The city of Charleston has yet again topped a “best cities” list, with the readers of Travel + Leisure magazine putting it at the pinnacle. The ranking of “best city in the world” shows just how well Charleston treats visitors while preserving its historical treasures and, of course, providing great places to eat and shop.
The magazine lists Charleston’s main attractions as its boutiques, its high-quality hotels, its “antebellum charm” and its waterfront.
Linked to the slide show of the “world’s best” is a piece encouraging tourists to eat at Sean Brock’s Husk, to stay at The Vendue, to shop on King Street or the Marion Square farmer’s market and to use the bike-pedestrian lane on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.
Many of these features appeal to visitors and locals alike. Bike lanes are an attractive asset for the city, particularly with so much to see in its surrounding areas. And open-air markets at Marion Square make the chore of grocery shopping a walk in the park — literally.
However, half of the qualities cited by T + L are in praise of Charleston’s thriving tourism industry, at the heart of the peninsula city. It is no wonder that developers are racing to build hotels everywhere — an endeavor that ultimately threatens the city’s enviable charm and historic character.
Charleston has had to begin rethinking its zoning rules to slow the continued loss of affordable housing, such as The Courtyards at 411 Meeting St., which will be replaced with a large hotel and pricier apartments.
The loss of affordable housing is linked to the city’s ongoing gentrification and the gradual exit of many long-time residents from traditional neighborhoods on the peninsula.
Residents who leave Charleston take parts of its culture with them. This is evident, for example, in the abandonment of the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church, a historically black church on Elizabeth Street.
In short, the reasons that put Charleston on the top of the Travel + Leisure list call for caution as well as celebration.
It’s natural to be proud of any award recognizing the city’s outstanding qualities by some of its millions of visitors.
But ensuring a better quality of life for residents should be the primary goal of the city’s leadership.
Indeed, Mayor John Tecklenburg ran for office last year with a promise to protect and improve the city’s livability, which has eroded in some neighborhoods because of the tourism boom.
Ironically, the designation as “best city in the world” serves as a reminder of the inherent challenges presented by the city’s remarkable popularity.
Charleston’s leaders need to ensure that our historic city doesn’t become the two-dimensional backdrop of a tourist shopping excursion.