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.