Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Sign of the Times

The older we get, the more we seem to reflect on holidays past. So this Easter, I am reminded of the Easters of my childhood - which always required a new dress, hat, gloves, and shoes for my sister and me. The ensemble was usually purchased at Condon's Department Store on the corner of King and Warren Streets. (And then on Easter, multiple pictures were taken of my sister, mother and me in front of the gargantuan azalea bushes in our front yard.) Condon's, one of Charleston's first "department stores," was run by a local family. And on the off-chance that you couldn't find what was needed there, you could always visit Kerrison's, another locally run business several blocks south in the "downtown" district. (Condon's was uptown.) Both of these businesses have been closed for years due to the popularity of "mall" shopping leading to mass evacuation of stores in the city. Only a few of the old family-run businesses have remained: Berlin's Menswear (where my daddy got all his suits), Dumas (where I bought my first pair of blue jeans in the 1970s), and Croghan's Jewel Box (where my husband and I picked out my diamond engagement ring almost three decades ago) are some of those that are still around. And after approximately 30 years of hanging on for dear life, these businesses have finally been able to reap the rewards of a resurgence of interest in King Street as a shopping district. What is amusing to newcomers (and sentimental for old-timers) is that many of the businesses of yesteryear may be gone but some semblance of them remains on the buildings themselves. A Thai restaurant sports the sign for Robinson's Bicycle Shop (complete with a bicycle on top of it). Chase Furniture's sign sits on the facade of what is now the Charleston School of Law. Edwards' Five and Dime, Bluesteins Apparel, Dixie Furniture, and Abrams Menswear are but a few of the others who have found new identities today but whose names are still on the buildings. Take a stroll along King, particularly in the "Upper King Street District" north of Calhoun Street, and see how many clues you can find of the businesses that came before. And be reminded that Charlestonians' desire and longing for the past are what make it so special in the present.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sesquicentennial Thoughts

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the first shots of the Civil War. The week has been chock full of events to mark the occasion, from artillery displays, encampments, and cannons firing. Things will likely settle down around here for the next couple of years, just as they did 150 years ago. The first two years of the war were rather quiet in the Holy City (even though a very important battle took place just across the river on James Island in June 1862). But things began to heat up intensely (both figuratively and literally) around here the next summer (1863) when the city came under siege - and remained so for over 18 months. So just because things are quiet now, don't assume the commemorative events have come to an end. This is just the beginning.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Bridging the Century

Reflecting on the annual (33rd maybe?) Cooper River Bridge Run held today and listening to my 22 year old son relay his enjoyment of participating in the race (for his 2nd year), I began to think about the "old bridge" on which the annual race originated. When it was constructed in the 1920s, it was considered an engineering marvel. However, it became obsolete by its 70th birthday and is now gone but not forgotten - at least by old-timers here. I must say I never had much of an affinity for it. It scared the daylights out of me when I started driving! Although it was built for 2-way traffic (and was only 2 lanes wide), it had become one-way by the 1960s when a slightly larger version of it was built alongside it to transport drivers east across the Cooper while the old bridge carried them west. When the Bridge Run was held on the old bridge, runners would say they could feel the bridge swaying with the movement of the many hundred (eventually thousand) feet in motion. (Glad I'm not a runner!) But nonetheless, the original bridge had its place in history, just as the "new" Ravenel Bridge does. When my mother was 14 years old, she was given a class assignment by her teacher to write an essay on how she imagined Charleston would be 100 years in the future. The focus of her theme was shipping, and part of her story was the "old bridge." Even though the bridge was not even 2 decades old at the time, she foretold that a larger one would be built to accommodate larger vessels that would sail under it 100 years hence. Her predictions have become true - both about the bridge and about the ships. And her essay was chosen to be put into the time trunk at the Charleston Museum. It will be opened in 2039, and we'll see just what a young 14 year old student had to say on the topic. In any event, the Cooper River Bridge (both past and present) is not only an important fixture in our skyline here, but is also an important testament to the industry on which this city was founded.