Perspective

Where the Ashley and the Cooper Rivers Meet . . .

Some 45 years ago, I was sitting in Washington Park, a quiet refuge in downtown Charleston defined by Broad, Meeting, and Chalmers Streets. The park was my favorite place to read and to engage in what was then every young man’s hobby: brooding about girls. Sitting there, I be- came aware of an annoying presence— another student whom I knew slightly. As I got up to leave, he asked, “What are you doing here?”

Never one to resist a challenge, I replied, “What are you doing in my park?” In truth, everyone who has ever lived in Charleston for some time has his own claim on the city, his own vision, and I cannot pretend that mine is better than anyone else’s. Real cities, Charleston and Siena and Edinburgh, are a great deal like nations: Each has its own identity celebrated in songs and stories and a peculiar slant on history. After the Revolution, there were many such cities in America—Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston—but, by the early 20th century, cities and states in the North were being swamped by immigration and sacrificing their identity to the ravenous destructive changes they called progress. This is reflected in the dearth of folklore, historic sense, and celebration of, say, Rockford or Des Moines. Authentic cities have jokes that seem very much like ethnic jokes. Why are Charlestonians like the Chinese? Both eat rice...

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