The good…and the ugly: Charleston’s majestic surroundings and troubled history

So just in case Clemson wasn’t enough, Charleston is the top!!!  I love it here like I love very few places.  No intention of moving here (don’t worry, Mom), but I will definitely be back.  This is a great city for history, nature, and romance (maybe next time we will come with a babysitter).

But like all my favorite cities, it’s not all roses…  Native American displacement, lawlessness, slavery, and the civil war hang in the air thick and heavy.  More on that below…

We returned to our original plan of heading to Charleston after a brief debate because of recent flooding.  And what a stellar decision it was….

We stayed at James Island County Park, a large and family-friendly destination, complete with lush woods, 5 miles of paved trails, playgrounds, ponds, a climbing wall, challenge course, and even a water park (closed for the season).  The land is large enough that all of these activities simply blend into the forest (a common trait of the James Island area… even Walmart wasn’t visible from the road because of all the lovely trees).  The only downside: ninja mosquitos that eat you alive.  I’m still recovering…

When we arrived it was very clear: we were not in Wisconsin anymore… Trees I’ve never seen before and unfamiliar bird calls surrounded us.  Low, thick branches twist and turn with dangling vegetation not unlike tussled ramen noodles.  And of course, all the water!  Aside from the ocean nearby, it seems like there is water everywhere you turn.  One wonders how there is a city here at all.  The smell in the air was like flowers, fruit, garbage, and the ocean.  Flood aftermath?  Who knows.  It wasn’t unpleasant or pleasant, just…. different and strong.

We (Eli and I) had perfect weather and relaxed days start to finish.  Dave didn’t get much of the Charleston experience.  He worked hard and then flew to Chicago last minute Friday and Saturday.

Meanwhile, Eli and I were living it up and taking in as much as we reasonably could given his toddler status.  On a side note, Eli has taken to drinking sparkling water (or… dousing himself) from cans, he’s trying very hard to run and hitting his head on the ground approximately 5 times daily, waves goodbye to everything (from food to toys to people) that he doesn’t want anymore, and has figured out how to stand up in the seat of the shopping cart (noticed that one just in time! phew!).  He can’t do stairs or open doors yet, so I still have a few comforts 🙂

Driving Beast (the truck) around changes your perspective as well.  Instead of looking for the closest parking space, you look for the spot with the most space all around it.  Next time you go somewhere you will see what I mean if you look around… There are trucks on the perimeter and out in the boonies of the lot doing their fair share to stay out of the way.  And it makes every outing an adventure with question marks about navigating.  I parallel parked him in one move the other day, by the way, just sayin’…..


Eli and I went downtown and walked through the East Bay Drive area, catching Rainbow Row and then walking through Market Street and through the King Street shopping district.  On a second day, we walked through Waterfront Park.  For those who don’t know, that covers a lot of the tourist bucket list!

Eli was a champ as he rode through the city strapped in his Ergo carrier.  There might have been a fudgcicle in there for him along the way 😉

We also made a few trips a few miles south to Folly Beach, a town at the very end of the country looking over the Atlantic.  The three of us first went there on a weekday morning to enjoy a family walk and give Eli his first view and feel of an ocean.  He was not impressed with either of those things, especially the sand, but he was very excited to see all the dogs walking by!

He and I made a second trip to Folly Beach later in the week to see “Follypalooza,” a fundraiser to help local disadvantaged residents pay for their cancer treatment.  We made it just in time to walk through the festivities before it ended, enjoyed a dinner at a crab shack, and then walked the shore again to (for me) soak in the waves and sea air and (for Eli) look at all the puppies.

We made a few outings for food and were not disappointed.  Great seafood and southern fixings abound.  On every menu there were hushpuppies (instead of cheese curds), fried green tomatoes (instead of Spotted Cow), and Shrimp and Grits (no comparison).  And by the way all of these dishes are delicious.  If I lived here I’d be in trouble.

Charleston!!! The architecture, the history, the ocean, the sun, the culture!  This place is unreal, in good ways and bad.  You can feel the history here: the trauma, the violence, the passion, the unresolved, the pulse of change, the lack of change, the wealth, the poverty, the creativity, the tired land, the tired people, the longing…  Slavery is still in the air, in the ancient trees, and in the descendants of the ancestors.  It is, for me, eye-opening.

Eli and I visited the McLeod Plantation which only recently became a public landmark.   Once over 1700 acres of land, the site is now a only 36 acres but still has the original farmhouse built in 1851, one of the cotton gins, an original dairy and kitchen house, and 5 structures that  were slave quarters.

While scenic and beautiful, the place was so devastating and surreal in its history that I did not even want to take pictures.  At one point when a national census was taken, there were over 100 slaves registered at this plantation.  During the civil war the property also was a hub for soldiers.

Christine, our tour guide and a 3rd generation descendant from her enslaved/emancipated ancestors, focused on “slavery, freedom, and beyond” at the plantation and greater Charleston area, highlighting the “beyond” and how descendants of freed slaves in the area continue to struggle due to poor education, racisim, and economic hardship.

Even until 1990, the slave quarters at McLeod were rented out to black tenants with no running water, no bathrooms, no insulation, no privacy, and limited electricity.  Tenants shared one well for water, one outhouse, and lived in single-room structures.  It is hard to imagine what was going on in the mind and heart of the home owners who would rent these decrepit structures while living comfortably in a large house 150 feet away.  And that’s just recent history.  Of course, there is the unthinkable ongoings on the plantation since its beginnings.

All of Charleston carries this essence in the floors, the walls, the air.  At one point there were over 100 slave-trading posts in downtown Charleston alone.  It is eerie to imagine the current restaurants, shops, galleries, and businesses carrying on their day-to-day minutia in the same spaces as such unthinkable past behavior and still-palpable grief.

So how is it that I love this city so doused in trauma?  It’s a good question.  I have similar affinities for Berlin, Germany and Krakow, Poland.  I suppose I am drawn to darkness surrounded by light, or maybe the other way around.  Either way, I am attracted to the pulse of cities and people trying to rish up from ashes, and the inherently powerful land upon which those cities and people sit.

Charleston, we shall meet again.

2 Responses to The good…and the ugly: Charleston’s majestic surroundings and troubled history

  1. Mom


  2. Jeremy

    Love this

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