A Time in the South: Charleston and Williamsburg

We have recently returned from a time in Charleston, SC and Williamsburg, VA. I wanted to offer a few thoughts about our travels and a few reactions to what we observed. I will begin in Charleston.

Encountering any urban region in our time nearly always involves cars. This seems obvious: I note this as an introduction to our recent visit to Charleston and its surrounds, because our first glimpses were so striking. I will return to this in a moment.

Historic Charleston was constructed at the end of a peninsula at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, which form Charleston Harbor and open to the Atlantic. At the very threshold of the Harbor is Fort Sumter, where the bombs burst in air at the twilight’s last gleaming. Charleston’s history reaches well beyond the civil war though, back into the late 17th century, and evidence of this deep past is to be found both in the city itself and in many places in the surrounding region. Since 1920 and through the leading work and voice of Susan Pringle Frost, among others (“Now is the time. Tomorrow will be too late.”), Charleston has founded and developed the movement to save history – they had the first preservation organization in the US. We were jubilant to be in a city so committed to saving its past.

Charleston Market

And perhaps this well-established sensibility can help the low country in facing and managing the challenges they now face.

But before we manage any challenges, let’s look at the locale. Amy and I had the great good fortune to have cousin Dick Donohoe, a Charlestonian, to show us about, both city and adjacent territory. We visited the historic neighborhoods of the city,

Middleton Plantation,

Middleton Plantation

Johns Island, Mt. Pleasant and the Isle of Palms, Fort Moultrie,

Fort Moultrie

and Sullivan’s Island: a good range of locales throughout the region. We eagerly took in the stories of each place, relished the history and the rich physical culture all around us, and enjoyed the particular and unique character of low country geography. And its cuisine. What a great place if your are hungry!

But everywhere we went, we could see and also experience this:

In 1970, Charleston’s population was about 83,000, and in 1990 about 91,000. Today’s population of the city is 135,000, and the population of the region is about 800,000. Smaller in numbers than our city and region.

So while the city’s population has grown by about 62% in the last 50 years, the land area of the metropolis has grown 1,000%. This qualifies as a problem.

“Sprawl fueled growth is pushing people further and further apart geographically, politically, economically, and socially. … This is the case even as economic activity centers and jobs move away from cities… Suburban sprawl has been the dominant growth pattern for nearly all metropolitan areas in the United States for the past five decades… Urban sprawl is consuming land faster than [the] population is growing in many cities across the country.” Robert. D. Bullard, Prof. At Clark Atlanta University.

As we entered Charleston, coming south on the peninsula, it looked like this (to return to cars):

Interstate 26, inbound.

And the contemporary Charleston skyline features a prominent new addition:

Charleston’s cable-stayed Ravenal Bridge

Yes, a big bridge. And an eight lane bridge at that. A pride of the city, but….

Just to be clear, Charleston, and its region, has the same portfolio of urgent and depressing issues to overcome that face all US cities. They are in the process of creating a giant mess that will take, as it will take here and everywhere else, generations to untangle. Charleston and its surrounds are increasingly paved, dominated by cars, developed with strip centers and cul de sacs, stricken with expressways, segregated by class and race and land use and, unlike our city, facing the ongoing pressures of gentrification. (Anecdotally, a friend told us her brother looked at a central city Charleston residential property some 5 years ago priced at $50,000 that is now being marketed for $3,000,000).

But Charleston has some essential resources in the city, and in the region: historic resources that help to define the character of the place, and are significant factors in the regional economy. For example, and to the city’s unending credit – we really liked our time there in spite of the sprawl. – they have created a 3-route circulator. We rode this, and it was well used and quite pleasant. Good job. Circulators always work if you have things to circulate to.

Charleston planners and urbanists know their city and region faces a difficult future. They know that creating a resilient and sustainable Charleston is a tall order – as it is in most cities. They have a big advantage: by great grace, they still have their past to help show them the way. On to Williamsburg.

On to Williamsburg meant spending a night in Wilson, NC (for us, a day’s drive is only about 5 hours). We stayed at the edge of town, in a “hotel” that was part of a series of strip centers. We still had a bit of daylight, so we went downtown, and found many empty storefronts, and this:

Wilson, NC.

The outlying strips have maimed the downtown. There are lots of stories here, we sense. Another time.

And now Williamsburg.

