A tour of Charleston's recent history

Julian Buxton

It's become quite fashionable among downtown residents to loathe Charleston tourists - and it's hard to blame them.

Locals see the buses, buggies and pedicabs clogging the streets every day, the cruise ships that dump entire fanny pack brigades into our neighborhoods every week.

These tourists come to soak up our history, but some folks worry they are going to destroy it.

That's a legitimate concern.

So these residents probably were happy last week when the city put a temporary moratorium on new tours while we do a little soul-searching.

But while the city debates a new tourism management plan, maybe locals need a little history lesson of their own.

And the perfect person to guide that tour is Julian Buxton III.

See, even though tourism can be a pain, it is not inherently evil. In fact, it's pretty safe to say that tourism built the vibrant, world-class city we enjoy today. But that's not part of the standard tour.

Buxton was born and raised in Charleston, a son of a well-known doctor.

Although he was a smart guy, Buxton didn't see a future for himself in medicine. And, therefore, like so many people in his generation, he didn't see a future in Charleston.

When he was coming up in the 1970s, the economic power here was doctors, lawyers and old-world money.

"At least that's how I saw it," Buxton says. "In my mind, there wasn't anything happening."

Those days, few of his friends ventured north of Broad, much less north of Calhoun. Buxton remembers a dive called Mikey's, where he and his friends used to hang out. Across the street from Mikey's was a desolate patch of ground. He still remembers the announcement when Omni said it would build a hotel complex there.

That development would become Charleston Place, and it would change the city.

But not immediately.

Buxton went off to Princeton and, from there, crisscrossed the country. He lived in Malibu, taught at Pepperdine, ended up in North Dakota for a while.

Buxton came home often to visit his parents. One day he was walking on the beach on Sullivan's Island, looking back at the city and at Fort Sumter, and he was struck by the beauty of it all. Why, he wondered, did he ever leave?

Oh, yeah. No opportunities.

But the city was changing. New businesses were sprouting up; the part of town that used to be too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash was suddenly spiffy and neat. Charleston was at the doorstep of a renaissance.

Buxton had always been interested in history, and when his parents had friends in from out of town, he was invariably asked to show them around.

While he was giving one of these casual tours, he spied some licensed tour guides, badges and all, squiring folks around the city.

Then it came to him: I can make money doing this?

Today, Buxton is owner of Tour Charleston and an ambassador for the city to thousands of people discovering it for the first time.

And Buxton gets it.

He sees the good that tourism has done for Charleston. It has not only been the spark that has led to economic development, it has made the city one of the most desirable places to live on the East Coast.

Along the way, it has raised a lot of people's property values.

At the same time, he has always been respectful of Charleston's residential heart - most of his friends live there, after all.

See, folks like Buxton and Palmetto Carriage owner Tom Doyle understand the strains of tourism on residents and do their best to minimize it.

That's how it should be, and that should be the goal of any new tourism management plan.

Unregulated tourism could threaten Charleston. Some argue it already does. So it's good that the city looks at reining in the industry before everyone ends up suffering. We are the greatest tourist destination in the Milky Way Galaxy (sorry, flat-earthers) and we can now afford to pick and choose what's right for the city, and what is wrong.

But bottom line, everyone has to give a little here. We need to realize that not all tourism is bad. Just ask anyone who understands this great city's history.

Like Buxton.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com