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The New Charleston, SC

Zubin Shroff History remembered in an antebellum portrait at Charleston's Old Slave Mart Museum

Photo: Zubin Shroff

Meanwhile, on the other side of the historical continuum, Charleston is stretching into the future. The city even has the mandatory late-breaking hip district: On King Street, north of Calhoun, a string of funky old establishments—What-Cha-Like-Gospel; Reuben's, "The store that puts the change on you," offering the Steve Harvey line of flash wear; and the chockablock Honest John's Record Shop for lawn-care service, pigs' feet, and even records—serves as a backdrop for such newcomers as the supremely edgy B'zar, a "Shop for your lifestyle" with such neo-hipster items as Kidrobot toys. B'zar is owned by Gustavo and Andrea Serrano, a young husband-and-wife team who moved down south from Brooklyn last year. Gustavo, for one, is ready to ride the vibe: "The quality of life in Charleston is amazing, and this section of town has so many great new things: the restaurants 39 Rue de Jean, Coast, and Raval, a martini bar called Torch, and really interesting shops like Urban Electric, Dwelling, and Leigh Magar, who makes these really fantastic hats. I love living in a city that has yet to happen."

On the culinary front, such stalwarts as Charleston Grill, Circa 1886, and Peninsula Grill have yielded to the new era of reimagined Southern fare—the tweaked shrimp and grits at establishments such as Slightly North of Broad and the advanced regional cuisine at places like Hominy Grill. Robert Stehling, Hominy's chef and owner, operates out of a converted barbershop with pine floors, dishing up such adventures as ginger-accented coleslaw and Southern fried chicken with country-ham gravy. To Stehling, the horizon is unlimited: "The restaurant scene here hasn't found a good Southern focus yet. We need to look at what's unique about the low country, the fabulous food that came from the black cooks in the homes of the wealthy rice planters."

In fact, this is not the first time Charleston has propelled itself into the modern era. In the 1920's, the Charleston Renaissance movement embraced artists, jazz musicians, social innovations like the cocktail party and the Charleston dance craze, and writers on the order of DuBose Heyward—whose novel Porgy, about life on Catfish Row, did pretty well as the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. Today's Charleston renaissance is fueled by the Spoleto Festival every spring, though on any given day the cultivated set of the city matches the sophisticates of London or Paris. Some of Charleston's more prominent contemporary writers, for instance, include Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees); Josephine Humphreys (Rich in Love); and Edward Ball, who wrote the National Book Award–winning Slaves in the Family, detailing his shame over the Ball family's control of some 4,000 slaves.

In the end, what you take away from any city are the people, and Charleston's neo-Dixie intelligentsia—people like Charlie Smith of the gay social justice group Alliance for Full Acceptance—are forever teetering between the tug of the past and the rush of the new. Harlan Greene, author of Why We Never Danced the Charleston, is always ready to mock what he calls the "deliberately Southern" Dixie dialectic that has prevailed since Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Artist Thomas Sully—married to Susan Sully, author of Charleston Style: Then and Now—has made interesting studies of that "whole oppressive Southern agrarian movement." Dale Rosengarten, a sweetgrass-basket expert and director of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston, has the 411 on local politics and on Beth Elohim, the second-oldest synagogue in the United States and the birthplace of the American Reform movement in 1824. And Nichole Green, the young director of the Old Slave Mart Museum, set to reopen later this year, gives a feeling for what the institution will offer, guiding a visitor through displays of slave badges, planter's diaries, and other artifacts that capture the visceral horror of slavery. "Feel how heavy this is in your hand," she says, pulling out a 10-pound ball and chain from one case, "then imagine trying to run through underbrush with it wrapped around your ankle."

It's Sunday morning at St. Michael's Episcopal, the society church George Washington frequented; for years, worshippers came with their slaves, who sat in the upstairs gallery. The bells are clanging, and the crowd attending services in their Sunday best, with their sleepy golden children, make Norman Rockwell look like a realist. Just outside the church's pristine cemetery is the usual phalanx of Gullah women selling sweetgrass baskets, a craft perfected by the islanders off the coast. To the wellborn of a certain generation, Gullah is the language of maids and nannies—their dahs who used to quiet them with Shu yo mut (Shut your mouth)—but it's their language as well, an odd cross between a creolized Southern drawl, West Indian patois, and the emphatic barks of African dialects.


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