Not Jumping In: On Race and Gentrification in Charleston -The Toast

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Since the beginning of spring I’ve had a ceaseless group text going with a group of girlfriends. It begins each morning, as everyone is getting ready for work, with messages continuing through the day until around 10pm. The group conversation wasn’t planned; it arose from a political joke shared one day amongst a group of like-minded women who’ve known each other for years. Now that we’re all in our late thirties and scattered throughout the country, we don’t have the luxury of seeing each other every day or spending hours gabbing on the phone, but our group texts help us stay connected and offer one another support. Sometimes we bitch about politics, for we all share many of the same views; sometimes we have a wider array of stresses to air, like when the shelves of one friend’s china cabinet collapsed, turning many family heirlooms into a pile of shards.

This digital support group has become an important part of my everyday. My husband and I moved our family to Charleston, S.C. in the summer of 2015 because we wanted to stretch ourselves in our careers and because we felt called to this place where old tensions and new attitudes are both at play. The ease and shorthand of close friendship is never needed more than when friends are separated by state lines during those periods of adulthood for which there is no guidebook.

This struck me in particular one night after I’d come home from walking my dogs in my neighborhood. Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the site where nine black parishioners were shot last summer by a deranged young man wanting to start a race war, can be seen from most of the windows in my home. One block away is the Arch, an ambiguous building hollowed out by a shallow, curved tunnel that once led wagons and carts to the city’s port. Presumably, there was once some larger network of tunnels leading to the water, but now there’s a glittering performing arts center, which first came into existence in 1968 as the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. The space recently underwent a massive renovation and re-opened as The Gaillard Center, which was celebrated with lavish gala dinner featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But before this block was designated as a meeting spot for appreciative audiences, the land along this part of Calhoun Street was a black neighborhood called The Borough. It sat between Ansonborough—where lovely, restored mansions sit dating back to the late 1700s, in some cases—and Maczyck-Wraggborough, the village-like borough where my husband and I have made our home amongst historic urban plantations, gated condominium conversions, and splintered Charleston singles that once served as family compounds for some well-to-do free blacks. Today, Maczyck-Wraggborough acts as a buffer zone between the more genteel Ansonborough and the Eastside, which continues as one of the peninsula’s only remaining black neighborhoods. Residents of both my neighborhood and the Eastside remain cautiously relieved to have avoided much of Charleston’s modern gentrification.

So far, in nine months of living here, I’ve found it easy to slide into the silent transactions of a sight-based neighborhood vernacular. Parts of this lexicon can only be truly known after living here for a time, but even that will only take me so far. There are many nuances known only to those with personal histories in Charleston, passed down through parents, grandparents, and great-grands. The knowledge of who is who, who belongs where, who gets things done, have been slowly disappearing from the city as it’s developed a modern economy. There are ghosts of former physical boundaries, though. Outlines barely distinguishable between the boundaries of former microterritories aside from whispers of past personal transactions that cast the city with a breath of sadness, only lightly grazing the skin of the most casual tourist. As this is a country that, according to former Attorney General Eric Holder, “continue[s] to be, in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards” when it comes to race, it’s interesting to look at the way some Americans still use rapid visual classifications to get themselves into awkward pickles. On one recent night, I came home from dinner with an artist friend and put my two dogs on their leashes for a walk. As the littlest of the two squatted at the street corner next to my house, a plump man in hipster glasses I vaguely remembered seeing from afar approached on a bicycle. I knew he lived in the neighborhood, but the two of us had never spoken before.

“Have you seen a white Chihuahua?” he asked in an overemphasized drawl.

“No,” I replied. “How long has the dog been missing?”

The man either ignored my question or didn’t register it. “I live at the end of this street,” he said. He turned to point out his house to me. “There’s a big dumpster in front of my house because we’re renovating. If you find the dog, there’s a big cash reward. Hee-yuge.

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I have this annoying habit of making faces that reveal my internal reactions to whatever I see or hear. Sometimes this happens several minutes before I’m able to cognitively process whatever exchange has just happened. I’m guessing this is what occurred after the man decided to skip the pleasantries and inform me of the riches that would rain down on me if I returned his pup to him, because his eyes suddenly widened and he pushed backward on his bike.

“Oh,” he said, taking in the full picture of a grown woman wearing a maxi dress with an Austrian walk jacket, leading freshly groomed dogs on their leashes. “You have beautiful dogs.”

We both stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do, and then the man very slowly and awkwardly began to pedal his bike in the direction of his house. He never said hello or goodbye. He didn’t ask for my name or offer his. He never even shared the name of his lost dog.

As I started walking again, I typed a message to my group of girlfriends about what just happened. Right after I sent it, a group of kids from the Eastside passed by. “Hi!” they shouted at me, before greeting my bigger, more sociable dog. “Hi, Arthur!”

I didn’t need long to process the difference between the way I was greeted by the kids—many of whom tend to draw worried glances from the local Confederate widow wannabes—and my faux Southern gentleman from down the street. I don’t know how long he and I have lived at opposite ends of the street. I do think he must have made the split-second determination that the skin I wear meant I was broke and/or incapable of owning a home in a beautiful, yet slightly-less-than-posh neighborhood in this city. Our exchange suggested that when he saw me standing on the corner, he didn’t see a potential friend, a neighbor who’d just returned from a night of cocktails and jovial conversation. Instead, he saw a black female—which made any further curiosity about her, any neighborliness, cease to exist.

My mother grew up in rural Mississippi, an educated, white-looking black girl in a town with suffocating race and class divides. I can picture her incredulous scoff if she’d been present for this exchange. Her thin eyebrow would’ve arched upward; her lips would have drawn in tight. Her eyes would have narrowed in that way that always frightens anyone in their path. She would have been livid over my neighbor’s dismissal. But my mother wasn’t there—I was. And all I felt was a kind of hardening toward whatever larger offense I might have taken. A growing lack of emotion over these types of encounters, which are all too common.

