The Changes of Charleston
Tourists Flock in, Attractions Multiply & the City Expands
THE CHARLESTON PHOTO GALLERY
Internationally recognized blacksmith Philip Simmons
South Carolina Aquarium
A Charleston "single house"
A favorite mode of touring: the horse-drawn carriage
St. Philip's steeple at night
St. Michael's steeple
Historic Fort Sumter
A RiverDogs minor league baseball game
Mayor Joe Riley with youth at the Family Circle Cup
Low Country baskets at The Market
by Stephen Hoffius
The tour bus turns away from Charleston’s sparkling waterfront, away from the colonial and ante-bellum homes with their ornamental gardens, away from the church spires that rise so far above the streets that passengers have to lean out of the car and bus windows to see them. A mile north of Calhoun Street, two miles from the social dividing line of Broad Street, the white bus with more than a dozen visitors who have paid $15 each for this tour passes dilapidated frame buildings and piles of discarded, rusty steel and cement blocks. It turns onto Blake Street and parks opposite the brick wall that marks the rear of Trident Technical College’s Palmer Campus. The driver leads the tourists down a gravel driveway that winds around to the blacksmith shop of Philip Simmons.
This is one of the African-American history tours led by a business called Gullah Tours, and this stop is one of the most popular. The tourists have seen examples of Simmons’ gates and fences throughout the city, including the ornate 13-foot-tall structure by the Charleston Visitors Center. Now they can meet the man who made them.
Simmons greets them warmly, asks where they’re from and poses for pictures. They stretch their arms around him. They’ve come from Charlotte, Texas, Canada, and Germany for this opportunity. Simmons, dressed in dark green slacks and workshirt, red cap on his gray head, explains that when he started blacksmithing, "we was making horse and mule shoes, plows. Then you know what came along? Cars. The automobile destroyed the blacksmith business. We’d say, ‘I wonder where Mr. Hutson been? He hadn’t come around in ages.’ ‘Oh, he won’t be coming anymore,’ they’d say. ‘He bought himself a car.’ So we had to change."
Simmons had to totally shift the focus of his business twice after it was established: from a horse- and mule-dependent trade to the production of wagons and car trailers, and finally to ornamental gates and fences. When one customer base disappeared, he developed another. "Success," he tells his visitors, "is measured by the obstacles one has overcome. And I have had my day."
To many tourists, Philip Simmons represents Charleston—or at least the Charleston they’ve come to see. He represents longstanding tradition, handmade craftsmanship, attention to detail. At 88, he also represents many of the changes Charleston has undergone in the last century.
Simmons was born in 1912 on Daniel Island in the middle of the Wando River, north of Charleston. His grandfather farmed, fished and hunted there. "He always had something to sell." When he was 8, Simmons’ family sent him to Charleston so he could get an education. There were opportunities in Charleston that Daniel Island couldn’t offer. He has lived here ever since.
When he was 13, he became fascinated by the blacksmiths of the city. He began hanging around the shop of Peter Simmons (no relation) until the blacksmith agreed to teach him the trade. There was plenty of work—at that time the city supported 15 blacksmiths, "all busy," he remembers—though not necessarily plenty of money. For 40 years he moved around the city’s East Side, which since the early 19th Century had been a gathering place for African Americans and immigrants. It was a working-class community, with the exception of a few of the city’s more spectacular homes, including the plantation-like Aiken-Rhett House. But then much of Charleston was working class. Blacks and whites, rich and poor lived beside one another for most of the city’s more-than-300-year history.
About 40 years ago, Simmons moved to Blake Street, still on the East Side, buying two houses for about $15,000. "It’s where you could be comfortable," he says of his community, "where you could find people you could love every day, and who would love you every day."
The city’s economy sank during the Depression, rose with the world wars and the ensuing military spending. And Simmons’ business also cycled.
In 1976, after more than 50 years of blacksmithing, Philip Simmons, working at his forge on Blake Street, was discovered. Folklorist John Vlach asked him to bring his equipment to Washington, DC, to demonstrate his trade at the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife. "What should I make?" he asked Vlach. "Anything you want," he was told. So on the National Mall in Washington, during the nation’s bicentennial, visited daily by hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, he hammered out the Star and Fish Gate—now owned by the Smithsonian Institution. Vlach wrote a biography of Simmons, Charleston Blacksmith (available in a revised edition from the University of South Carolina Press), and the prices for his gates began to increase. The city ordered a tall gate for the Visitors Center, the South Carolina State Museum did the same with a remarkably detailed sculpture which is a centerpiece of the museum’s art collection, and the Charleston International Airport installed an elaborate gazebo in its lobby. Simmons’ workshop became a stop on history tours of the city.
About the time Philip Simmons was hauling his equipment to Washington, Joseph P. Riley was taking charge of his first term as mayor of the city. One of his main concerns was revitalizing the downtown area. Between 1960 and 1970, the population had dropped by almost 20,000 people, and plywood covered important storefronts on King Street, the city’s main shopping area. One way to bring back the downtown area, thought the new mayor, was to promote tourism.
Charleston, of course, has been a tourist destination for centuries. European visitors to America included it on their tour of the new republic, along with Boston and Philadelphia. The scars of the battles of the American Revolution, the federal shelling during the Civil War, the destruction of thousands of buildings during the 1886 earthquake—nothing could discourage the tourists. Within a month of the surrender at Appomattox, northern tourists arrived in Charleston; one group climbed into St. Michael’s Church through the bombed-out holes in the wall and took away with them the front panel of the pulpit. (Eventually it was returned.)
