Over the course of my life, I’ve had the good fortune to live in some of the world’s great places. I grew up on the coast of Maine, lived all over the state of Florida, including Key West and Miami Beach (both before and after it was cool), in Seattle before it got huge, in Charleston before it was the #1 destination, in Monte Carlo, on a 600 year old farm in Tuscany , the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia (well, the Istrian peninsula, home to the best preserved Roman ruins anywhere), a ski resort in New Hampshire, and now in the heart of the Lowcountry.
It’s this Lowcountry home which made me realize that nearly every place I’ve lived, I’ve lived in just before it was “discovered.” I lived in Key West with my son in the 80s, in a funky little neighborhood on the edge of Bahamas Village- right before Key West was groomed to within an inch of its gingerbread life. Key West is now an expensive, jam-packed theme park version of its former seedy self. (Oh, for the 70s, when the bars were still dives and Conchs ruled.)
We lived in downtown Charleston in an old carriage house, a block from the Dock Street Theater and slightly north of Broad. We moved there right after Hugo took the elegant old dame from her slightly threadbare state (“too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash) and, with the magic of tragedy followed by insurance, turned her into the belle of the ball. Charleston today, while still an elegant lady holding tightly to her Southern roots, has become such a destination that the only quiet places on the peninsula are the hidden gardens and narrow alleys south of Broad; though many of those handsome old homes are now owned by people “from away,” and the Confederate Home for Women and Children has been closed because no one qualified to live there any more. (Requirements for orphans and the elderly included a direct line to a Confederate soldier.)
The little “country” town of Woodinville that we lived in in the early 80s, is now a major suburb of Seattle.
In the gallery today, a family from Nashville told me the Nashville area is getting a million new people a year. Not visitors, residents.
And my beloved Lowcountry, a sleepy backwater 20 years ago when I lived in Charleston, is welcoming so many folks “from away” that I fear for the future of the southern way of life altogether.
But what can you do? When I lived in Seattle in the early 80s, the influx of Californians was so great that Oregonians were being outright rude: you’re welcome to visit, but you can’t stay. And Seattle natives talked of putting up a wall.
In most instances, when an undiscovered place enjoys a surge of popularity, it is welcome, bringing income and fresh faces and the flattery of being desirable. The changes aren’t noticed right off, because now, instead of being the place no one can find on a map, you are the place everyone wants to visit. So, Charleston went from being a city that needed to establish the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition to get people to come there in February, to being a hot southern city crowded with tourists every day of the year, with no off-season at all. The pretty historic peninsula which used to roll up the sidewalks in July and August, and belong to locals in the “winter” months, has cruise ships docking several times a week. The excitement of an event like SEWE is now overshadowed by the sheer work involved in getting around when there are 50,000 MORE people in town for the weekend.
During the 14 years I lived in my husband’s home town of Raleigh, the population tripled. Never a deeply southern city to begin with, it is now populated with so many people from the northeast and the west coast that you’d be hard put to find anyone who even knows what “all y’all” means any more.
No, I am not a person who is afraid of change, who’s xenophobic (I lived in the Middle East and eastern Europe, y’all, and spend several weeks a year in Haiti in the 70s), and I know that even though I’ve spent 50 years in the south, I’m still not a GRIT. But, when you love a place for it’s way of life, it’s hard to see that destroyed by overwhelming numbers. And the unfortunate truth is that the people moving to these places because of their way of life, tend to forget that, and try to rearrange things in the way they’re used to elsewhere.
Venice, Italy is a cautionary tale. I’ve never actually lived there, but I’ve spent large chunks of time there at every opportunity since the early 70s. In those days, it was still Venice: old, full of history, absent of vehicles, peopled with old ladies with shopping bags, kids with booksacks, snobby Venetians who had their own dialect, arrogant handsome gondoliers, and the occasional rich ex-pats from England or America, with artistic pretentions and plenty of money. But the neighborhoods were real neighborhoods. The laundry hung over the canals in the ghetto. The baker shook his floury towel out the window at the pigeons. Old men helped equally old ladies off and on the vaporettos. In other words, a real city, with a distinct way of life all its own.
It was also, like most of Italy at the time, a place where you could get a lot for your money, if you were resourceful.
Today, thanks to the European Union, which has open borders and no restrictions on buying and selling land across former borders, Italy is no longer any more affordable than any other European country; and Venice is no longer really Venetian. The last time we were there, I didn’t see a single little old lady in a black dress and sensible shoes lugging her groceries. I didn’t see a single schoolchild. Many of the palazzos, like the big columned houses in Charleston, are now owned by people “from away,” who rarely visit and often rent to other strangers. The restaurant staffs are almost totally Philipines and the restaurant owners are from everywhere. The haughty gondoliers still ply their trade and sing the occasional aria, but no one hasa private gondola any more, and you’re likely to hear much more English, French and German around you on the streets than the Venetian dialect that so charmed writers in the 19th century. So the appearance of Venice is the same, but the feel is vastly different. We are almost — not quite — to that “theme park version” of Venice.
The metamorphosis of Venice is a lot like what’s happening to the south: people who don’t want to live in the ugly cold places are moving to the nice warm ones. They’ve always done it, but now it’s easier and even more desirable because work and the way of life in those cold places has changed too, so the warm places are appealing in other, different ways now. We can’t stop it. We can rail against it, but the proverbial cow is out of the barn.
So I guess the salient issue is how to retain the character of these places we love from being destroyed by sheer weight of numbers, simply to save the way of life.
We used to have a great southern humor writer named Lewis Grizzard and he would get fed up with some of the things we’re talking about here. He boiled it down to a simple gesture – the wave. The two-fingered wave from the wheel, when you pass a car in your neighborhood. The wave of thanks when someone lets you into or out of traffic. The “hey” when you pass on the sidewalk. It was all part of that southern hospitality, acknowledging others, not just passing them by. He summed up his diatribe with this: “wave, dang it, you’re in the South!” and that’s how I’ll wind up mine.