Saturday, July 12, 2008

new charleston favorites

So you'd think after four years of living, going to school, working, and breathing in this fine city, I would have seen it all. But I am still constantly discovering cool new restaurants, places, and things to do here. And the most amazing part is that these new cool things are predominantly located outside of the peninsula. In my opinion, one of the great aspects of Charleston is the fact that it has really cool, unique suburbs. Yes, upon first glance the stretch of Mt. Pleasant on Coleman seems bland and just like every other 20th century-born suburb in America. The same can be said for parts of James Island and West Ashley. But the longer I've lived here, the more I've seen that all of these surrounding areas hold the same vibrancy and uniqueness that the city does; you've just got to look a little closer. Sure, modernity has produced strip malls and chains dotting the landscape, but like everything else in Charleston these outlying areas hold firmly to their age and gorgeous old southern charm. I've always said that the coolest part about the suburbs in Charleston is that you can drive past an Olive Garden and then make a turn and be on a road underneath a canopy of Spanish Moss with marshland on either side. But I've also come to see that these areas have held onto something else; a true, independent sense of character, the kind of character that can never be built but has to be lived in and earned. So here are the coolest things you may not have heard of in Charleston:

1) Old Village in Mt. Pleasant. How have I spent 4 years here and only recently discovered this area? It is without question my new favorite place in this city, a place where I can spend ages walking around and exploring, even in the heat of summer. It's the historic heart of Mt. Pleasant. Now if you've never been to Mt. Pleasant, I would imagine that the name would give you hints of Blandland, USA. And if you drive down 17, you might not be proven wrong. But take a right, head over to Coleman, and you'll see the real Mt. Pleasant, the sleepy southern town across the harbor from that bustlin', big city Charleston. I've come to love and be familiar with a lot of this area-Shem Creek, Rifle Range Rd., the Long Point area. But a few weeks ago, I got my first glimpse of Old Town. It's one of those places where you step out of your car for the first time and somehow feel nostalgic even though you've never been there before. It's the kind of place that seems timeless, that probably hasn't changed all that much in forty years and won't change all that much in the next forty. Take a visual tour with me. You drive down Pitt Street, with glimpses of water to your left and heartbreakingly beautiful old houses on either side. You reach the heart of the "village" and suddenly you're in your grandparent's hometown, because no matter where your grandparents are from, this is probably how you picture the place where they grew up. There's a pharmacy, a bakery, a florist, a couple of other quaint, little stores and businesses. And the "downtown" blends seamlessly with the surrounding neighborhood. Porches spill freely out onto the street. Inns are almost indistinguishable from the single family homes beside them. It's easy to imagine someone coming out in the morning to get their paper and waving to the pharmacist as he or she pulls up to open the store, or maybe having a brief conversation with the family doctor from a couple of doors down. Forget Norman Rockwell, this is the portrait of Americana at its idealized best.

But it gets even better. If you set out on foot, past the "downtown", you'll pass an old converted post house turned into a fine restaurant, and you keep going (on sidewalks no less! sidewalks! i mean coming from this suburb to city transplant, sidewalks are a rare thing to find outside of a downtown area), you'll pass more tremendous old houses painted in soft, sleepy pinks or classic, crisp whites. But it's not like the battery, where the old houses are beautiful but often void of life and warmth. Because there are actual real, live people living here, people with children and noise and bikes on the sidewalk and baby pools in the yard. And as if it isn't already perfect enough, the street starts sloping and narrowing, the noise drops off and if you take another turn you're within a few yards of the harbor. Almost all of these houses have a view of the water, but some of them sit literally on top of it. But they're not beach houses. They're year round family houses with swings and lawn chairs and basketball hoops in the driveway. They just happen to have the fortune of facing the crystal blue of the harbor, with dots of white boats in the foreground and Charleston looming in the distance. Keep walking and you'll see that every side street ends in a dock. This is one of those places that is hard to believe. It's so beautiful, so warm, so unique that it seems it could only be out of a story. But it's very, very real, and not only my new favorite place in Charleston but my new dream for a future home.

2) Downtown Summerville. That's right, Summerville, again with the slightly creepy sounding name that seems destined to mean soulless suburbia. We went to dinner in actual, downtown Summerville a few nights ago and my assumptions about Summerville were proven very, very wrong. First of all, it's about half an hour from the coast, but it feels a world away. There are hills and woods and more hills. The big old southern houses with their big old southern porches are there, but they're spaced apart and have a completely different feel to them than the houses in the city-still regal but in a more casual kind of way. And downtown Summerville, like "downtown" Mt. Pleasant is one of those great, little southern towns that I keep running into around here. Summerville is a good deal bigger than Old Town in Mt. Pleasant, but it's still basically a village, quiet and stubborn in its refusal to change in any major way from the city it has always been.

3) The Terrace theater in James Island. So this isn't old town James Island or anything, but I love this theater because it captures the offbeat charm of James Island-sort of the quirky cousin of Charleston. While Charleston is all grace and elegance, James Island/West Ashley has more of a laid back, good times feel. Maybe it's because James Island is that little bit closer to the beach, but where downtown has its fine restaurants and fancy houses, James Island would be the place you'd go to get really good BBQ or to pick up some boiled peanuts at a stand on the road. And the Terrace theater is sort of in this vein. And again I'm kicking myself for not going here sooner, but it's a movie theater that shows movies that may be a little more independent or artsy. And the kicker, it has a full service bar too. Not only can I enjoy my popcorn and milk-duds, but I can wash it all down with a bottle of beer or a nice glass of wine. But the coolest thing was that I went here to see Gone with the Wind. They have a "film school" where they alternate showing classic movies. Growing up, I used to rent Gone with the Wind about once a month, and cry along with Scarlett and mourn the "old south." Obviously I've come a long way in realizing the reality about aspects of the old south. But I'm still a southerner who gets a little misty when that old theme music kicks up and Tara comes rising up on the screen. But it's also just a fantastic old movie. Has anyone ever been cooler than Clark Gable as Rhett Butler? And to see it on the big screen was awesome. You can see a movie a hundred times, but seeing it in theaters is the definitive way to experience a film. Seeing Gone with the Wind in all of its epic, Technicolor full size glory was one of the coolest things I've done in a really long time. And you know what, it all happened on James Island, an area I wouldn't have given a second thought to a few years ago, but which as of August will be my new home.

It's taken four years but I think I'm finally starting to get Charleston, not just the peninsula but Charleston in full-Mt. Pleasant, West Ashley, James Island, the beaches. There's so much more to this place than the tourist sights and familiar streets and famous restaurants. And I'm looking forward to learning even more about my adopted home.

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