But Mayor Riley was proposing to court tourists as the city never had: Advertise throughout the country to tell people about the beauties of Charleston, build a Visitors Center to ease their entrance into the city, coordinate the services they would use and build a grand hotel/convention center/retail facility (now called Charleston Place) to serve them. Along the narrow streets and over cocktails, there were constant arguments about the future direction of Charleston. Neighbors stopped speaking to neighbors, at least for a while, but eventually the mayor achieved most of what he sought.
Tourism has doubled, almost tripled, in the last 20 years. More than a dozen hotels, large and small, have been built since Charleston Place was completed in the mid-1980s. The Visitors Center is crowded every week of the year; there is no off-season. "Tourism," explains Riley, "is our number one industry."
The mayor also has been adamant about Charleston not replicating other tourist destinations. People live here, and the city has to serve both residents and tourists.
That’s the rub. Tourists bring cars, crowd the roads and fill the restaurants. They make life for residents more complicated.
The city’s plan is to "manage" the tourists: to encourage them to walk the historic streets or tour in buses like the one that visits Simmons’ shop, rather than in cars. The crowded restaurants have begotten even more restaurants. When Riley first was elected, there were perhaps two fine restaurants in the city; now there are dozens—and a cooking college that provides them with trained employees. In terms of social options, Charlestonians have never had it so good. But reservations at those restaurants are often necessary.
Not everyone is pleased with the changes to the city. Every four years Riley is opposed at the polls by a candidate who charges, among other things, that the mayor serves tourists more than residents. (And every four years Riley wins, getting about 70 percent of the vote, though he is an outspoken Democrat in a city that often votes Republican.)
But is the city’s Waterfront Park—with fountains for children to play in, a long dock with swings, and benches and faucets for local fishermen—a service for tourists or residents? What about the new $69-million aquarium that displays and explains South Carolina marine life to busloads of school children every day? Or the minor-league baseball stadium, designed so the Ashley River and summer sunsets can be found just beyond right field? (The Joseph P. Riley Park, nicknamed The Joe, is one of the few things named for the mayor.) They appeal to tourists, but residents may benefit more.
Certainly the hundreds of units of new, affordable housing in the city mean little to tourists. Riley is particularly proud of that accomplishment, which he has promoted for all of his 25 years in office. "I know there isn’t a city in the country relative to our size that has built as much affordable housing as we have in Charleston," Riley says.
Even more than his individual projects, Riley’s "vision" for the city draws attention. One example of that vision is the Mayor’s Institute of City Design, based in Charlottesville, VA. The institute, Riley explains, "was borne of my recognition that mayors have an incredible opportunity to influence the design of their cities." Every year, about eight mayors from throughout the country—large towns and small, over the years from all 50 states—are invited to Charlottesville to address a problem of their city. The problem may concern housing, economic development or crowded roads. A team of experts helps the mayors examine their situations. The institute is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Among the institute’s goals is to infuse mayors with confidence to stand up for quality in the projects they attempt. Riley takes that stand regularly. This year, a case in point has been the question of a new bridge to span the Cooper River, replacing the two existing bridges. Riley has spoken out repeatedly for a graceful design for this towering entranceway to his city that probably will stand for a century. He has challenged the notion of building two four-lane bridges, pushing instead for a single, elegant bridge.
For the past 25 years, Riley has held weekly staff meetings in his high-ceilinged office at City Hall, overlooking Washington Park. These days the meetings are held on Tuesday mornings at 8 a.m. and draw about 20 department and division heads, who turn in weekly summaries of their work and bring him—and one another—up to date on their projects. The big news this day is that the city’s new tennis facility will be dedicated tonight, and the mayor wants to praise all the city staff who helped make it a reality.
Along with many other communities around the country, the city bid for the Family Circle Cup women’s tournament, which after 28 years on Hilton Head had to find a new home. Miraculously, Charleston—which had only a few scattered tennis courts at city parks—won. The city proposed building a major new sports facility, and did so—conception, design and construction—in just 12 months. Its name: The Tennis Centre at Daniel Island.
Yes, Daniel Island, once the isolated birthplace of Philip Simmons, recently was opened for development, and the City of Charleston annexed it. The island is outside the boundaries of Charleston County, but laws allow a community to annex another if the local property owners approve and if the two communities touch. By annexation laws, Charleston touches anything separated from it by a body of water, so Daniel Island in Berkeley County is now part of the City of Charleston.
Most of Charleston’s geographic growth for the last 30 years has been off the peninsula: Besides Daniel Island, the city has annexed West Ashley lands and parts of James and Johns islands. The city now covers 90 square miles; in 1970, it only reached 18 square miles. Those suburban areas are where the city’s population is growing; two-thirds of Charlestonians now live off the peninsula. So while the structures of the downtown historic area—St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s, the Battery, the Market—symbolize the city to many, it is in the suburbs that most of Charleston’s people now are found.
The developers of Daniel Island knew prospective home owners would be more interested in buying if there was a quality school on the island. They offered free land to Bishop England High School, a parochial school, if it would move to the island. Bishop England had been located on Calhoun Street downtown for more than 75 years, but needed more land to grow. So the school sold its downtown property to the land-strapped College of Charleston, which will build its new library there, and used the money to construct a first-rate, $13-million campus on Daniel Island.
Today, hundreds of families, including many in downtown Charleston, send their children to the island for an education. Simmons, who made the reverse trip 80 years ago, just shakes his head when he thinks about the changes.
Simmons returns to the island fairly often these days. After all, he is designing a large, wrought-iron sculpture for the entrance to a park on the island. It will be called the Philip Simmons Park and will serve both tourists and residents.
Stephen Hoffius, former director of publications for the South Carolina Historical Society, is a freelance writer and editor in Charleston.
For information about visiting Charleston, contact the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 868-8118 or visit www.charlestoncvb.com on the Web. For information about Charleston city government, visit the Web site www .charleston.net/charlestoncity.
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