I Dreamed Of Charleston

A Photo Essay on The Holy City

This is the first entry in a series documenting the beauty, quirks and fabric of great cities & towns. It’s meant as an observational journal to document my thoughts and perspective on a given place, as well as a tangible guide to what good urbanism looks like in the real world.

Almost two years ago, I went to Charleston for the first time. It was a place I had thought about constantly. Growing up in suburban New York, I was starved for walkable places with high quality architecture. Whenever I went into the city, I always found myself gravitating towards The West Village & North Shore Brooklyn — neighborhoods with fantastic urbanism and historic architecture, and equally fantastic prices to match. On weekends, I would visit towns across the Northeast searching to satisfy what I was looking for, but found only quaint one or two street towns that couldn’t be described as viable places to live for broad swathes of the population. Searching. But not finding. Did the place I was looking for exist? Or was it just a dream?

I went to school in the South. I’d heard whispers of people who had been to the place I was searching for, and even a bold few who claimed to have been from there. It’s a real city you can walk all around with some of the best food in America, they claimed. No, It’s not just one row of Potemkin homes preserved as house museums, they scoffed. Yes, it’s actually pretty affordable, they persisted. Impossible. I had to see it myself.

Prompted by these whispers and validated by Instagram, 1,000 Zillow searches and hours of Google Street View later, I arrived at my AirBnb in the city’s Cannonborough neighborhood. As soon as we dropped our bags down, we set off on foot. I rubbed my eyes. These buildings and streets looked real.

For most smaller cities, not only would there be a lack of things to see/do outside of the downtown, walking around wouldn’t really be possible. Not so in Charleston. This mostly has to do with its age. As you may have gathered from my allusions to its historic architecture, Charleston is an old place. Really old, by American standards. The city was founded in 1670. Many buildings that were constructed in the early 17th century are still standing today, thanks to the city’s powerful historic preservation movement. The Preservation Society of Charleston was the first, and is subsequently the oldest, historic preservation group in the country. Without the efforts made by the Society, its possible that much of the lower peninsula would have been demolished to make way for cars, a fate most American cities met in the mid-twentieth century. We can be grateful for the generations of stewards whose care have allowed us to appreciate Charleston in all its beauty today.

Far from being preserved in amber, though, Charleston is a dynamic & growing place that calls out to prospective homeowners nearly as much as it does to tourists. There was a remarkable amount of construction for such a small place early in 2019. It has continued at a breakneck pace.

Much of the action takes place along King Street, the spine of the city. King is the main retail corridor, where commercial offices are housed and branch off of, and one of the great promenade routes in the country. I was amazed at how long we were able to walk while constantly being flanked by businesses and things to do. From Broad Street to Line, one can walk 2 miles uninterrupted by dead zones. There may only be a single digit number of places in the country that offer something similar.

We started our walk on North King, a stretch that’s developed rapidly over the last couple of years where many of the city’s trendiest restaurants, bars and shops can be found. If you’re looking for rooftops to drink on, somewhere to repair your fixed gear bike or an artistic CBD lounge to attend your morning fitness class (and who, really, isn’t looking for this), here’s where you’ll find them. It was refreshing to feel so much energy in a place I was expecting to find a relative dearth of it. Charleston was supposed to be genteel, refined, and slow. Uniformly so. As we made our way down the peninsula, it continued to subvert my expectations.

On either side of King, Radcliffeborough, Ansonborough and Harleston Village represent the platonic ideal of good neighborhoods, embodying the best of urbanism within the context of a smaller southern city. My eyes could hardly settle on one place to look, and my legs couldn’t carry me to every direction I was subconsciously being pulled in fast enough.

There is so much good here. Let’s unpack it. It should go without saying, but these neighborhoods are first and foremost walkable. Their development preceded the automobile by centuries. Streets are rather narrow. While John Culpeper drafted a plan of the early city in his capacity as Surveyor-General, it’s unclear how much of that plan was adopted. Snaking lanes attest to this ambiguity as they meander in their own organic ways, just as humans move. This quasi-surveyed/organic plan is far more attractive and not nearly so rigid in its hierarchy or orientation as say, New York or Chicago’s grids.

Lots are misshapen; narrower here, wider there. Longer left, shorter right. This allows for a great deal of diversity in property types, sizes and styles. Because the buildings are all mostly shorter than 6 stories, except for Church spires that punctuate the sky in dramatic flare to awe inspiring effect, buildings clustering on narrow streets make people feel comfortable and protected, like walking in a room. The larger structures, like hotels and older office buildings, elegantly rise into statures befitting their prominence.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the city’s famed Singles, Charleston’s answer to New York’s Brownstone and Philadelphia’s Trinity. Singles come in many different architectural styles, but share the same few key elements. Each building is a single room wide (eponymously so), is long and narrow, and has a distinct side porch (known locally as piazzas). The porches effectuate the city’s famous southern charm. All year round, people spend time on them to enjoy life outside, not sheltered in gardens behind walls. When direct sitelines open onto the street, we’re not afraid to crack a smile or extend a wave. Think of anytime you’ve been on a second or third story balcony — the temptation to wave to those below, regardless if you know them, is just too strong. The built environment directly influences our tendency towards strangers. If we design it in an amicable way, at human scale and provide opportunities for interaction, people will come out of their shells and come together.

