tour, which is owner-operated by a very personable and funny driver, who also can give a great rendition of tunes from Porgy and Bess.

To understand the Charlestonian’s conviction that C-Town is the center of the universe, you just need listen to this tour operator on a harbor cruise. (He starts talking after we’ve gone under the Ravenel Bridge. Sorry, but your head has to be left-leaning to see it properly.)

South Carolina is, of course, a right-leaning state. And no more so, I would guess, than in North Charleston, where a number of military bases are situated. As you taxi on the adjoining commercial runways, you can almost reach out and touch the dozens of huge military transport planes parked at the adjoining military air base. The Navy also has a presence in the area in the form of a Naval Weapons Station. In fact, at one of the strip malls that my daily commute went by every day, four recruiting offices were next door to each other—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. While I was there, for the first time ever, the media was invited by a dead soldier’s family to film his coming home to Charleston Air Force Base from Afghanistan. Cheziray Pressley’s family held a public funeral service for him on Memorial Day.

But let me not dwell on the darker aspects of life. Like the plantation owners of yore, when they escaped the summer’s heat and diseases by going to their town houses, I spent my time “eating, drinking, lolling, smoking, and sleeping”—except when I was enjoying everything from Early Music to Gospel to afternoon tea put on by church volunteers in one of Charleston’s many, many churches, or walking so much between event venues that my sandals fell apart. The following video slide show is pitiably amateur, and has no audio, but hopefully you’ll get a sense of what I found far, far away from home, on the Right Coast of the USA.

Some links:
I Am A Negro, a life story recorded by the Federal Writers Project in 1939
Charleston tourist promotion website: http://www.charlestoncvb.com/
South Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial website: http://www.sccivilwar.org/