Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Some Things are Too Good to Change

Years ago, before I-95, the only highway heading north was coastal Highway 17.  Along the way were basket makers' stands and several small grocery stores.  These days, most of the travelers on that route are heading to or from Myrtle Beach.  But there is reason for locals to take a drive about 20 minutes north from the Cooper River Bridge (aka Ravenel Bridge) to visit the SEWEE Restaurant.  Located in an old wooden grocery store that doubled as a full-service gas station (a la Mayberry), Mary Warren Schultz serves up some dishes that will remind you of the old days.  On Saturdays, a bluegrass band is featured, adding to the ambiance of being in the country.  So get out of the bustling town of Mt. Pleasant with its many chain restaurants and try something home-grown.  I guarantee you'll be glad you did.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Summertime and the Living is Easy

It looks like our summer weather will end early this year.  We're already experiencing evening lows in the 70s and daytime highs in the 80s.  A welcome relief for many.  But the real topic of today's blog is the origin of the phrase in the title.  Many readers will recognize it as a song written by George and Ira Gershwin for their operetta "Porgy and Bess."  Before there was this masterpiece, there was the novel, "Porgy," written by local author DuBose Heyward in the early 20th century.  It is a delightful story of love, murder, mayhem, tragedy, and a time when the living wasn't so easy for most Charlestonians - and not just those who were African-American.  Most older Charlestonians will tell you that today it is hard to imagine just how poor this city - and its people were - not just during the Great Depression but for the first half of the 20th century.  Many homeowners were "too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash."  Recently I was thrilled to have the opportunity to revisit those earlier times through the performance of "Porgy and Bess" at the Dock Street Theater.  Performed by local non-professional actors and singers, this was an absolutely enthralling rendition of this timeless tale!  To my knowledge, it was only the third time in Charleston's history that it has been performed in the Holy City, and these local artists certainly did it right!  Kudos to the Footlight Players for a splendid performance.  Please give us an encore during the next Spoleto Festival.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Come Quick - Found Heaven

Not my words but certainly my sentiments. New York artist Alfred Hutty telegraphed these words to his wife in the early decades of the 20th century. The period was one of great struggle for most Charlestonians who were "too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash." The city was in disrepair economically and physically. Among other things, a boll weavil infestation had destroyed the cotton crop while much of the country was "roaring" in the 1920s. The Great Depression followed, and in some cases was hardly noticed by many locals because the city had been struggling since the Civil War had ended 50 years earlier. But a number of artists from here as well as "from off," most notably from the Hudson River Valley School in upstate New York, painted a city that time had forgotten - one that still looked for the most part as it had before the Civil War. There were very few modern buildings and not much had been done in the way of upkeep of the old buildings. Subsequently, these artists give us today a glimpse into the Charleston of yesteryear, one that even during my upbringing in the 1960s resembled how it did during this "Charleston Renaissance" of the 1920s and 30s. I am thankful to have seen both the old version of Charleston when I was a kid as well as the new version of today in my middle age years. But either version can be compared to heaven on earth. In fact, one elderly friend of mine who has spent all of his seven decades here, tells people that he believes he died on the day he was born and has been living in heaven ever since. Sitting outside on a recent Monday (in beautiful weather of 70 plus degrees) in the middle of Broad Street watching the mayor and new city councilmen take their oath of office on the steps of City Hall, I felt the same way. And I think everyone there probably did too. Come quick - found heaven.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Million Dollar, Baby!

I remember my mother calling me in 1995 to tell me that a house on lower Church Street had sold for a million dollars. We were both shocked that anyone would pay that much for a house in Charleston! These days, a million dollar sale on the peninsula is commonplace. In fact, the Post and Courier reported that 10% of homes for sale in the greater Charleston area have a price tag of a million or more. Wow! Most of these high price tags are found in Downtown Charleston and Kiawah Island (127 and 198 respectively). The newspaper reported that sales are strong in the $1M-$2M range but over $3M has taken a hit in this period of depressed real estate values. Some sellers in that higher range are forced to reduce their asking price by a million dollars or more. For instance, a house on High Battery has lowered its price from $10M to $8.5M. Some of the homes on Kiawah are mansions on large lots and can be classified as estates, but what makes the prices of the ones downtown so intriguing are that they are limited in size and space. To think that no more than 40 years ago in some cases, many of these city homes were eyesores because their owners were "too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash." How times have changed! But so have the owners. Let's give credit to the newcomers who have come to our area and given us a great sense of renewal by restoring these houses. But let us not forget that it was Charlestonians through decades past who held onto these homes amid struggle and strife, saving them for a time when folks "from off" would discover what we natives have always known - that we've got something here worth saving.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Leapin' Lizards and Hoppin' John