As Charlestonian’s needs have evolved over the centuries, you can actually read the history of the city as it rolls out before you. Smaller, older buildings are un-ornamented and simple, as they were built before the city generated its wealth. Larger, more detailed buildings, fit the needs of a wealthier class of citizens. This is incremental, traditional urbanism at its finest, and absolutely fascinating to see on display. A word of redress, though. Many of Charleston’s structures were built on the back of slave labor (either directly or indirectly), the most dark specter imaginable. I’m not quite sure how to handle its legacy in non-reverential structure. Do we demolish those buildings, or preserve them to teach the evils they housed? As they’re usable, and not monuments in and of themselves, it feels different than the question of Confederate statues, but one whose answer won’t be contemplated here.

Charleston’s abundant diversity in housing types and styles on display.

Charleston was built, and its preservation movement began, before the advent of zoning in America. Because of this, there are many quirks along its streets that would (senselessly) be illegal in most places today. In pictures above and below, you’ll see apartment buildings next to single family homes, several homes clustered densely on a single lot, and so called “incompatible” uses cozying up to one another quite well. Neighborhood offices are generously spread throughout the city, so while there is a commercial heart, it’s not as monolithic or “CBD’ey” as in other cities. On quiet, primarily residential streets, there is mid-block retail. Yes! In Charleston, it’s possible to grab a cupcake or enjoy a meal in the middle of a quaint residential street.

Widespread retail extends to the corners, home to one of the city’s great institutions: corner stores & cafes. This historic typology can be seen over and over again, sometimes with original tenants, other times updated and reimagined for modern life. Each store imbues a certain character to it’s street and surrounding neighborhood, which then becomes an easily identifiable reference point that you are here. These corners anchor entire communities. Though the tenants may change, the character rarely does.

And despite what America writ large perceives as felonious grievances of apartments next to homes and retail on residential streets, none of Charleston’s buildings crowd over each other or are injurious to civic morals. It proves, in one of the country’s most desired places no less, that Euclidean zoning and incompatibilities of building types are myths perpetuated by a select few whose preferences have coopted urban policy.

As we walked south down King, three very different realities presented themselves in the blocks before Broad Street. Turn left, and we would reach the French Quarter. Though the oldest and most historic part of the city, it is also the most touristy. Not that this is necessarily bad. It just is. To be surrounded by centuries old buildings that have stood the test of wars, annual hurricanes and the caprices of human destruction is nothing short of humbling. I found myself imagining the generations who called these streets home, and what they might think of all the khaki shorts, crocs, and hot little biscuits. I took another bite.

Back on King, if you turn right, you’ll hit the College of Charleston. Envy coursed through my veins as I walked through campus. To be able to take classes in this setting would be an endless wellspring of inspiration for anyone interested in the built environment. Compact and well integrated into the broader Harleston Village, the 12,000 students of the CoC provide much dynamism to the city, without overwhelming it. Though I’m sure the omnipresence of students and tourists might ruffle the feathers of some, they undoubtedly support the city economically and socially, allowing so much of the beauty that is endemic to the place to be preserved as well as it has.

Going back to King and keeping straight this time, you’ll be surrounded by the neighborhood known as South of Broad. This is the ritziest area in Charleston, with multiple homes commanding prices in the 8 figures. No time to house shop, though, we paid pilgrimage to the Instagram Monument Rainbow Row, to prove we had in fact gone to Charleston, and walked around the battery to get a view of Fort Sumter from White Point Gardens. While White Point is beautiful, I found Colonial Lake Park a far better leisure garden, and far less crowded. It’s even better if you can manage to stroll by at golden hour.

Wrapping up our tour of the lower peninsula, it’s impossible to miss the churches in Charleston, from which the city takes its nickname. They’re of vital importance in lending identity as a visual representation for the communities that have created the place we know today, and are everywhere. To give a sense of the religious presence, there are 400 churches in Charleston, or about one church per every 345 people. Regardless of the denomination, each building puts on a show to proclaim its importance, and hopefully curry favor in God’s eyes. We are all more fortunate for their self-promotion.

Churches, clockwise from the top left: St. Phillip’s, Unitarian Church & St. John’s Lutheran on Archdale Street, St. Matthews Lutheran overlooking Marion Square, the Cathedral of St. John The Baptist and the French Huguenot Church.

Through its organic streets, fine grained urbanism, diversity in building age & type, visual variety, human scale, and incorporation with nature, there are few places in America more attractive than Charleston. Pound for pound, it is without parallel in American urbanism. Charleston’s peninsula is home to 41k people on 8 square miles, but still feels comfortable. It’s more dense than Portland (hipsters, not lobsters), Denver & Madison. About as Dense as Sacramento. A non obsessive-compulsive walk around the lower peninsula is possible in a day. For those like me, I doubt all of its secrets and charms would ever really be possible to know within a lifetime.

As I moved through Charleston, it gave me inspiration for the types of places I want to build. Granted, there are few places that have the extant history that Charleston does, but lessons in South Carolina can be applied to other states, so long as it’s not a simple copy and paste. The wonder of the built environment is that it’s a product of every foot that has ever stepped on its streets. Cities are nothing more than collections of our lives embodied in bricks, stone, wood, glass and concrete. Those who hail from one land are not inherently any different than those from another, they just have different materials and contexts to work from. Good places know no borders. We would do well to sample from the best and apply the lessons to where we ply our trade.

I dreamed of Charleston. And when I left, I dreamed how I could imbue a bit of Charleston into the world around me. Through these writings, I hope to make sense of that world, and synthesize my thoughts into a body of work that will one day allow me to realize these writings. Until then, I’ll be dreaming of the best our cities have to offer, and hope to offer it back to those places who have been deprived of these wonderful ways.

P.S. Here are some extra pictures I couldn’t shoehorn into this post. Enjoy.

Passionate about cities and the potential to create better places at the intersection of Real Estate Development & Urban Planning. Twitter: @cobylefko

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