Are we becoming the People’s Republic of Charleston?
One after another, they stepped to the microphone for their 45 seconds Tuesday night to ask, to beg, to demand that City Council ban single-use plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam containers. And the council heard the people, giving preliminary second-reading approval to a new environmental law that is no cure-all, but nudges us in the right direction.
Then like some modern-day Sam Rayburn, Mayor John Tecklenburg immediately gaveled it through for third and final reading before anyone could change their mind. And it was done: Charleston had become the largest city in South Carolina to ban plastic bags, joining its neighbors in Mount Pleasant, Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island and Folly Beach. No one is going to confuse us with liberal bastions like Cambridge, Mass., or Berkeley, Calif., or Austin, Texas, but Charleston is looking practically progressive these days.
In a deep-red state, Charleston County voted blue in the last three presidential elections, even supporting the she-devil herself, Hillary Clinton. Joe Cunningham is going to Congress, the first Democrat to win the creatively gerrymandered 1st District since the late ’70s. Democrats flipped two local state House seats.
It hardly ends there. Last summer, at the urging of Mayor Tecklenburg, City Council voted 7-5 to apologize for Charleston’s appalling role in abetting slavery. Recently, with hardly any discussion, the council unanimously approved South Carolina’s first hate crime law protecting gays and others against bias-motivated crimes.
The College of Charleston in September announced the Center for the Study of Slavery, and the city will soon break ground on a $75 million International African American Museum. The college last week named a Chinese immigrant and engineer as its next president, the first time in its 248-year history that anyone other than a white man will be in charge. Maybe the board will find a worthy woman one day.
The port, the military and tourism remain pillars of the economy, but Charleston is increasingly filled with tech start-ups like Ceterus and PhishLabs attracting smart kids from off and smart locals alike. The handsomely renovated Cigar Factory is home to award-winning Garden & Gun magazine and the Clemson Architecture Center.
You can see, taste and hear our changing culture. The barbecue and shrimp and grits are as good as ever, but the local food industry, with restaurants like Husk and Fig, takes a backseat to nowhere in the South. Thanks to our 7 million guests every year, Charleston’s music and small theater scenes keep getting better and go far beyond what any town of 135,000 might be expected to have.
What’s going on? In part, progressive Charleston is the result of the same urban-rural cultural and political divide that is separating red states from blue and creating two Americas. Then there is the matter of those 28 people, many from New York and other Northeast states, who every day decide to make the Charleston area their home. Former Mayor Joe Riley liked to say that we change them, they don’t change us. Well, we are changing — and mostly for the better.
Global companies like Boeing, Volvo and Mercedes are attracted to places that look forward, not backward. Success begets success.
There’s plenty of work to do. Charleston schools remain depressingly segregated, with some of the state’s best and worst schools. Pervasive racial disparities continue in incomes, housing, health care, political power and more. A few people at the Charleston Rifle Club are still capable of embarrassing us all by blackballing an accomplished African American emergency room doctor.
The Confederate monuments remain on Marion Square and elsewhere, but count me among those who think they should stay right where they are. Mayor Riley had it right: Don’t take down old monuments, erect new ones.
There has never been much love lost between Charleston and the rest of South Carolina. The Upstate thinks the Lowcountry feels we’re better than they are. We know we are. And the gap between them and us, I am happy to report, has never been wider or felt better.
Steve Bailey writes for the Commentary page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.