by James A. Bacon
One thing I look for in a city is the attention given to small spaces — the pocket parks, wide spots in the sidewalk, corridors between buildings and other features that lend texture and delight to an urban landscape. The antithesis is large parking lots, long buildings and the empty detritus of concrete that inhabitants long ago lost interest in.
The Bacon family is spending a short vacation in Charleston, S.C., a 300-year-old city with one of the nation’s largest historic districts, a great street grid, and an abundance of small spaces where Charlestonians have lavished love and care over the years. The city is most famous for the spectacular South of Broad neighborhood of handsome 18th- and 19th century buildings, a living architectural museum. But the city has a lot to offer North of Broad in a more conventional urban setting. The photos in this post come from a stroll around the block where our hotel, the Hampton Inn (comfortable but not exactly the most chi-chi address in town) is located.
I love the corridors between buildings where property owners treat what could be an ugly alleyway as a venue for creative landscaping. The corridor at left apparently leads to dwelling in the interior of the block, creating an inviting entrance for guests and a visual delight for passersby. Examples of these in Charleston are too numerous to document them all. This one is fairly typical.
Another ordinary street scene: I like the cloistered effect created by the row of trees on one side of the sidewalk and storefronts abutting the sidewalk on the other side. Also, the awnings create visual interest.
On the far side of the block from our hotel, there is an inset into the block, creating a mini-plaza lined by three restaurants and/or nightclubs. Long before it was ecologically hip to bedeck walls and roofs of buildings with greenery, Charlestonians were carpeting the sides of bricks buildings with thick mats of vines. Throw in some gas lamps, palmetto palms and stone-and-brick pavement, and you’ve got an attractive little courtyard.
Thus, even the building entrance at right, comprised of an unadorned door and a large slab of rusting metal plate creates visual interest and a sense of, “Hey, I want to see what’s inside that place.”
None of these scenes is extraordinary in and of themselves. It’s the ubiquity of such scenes stitched together in an urban quilt that make Charleston distinctive.
The city doesn’t do everything right. There are plenty of blank spots in the canvas — large parking lots, blank buildings and walls, and stretches of sidewalks in terrible condition. (Our tour guide told us that so many tourists have tripped on pavement made jagged by tree routes that the city has implemented a walk-at-your-own peril legal policy.) Also, there are very few (if any) buildings taller than four stories. I assume that there are zoning restrictions against density. While policies that inhibit vertical growth preserve the historical character of the old city, it pushes metropolitan growth outwards, fostering suburban sprawl in the larger metropolitan area. Be that as it may, historical buildings, a walkable street grid and the care and nourishment of small places have created one of the most special, impossible-to-replicate places in the United States.There are currently no comments highlighted.