Americans have a long and sadly destructive indifference to real history. We like old things, like touring historic cities and towns (Charleston: Exhibit A; Williamsburg: Exhibit B), but the places we flock to, the places we seem to want most to experience, almost never look like this kind of landmark:


We seem to like our history all cleaned up, somehow free of the complications that naturally arise from real life lived in real places. And for many years this is precisely the criticism that has been leveled at Williamsburg. Where did the scruffiness go? Were there no poor people: where did everyone live if they weren’t wealthy. Millions of questions come rightfully to mind.

Williamsburg, 1905

But each time we have visited, we have found ourselves thinking that while this criticism is correct, it somehow misses other interesting and perhaps more suggestive questions. What, exactly, did Rockefeller think he was doing when he agreed to take on Williamsburg?

Williamsburg, 1928

Rev. W. A. R. Goodwin saved his parish church, the Episcopal Bruton Parish Church, in 1907. He then came to Rochester for 15 years until 1923, finally returning to Williamsburg as a professor at William and Mary. In the early 1920s he worked to continue his preservation advocacy, saving the Blair House from becoming a gas station: it was converted into the William and Mary Faculty Club. Goodwin was very aware of the the deterioration of many of the town’s historic buildings and so he hatched a plan to restore not only the buildings being abandoned and in poor condition, but the whole of the historic town.

Williamsburg, looking east on Duke of Gloucester Street from William and Mary, 1928

In the end he managed to convince John D. Rockefeller to fund at first a few acquisitions, and finally, in 1927, the reconstruction and preservation of over 300 acres of the town, and hundreds of buildings. Off they went, and for many of the wrong, or wrong-headed, reasons we suspect.

In 1965, then New York Times architecture critic Ada Louis Huxtable said: “Williamsburg is an extraordinary, conscientious and expensive exercise in historical playacting in which real and imitation treasures and modern copies are carelessly confused in everyone’s mind. Partly because it is so well done, the end effect has been to devalue authenticity and denigrate the genuine heritage of less picturesque periods to which an era and a people gave life.”

Of course, Americans have a tight grip on their “genuine heritage….”

While authenticity is unendingly debatable most anywhere, and certainly in Williamsburg, and while it is true that Williamsburg is picturesque, it is also true that those guiding Williamsburg, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, are trying very hard to tell an increasingly broad and more diverse (and more accurate) range of historic accounts of the lives lived, the struggles encountered, the obstacles faced.

It is further true that Williamsburg is a certain kind of history, and it is not yet the totally real history (whatever that may be), of the place. It seems certain that some who go to Williamsburg do so to make some kind of contact with “real” American History. How they process and understand what they see is not known to us, but it is unlikely that it is worse than whatever they encountered in their classrooms. In fact – sorry Ada Louise – it is almost certainly better and more accurate than most US classrooms today.

In the end the place is beautifully executed, scaled to us humans on foot as perhaps only really old or reconstructed places can be anymore (sadly, but truly), experienced at a tempo wildly different than our lives today, mostly quiet and free of cars and all their attendant waste. It is not innovatively technical or glassy, there are no drive-thru’s or other detritus of contemporary life.

It is a vivid example of a local life. And – if you’re desperate – strip shopping centers and fast food are only blocks away….

Perhaps one unwitting lesson that Goodwin and Rockefeller have imparted is the value of places where we are locals for a split second, not exiles from everywhere as we are in most of our daily lives. In the words of J. B. Jackson, perhaps Williamsburg can “transform an amorphous (surrounding national) environment into a human landscape.” We’ll go again, if we can.

2 thoughts on “A Time in the South: Charleston and Williamsburg

  1. Great essay. You’ve nailed the issues facing Charleston, at least based on the twice-annual visits we made 2013-19 while our daughter went to school and worked there. The other two big issues, which you probably didn’t see, are: cruise ships and flooding.

    Need to get back to Wmsburg one of these days…just to see thru your eyes again.

    Thx. > Sent from my iPhone


  2. Thanks! We have seen the cruise ship issue in previous visits. Wonder how this will be in the future as cruise ships are much less frequent, at least for a while. And flooding: the whole place is so low, that it is easy to imagine flooding is a giant issue. The weather was good when we were there, but we did hear tales of some very wet times.

    Do go back to Williamsburg: it offers much food for thought.

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