Well, most of us are finishing up the last of our Hoppin' John leftovers. We only eat it once a year so it doesn't get boring eating it for 3 or 4 days in a row. Of course, the only day that it must be eaten is January 1 - New Year's Day. The custom, derived from the African-American community, is that it is eaten on that day to ensure good luck in the coming year. Keep in mind that it is made with cow peas (aka field peas) and not with black-eyed peas. (There are parts of the South that eat the latter for good luck, but they are not used in making Hoppin' John.) It doesn't hurt to eat a few greens (collards) on New Year's to help with your finances in the upcoming year. But if you missed eating either of these dishes at the start of the year, you can try eating a few benne wafers to get you through. (Benne is the term that the Black community uses to refer to sesame seeds which they considered good luck.) And these little cookies can be purchased all over town in giftshops - or you can make your own wafers using the receipt (recipe) found in the traditional cookbook, "Charleston Receipts." A lot of restaurants will be serving up "new traditional" foods this week during Restaurant Week (Jan 12-22). I say" new" because they are a new twist to some old dishes. But some foods - like Hoppin' John, red rice and okra pearlo (pilau) - have been just fine for centuries the way they are. So enjoy the "new" dishes but don't neglect the tried and true.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Four More Years

Congrats to Mayor Joe Riley on his recent re-election to a 10th term as mayor of the Holy City. I was but a mere child (well, teenager) when he was first elected 36 years ago. I didn't have much interest in things political at the time, but I can certainly remember a few of the huge changes this city experienced early in his tenure - and how they were met with some resistance by many folks at the time. One of my first memories was the revitalization of the City Market. At the time (1977), the market was very seedy - a lot of warehouses (some vacant) and a lot of bums hanging around the area, even during the daytime. In fact, I wouldn't have even ventured into the area in the nighttime - and wouldn't have had any reason to. My college friend Eddie had a part-time job in one of the packing sheds, and there were some black women selling vegetables in the open air sheds. But those weren't really reason enough to venture into the area, even in broad daylight. Alas, we heard that a "nice bar" was opening in the area - Frances Willard's (named for a tee-totaller during Prohibition). It seemed strange to think of a respectable establishment in that area, but it was great, and before you knew it, several others popped up. And vendors began renting space in the open air sheds to sell all kinds of things from tee-shirts to shot glasses to framed prints. (My sister worked for her boyfriend's father selling glasses and trivets at one of the booths.) Well, hasn't this place come a long way from those days! From there, other projects emerged under the mayor's guidance (and sometimes suggestion) - Spoleto USA, Charleston Place, Waterfront Park, the SC Aquarium, the Official Visitors Center, the Upper King Street Revitalization. I'll stop there, but each of these projects were met initially with reticence by many Charlestonians. But look at where they've gotten us. Thanks, Mayor Riley, for 36 years of your vision in helping to guide this city to the prominence it deserves.

Friday, December 2, 2011

King is King

Congratulations again to the Holy City for having one of the best shopping districts in the country - at least according to US News and World Report. It's pretty exciting to be recognized among the likes of 5th Avenue in NYC and Rodeo Drove in LA. No locals would dispute the fact that shopping on King Street is great, and now everyone else knows it too. And because it is closed to auto traffic on the second Sunday of each month., shoppers can enjoy it even more! With a mile of shops divided into three distinct areas (the antique district, the unique locally-owned boutiqes section, and traditional shops wedged in-between those two areas), there is something for everyone. Why would anyone want to go to a mall when you can visit establishments on King like Birlant's Antiques, Croghan's Jewel Box and Blue Bicycle Books? Shopping downtown is a blast from the past, for you baby boomers. And it's trendy among younger shoppers as well. Try it. You might like it.