I’ve been in the same place all along!

Well, not really, but it occurred to me this morning how much Beaufort resembles a clone of Key West and Charleston.  There’s a good reason for that, of course: all were built and settled by sea captains and their families, during roughly the same time period.

Beaufort grew up around Port Royal, which was established by the Spanish in 1566, fought over with the French, and eventually settled by Scottish and French farmers and traders, who interacted with the local natives in the interim before the plantation culture emerged in the early 1700s.

Key West was “discovered” by Ponce de Leon in 1521 and a salvage and fishing port grew up around its deep harbor.  It was loosely claimed by the Spanish until Matthew Perry planted the US flag there in 1822.  In the interim, it was an important trading stop in the all-important southern trade routes, up and down the southern coastal US, around the Caribbean, and up to the ports of the Gulf, like New Orleans and Mobile.

Charleston was established in 1663 by English proprietors, given the land by King Charles II.  It was somewhat “planned”, and because of its wonderful harbor, succeeded to grow into the jewel of the southern colonies.  Which meant those Spanish and French ships that were running up and down the coast were trying to grab it.

The common element among the three is the sea captains.  Whether they were running sugar, rum, cotton or indigo, they were sailing among these harbors, and many of them settled in one or the other.  If they were ordinary seamen, or salvors,  they built simple, solid wooden houses, and you can still see them today on the back streets of all three cities.  They angled them to catch the wind, and built broad porches for shade. I lived in one of these on Thomas Street in Key West in the 1980s.  It still had cook house in the backyard, and a (now-covered) cistern, which had collected rainwater in the early days.  Probably built in 1800s, it had a number of handglazed windows, remarkably unbroken in 100+ years of hurricanes and life in general.

The rich captains built elegant two story mansions, with porches on both.  If you were really rich, the porch went around two, or even three, sides, providing shade for the rooms behind it.  These homes often had multiple outbuildings, and in Charleston they had lovely gardens, to provide even more shade.  These days these compounds have become some of the most desirable real estate in the world.

There is a smaller group of both types of homes in Beaufort, with a little more land around them than in either Charleston or Key West.  But, if I put you on a block of Duke Street in Beaufort and asked you where you were, you might very well guess Key West.  And if you did the same on some of the streets north of Calhoun in Charleston, in the old days before they were all fluffed and puffed and gentrified, you might have guessed the same.

Of course they aren’t alike in most of the other ways besides architecture.

The tight little streets of gingerbread houses in Key West neighborhoods have the sounds and smells of the Caribbean.  In my neighborhood roosters crowed all day, and chickens roosted at night in my Spanish lime tree, the only place I’ve ever seen chickens actually “fly.”  The Bahamas Village neighborhood on two sides was colorful and ebullient, and resembled nothing in Charleston, or Beaufort.

There is no place in Beaufort or Key West like my French Quarter neighborhood in Charleston, either; everything around us built of brick, with little alleys that skirt the tourist filled sidewalks, live oaks pushing those sidewalks out into the street, hidden gardens with wisteria vines bigger around than my whole body.  My Church Street neighborhood rang with the bells of a half dozen churches within a couple blocks.

I don’t live in Beaufort.  My husband likes privacy and space, so my usual city lifestyle is now gone.  But I enjoy our acre in the swamp near the Combahee River, not too far from the Sheldon Church ruins.  It’s nice to interact with real wildlife, not just Saturday night drunks lost and reeling.  It’s probably going to stay “country” for a good while, too.  It will be some time before the Beaufort growth reaches us.

But I get to walk around Beaufort and drive up and down the streets when I go to the gallery where my work is shown.  In avoiding the usual tourist traffic (not in the NYC, Atlanta category, but “traffic”) I discovered the “Key West streets.”

So, from 1986, when I lived in Key West, on to the 5 years in the 90s when I lived in Charleston, I have now come to live near a delightful little town that seems to me to combine the nicest qualities of both — without the tourist mobs.  But, they are surely not far behind.  Every place I’ve ever lived has been “discovered” while I was there!

I lived in Las Vegas when it was a “town” of 400,000.  Now look at it!  When I lived in Seattle, my little town of Woodinville was considered “country.”  Now it’s a suburb.  When my son and I lived in the little house in Key West, the Conch Republic was just beginning to make the transition from somewhat-seedy fishermen’s and drug-runner’s haven to the gingerbread Margaritaville  it is today.

I moved to Charleston a year and a half after Hurricane Hugo, when the insurance money was just beginning to turn peninsular Charleston from “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash” to the historic jewel that became the #1 destination in the world, for awhile.  It’s current condition as a theme-park version of itself has been a result of all that attention.  And, thanks to that fantastic harbor that made it so desirable in the 1600s, it is now one of the biggest exporters in the country, shipping cars built by Mercedes, Volvo and BMW, as well as Continental and Michelin tires.

When I moved to Raleigh in 2000 to work with the Habitat for Humanity regional center, Raleigh was a pretty uninspiring little city of less than half a million.  But the Research Triangle Park, built back in the 1950s by people who were deemed idiots for doing so, finally earned its keep.  RTP filled up with tech and medical business, and pharma research teams, providing almost unlimited employment all during the recession.  So, when Raleigh tore out its pedestrian main street and allowed cars back in, it was on the forefront of the urban renaissance initiated by young professionals all over the country, who decided they liked the convenience and intimacy of “downtowns.”

Raleigh became the #1 place for professionals, young entrepreneurs, retired people, you name it.  A vibrant downtown, a job-machine at RTP, a city devoted to art (with a .5% budget contribution), world-class art museum, music scene, and equidistant from mountains to seashore — what was not to like?  My sleepy little city became too big to navigate.

So here we are in the Lowcountry, and I’m pondering the similarities between the three cities I loved to live in on this coast, and I’ve decided I am just where I am supposed to be: in the best of three worlds!



About Carol Joy Shannon

A former sailor of the seven seas, living in my beloved Lowcountry, between the blackwater swamps and the saltmarshes, surrounded by pre-revolutionary history.....thinking about current events....painting dinosaurs and other whimsical animals for children, with the occasional abstract or new cityscape for my delightful collectors. The best thing about being a seasoned old salt is sitting down not running around, so...
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