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The kids who greeted me so exuberantly aren’t even my neighbors in the close sense. They live in the next neighborhood. They’re likely fourth- or fifth-generation Charlestonians, while my nameless neighbor probably moved from elsewhere. In the previous months the kids had seen me many times, out walking my rambunctious dogs; that night their lit-up eyes had found me, their faces filled with curiosity and friendly interest. I smiled. They smiled back. We had an exchange that was also a welcoming, a recognition of familiarity and belonging.

I looked back at the texts I’d sent to my friends and noticed that I had never mentioned race or skin color when sharing the two very different encounters I’d just had. I didn’t have to.

There’s this thing that can happen when some people decide to move to Charleston, especially if they’re moving from elsewhere in the South. During a recent visit, one of my texting girlfriends called it the “Ahhm movin’ tuh Chaahhhlston” effect. There are many who believe the decision to relocate to the supposed center of Southern Gentility will turn their lives into some modern, idealized form of Gone With the Wind. Many of those people don’t last long here—especially if they’ve moved to the downtown peninsula area, which is usually the lofty ideal (in the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I live downtown, although Gone With the Wind was never part of my decision-making process). People might dream of moving here after having spent one, two, or several stints vacationing in the muscle-relaxant quality of the humid air, which is usually tinged (if not completely laden) with the acrid smell of pluff mud—a mystery within itself. Why is it, exactly, that we find warm, damp air which smells like a brew of eau de Porta Potty and the decomposition of sea creatures pleasurable? On its own, taken out of context, the smell is revolting. But when you mix this aroma with air that envelops you like a warm, comforting blanket and lazily rustling Palmetto trees and beautifully restored mansions and murmuring fountains, somehow you are struck by the etherial beauty. Why would anyone want to obstruct such a beautiful scene with reflections on real and unfinished racial business? Why —really, why?—would anyone want to spoil such luxuriant comfort with the truth?

In the South and all over America, this truth has become a deal-killer in what should be a natural transaction. Let’s take a look at what tourists actually see when visiting Charleston, and why the scene so carefully laid out for their benefit convinces some of them to move their whole lives here. It’s as if moving to such a place will package white America’s secret desire for the conveniences of privilege into a neat, imperturbable frame in the form of an acrylic streetscape painting. It’s a hasty portrait painted within a specific school of aesthetic beauty—easy, accessible, staged, yet comforting. What is left unsaid is there for all to see, like the legacy of John C. Calhoun, whose statue glares down as tourists dawdle down the busy thoroughfare bearing his name. Few stop to remember his words:

But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil:–far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.

After sipping sweet tea in one of the touristy dives in Charleston’s City Market, many tourists and transplants will amble through the old food stalls, which used to sell meat and produce back when horse-drawn carts lined up along the side rather than cars. In modern times, visitors can purchase refrigerator magnets featuring the houses of Rainbow Row or extremely sweet pecan pralines here. There are rows of cheap sunglasses and hot sauces, pretty rice-bead necklaces that hang from a display depicting a thin, blond woman telling a story about how the beads “pay homage to our port city’s history—an economy founded on rice that helped establish an important cultural center in the Southeast and the United States.” The display makes no mention of the enslaved black bodies that broke themselves harvesting that foundational staple.

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Tourists can then amble on to the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon, where they’ve traditionally been welcomed by men in Revolutionary War uniforms and bonneted women wearing petticoats. Until a couple of months ago, the tour guides wowed fanny-packed, sunburnt groups with the story of the Declaration of Independence being presented to citizens from the building’s steps. Everyone was highly impressed when the guides explained how the Constitution was ratified in the Great Hall, and that President George Washington was entertained there in 1791. As the tour made its way into the dungeon, visitors were told the British used it as a Provost prison during the Revolution, and that pirates were imprisoned on this site in 1718—all very exciting stuff for armchair history buffs and little kids itching to reenact a swashbuckling scene right there on the spot.

It was only in March 2016 that a less glamorous piece of history was added to the official tour narrative, a piece that tells us more about how and why America exists as it does today than a pirate story possibly could. Finally a public admission was made, via the unveiling of an official historic marker, that African slaves were sold at that location in what used to be one of the largest slave-trading cities in the U.S.

In her memoir Negroland, Margo Jefferson recalls the conversations between her father and his friends in the 1950s, words conveying the daily blockades white society dropped into the paths of black citizens: “He keeps you out of his hospitals, his law firms, his universities. Even his damn cemeteries. He never lets you forget you’re a second-class citizen.”

This is a big piece of why I’ve been hesitant to jump into beautiful Charleston. This, along with other grown-up troubles, is why I’ve felt the weight of so much sadness as the excitement of making a home in a new town has begun to subside. It’s because I’ve moved myself and my family to the place where the world has been newly reminded that brown and black skin is often the uniform of the second-class citizen.

If I jump in—if I start going to meetings and parties and watering holes and become a regular in places where the sight of brown skin is becoming more and more of a rarity—if I jump in—into this place where my idea of myself as a nobody matches up with the reality of it—who will be the first to remind me of my second-class status? And when? And where? When it happens, will there be anyone to take offense on my behalf? Who will be my posse of girlfriends who know what I’m going through without me even having to tell them? Will the support and understanding I need exist beyond the protective digital sphere of text messages my long-distance friends and I have created? Will there be anyone here to share my anger, to laugh over the absurdity of the assumption that I am a second-class anything?

All photos courtesy of the author.

Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist based in Charleston, SC. She writes about gender, race, and identity while attempting to figure out why some Americans find “diversity” a scary word.

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