Now I have seen how a historic district in a historic city is preserved and can function to the benefit of all, including for tourism.
Charleston, South Carolina is a city on the southeast coast of the US that was founded in the mid 17th century by British colonizers. It has a good harbor and fertile land suitable for plantation agriculture and rich with the bounty of the sea. It is the fourth largest container port in the US and is a hub of commerce.
Charleston played its role in the American Revolution and in the War of 1812 against the British. By that time it had an established if hierarchical society of planters and slaves (who outnumbered them). It was prosperous, genteel, educated (the top members of society were) and patriotic. Thus, the oldest museum in North America is the Charleston Museum. It has so many churches that its nickname is the Holy City as well as educational institutions, principally the College of Charleston whose campus with its wide green spaces sprawls over a good part of the city.
Naturally, the 18th and early 19th century, the age of prosperity in Charleston was marked by the construction of public buildings as well as appropriately designed and furnished houses with the latest comforts and conveniences of the day in the most tasteful and artistic ways.
While fires and the American Civil War occurred, somehow they did not dent the city as much as others in the American South. It escaped the fate of Atlanta which was burned to the ground. Charleston remains what it was, which is now seen as a precious historical identity, a jewel of a city, a long gone lifestyle from the past caught in the present. It maintains the material expression of its history and identity intact. Yet it is modern, more equal (slavery long abolished) and in step with the world.
Could it have gone the other way? Yes, it could have been overdeveloped, over commercialized, over exploited so as to lose its character and turn it into a parody of itself. Tourism for instant profit can do that as it has done in other places that had the features and the promise but were deconstructed by the profit motive.
How is Charleston’s character preserved? By a vision, a master plan that has rules and regulations that keep the residential historic district what it was—residential. No commercial exploitation by way of turning houses into shops, restaurants, bars or worse. The residential district keeps it residential identity and therefore its residents. The houses there are still in use by descendants of original owners, or new owners who find its residential character familiar, comfortable and useful.
No structures are allowed that would change the height limits or clash with the architectural style even if new materials are used. In fact, nothing in the historical districts is higher than the steeple of an 18th century church in it. The churches have open spaces, graveyards (still in use if you are from the parish). Houses have passages on one side leading to courtyards or open spaces behind. Trees and gardens abound. And everyone seems to be maintaining their houses. There were no derelict buildings or unkempt gardens. Modern amenities like disks on walls against earthquakes, adequate parking areas, segregated garbage, traffic aids are in place. The houses are unique, made of brick with stucco overlay or wood panels featuring three of four stories at the most with each story having a lengthwise porch (or “piazza,” as they call them). Uniquely, the “piazzas” are only on one side of the house so that they don’t stare into the neighbor’s “piazza” which is on the other side away from the “piazza” of its next neighbor and so on. This is common courtesy, and practical accommodation, social manners that make for long-term comfortable relationships and a well-managed neighborhood. They are from the past but work very well in the present.
The point about the Charleston historic district, which is a huge area, is that it all belongs as a piece and remains as such. History and its figures have come and gone but Charleston’s historical district remains, the past and present moving into the future as one. It is the ultimate and most fulfilling tourist attraction.
There is a small part designated as commercial as it was in days of yore. The 19th century public market remains, now turned into tourist shops. Hotels and restaurants appropriately small in scale are present and serviceable for tourists and locals. The Customs House stands on top of steps with columns denoting it as an impressive and important government building.
In other words, sensible, appropriate and functional rules deriving from a vision upon which a plan has been derived and is followed. Thus, Charleston is a unique and historical city to visit and it is worth the visit. It keeps its crepe myrtle and magnolia trees, its beautiful harbor boulevard residential, and its period homes as they were and should be.
It is for us to learn that not everything from the past should be done away with by destruction through overdevelopment and mistaken ideas of what is progress. Or, that everything new should be considered better in context with the old. The long view is best, not the shortsighted one of immediate profit and instant gratification sans a vision, a plan, a thought. Alas, the latter dominates us.