This week I spent a few nice days down in Charleston, SC on a business trip. As I rode around the town I was reminded that seaports are different than cities that are more inland. I have heard that over 50 % of the population of the United States lives within 50 miles of the coast. While that is true, the percentage of people that live in a true seaport environment is smaller.
I grew up on the west side of Jacksonville Florida about 15 miles from the coast as the crow (or seagull) flies and I can tell you that the ambiance of my old neighborhood was significantly different than those closer to the sea. Now, I am not talking about those new seaside neighborhoods with spotlessly manicured lawns and sparkling white concrete driveways that look like they fell right out of a Real Estate brochure. I am talking about the working neighborhoods with clapboard houses, with oyster shell driveways, occupied by men and women who made their living on the sea. While not the prettiest neighborhoods in town these sea port villas have a certain charm that you can’t see anywhere else in the world, yet that rough hewn charm is the same in every seaport in the world.
My trip to Charleston took me to both kinds of seaport neighborhoods. I stayed at the Charleston Place hotel, nested comfortably at the corner of Market and Meeting Streets in the part of the peninsula known as “South of Calhoun” the second most exclusive part of town only to “South of Broad” where all the multimillion dollar mansions are. However from Meeting Street eastward to the harbor, the homes and businesses definitely take on a more seaport flavor, especially in the Ansonborough neighborhood. While not the rustic seaport architecture of the past, the landowners in this area have maintained the feel of a working port neighborhood. If you venture eastward across East Bay Street you see the transition from residential to working port where docs, cranes and warehouses are the mainstay.
Last Thursday evening, our hosts treated us to a carriage ride to the Charleston Music Hall for a Christmas show. I have been on carriage rides in Charleston before but this was the first time that I was on one that left the “South of Calhoun” area. As we rode slowly up narrow Anson Street in the early evening darkness, I couldn’t help but notice the little things that cry out “Seaport” to me. Moss covered trees lined the narrow street as we made our way north between homes with white painted boards. Many of these homes were positioned on narrow lots with their sides facing the street with their porches on the side facing small enclosed gardens. This single wide construction was a result of the taxation scheme put in place by the English Crown during colonial days of taxing by the length of the street front side of the home. So the front door of the home opened onto the porch and the main entrance of the house was usually half the way to the rear of the home off the long side porch.
After crossing Calhoun Street, the homes changed significantly as we entered the first real suburbs of the old city, although today we are still miles away from the city limits. This is the section of town that seems the most “seaport-ish” to me. It has the same feel of the seaport areas of my home town of Jacksonville, as well as the other southern ports that I have visited; Savannah, Beaufort, New Orleans, Miami, Tampa, Mobile and Galveston. Even the ports on the west coast that I have visited, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, San Diego and Los Angeles all have this same quaint but somewhat stark feel to them.
These special port city places like places in the heartland seem to be inhabited by real people with real grit. No supermodels or metro men here. These places are the heart and soul of America. Oh MY!