Nary a week goes by that the rampant development of Charleston isn’t the topic du jour — and for good reason. Charleston is changing so rapidly that even King Street is becoming virtually unrecognizable, except maybe in its resemblance to Tanger Outlets. Out-of-state developers and big-box stores are strip-malling the character out of this city, causing real estate to spike and small businesses to shutter. And that’s why we need to talk about the Best of Charleston awards.
Before I let loose, I want to sincerely congratulate all the small businesses, independent makers, culture shakers, and status quo breakers who took home awards in this years Best of. You are the reason Charleston is a world-class city, and we need you.
Now, help me get this straight. Everyone’s super upset about the corporatization of Charleston, but somehow we overwhelmingly voted for Darius Rucker (best musician and male vocalist) and Bill Murray (local actor) — the Walmarts of the Charleston arts scene. Does this not seem a bit incongruous?
Look, I’m not shitting on Rucker and Murray. By all accounts, they’re swell guys and committed philanthropists, but are they really active in the music and theater scenes happening here? Like, can you catch them performing every month or two around town? No, you can’t. And they probably don’t have to as their livelihoods aren’t dependent upon gigging regularly, unlike many artists. Though Rucker and Murray have reached the point in their respective careers where publicity in an alt-weekly has absolutely no impact on their futures, other artists need this exposure and are deserving of it. Real local artists, those who are wholeheartedly invested in their scene, can’t compete with juggernauts like Rucker and Murray, and in a way, this microcosmic dominance is representative of what is happening in Charleston at large.
If we want to maintain what’s left of Charleston’s charm, we have to start supporting each other at the micro level because insofar as we are patrons, we are also benefactors. A commitment to supporting people and places that are specific to Charleston alone is key to preserving this city. So when Chick-Fil-A (sweet tea), California Dreaming (salad), and Jersey Mike’s (sub sandwich/hoagie) are racking up awards in a place known as a foodie destination, what does that say about our commitment to maintaining the integrity of our city? If we’re genuinely concerned about Charleston becoming Everytown, USA, then why are we voting for chains that can be found in most every town? It’s not that these establishments don’t have a consistently good product, but they certainly don’t shape or define our city; instead, they reduce it to just another mile-marker stop off the interstate, a place notable only in how profoundly unremarkable it is.
I’m not mad at y’all. Frankly, part of the responsibility for ensuring that the Best of awards properly reflect what’s authentically representative of Charleston should lie on CCP, which, much like the city, probably needs to adopt stricter rules: no national icons unless they are consistently active in their respective category at a local level, and for the love of all things Holy City, no big chains. That would be a good start, although it wouldn’t really mitigate the real issue here, which is our own duplicity, however innocent or unintentional it may be. If we want Charleston to continue to be a place unlike any other and to fight the wave of generic, hyper-corporate development crashing down upon us, we need to put our dollars and our votes where our mouths are; otherwise, there ain’t no reason to even talk about it.
I suspect that a lot of this comes down to name recognition, to erring towards that which is familiar and convenient. And I get that. Full disclosure, I may have knocked out a blooming onion or two last year. But one of the most interesting things I noticed about the Best of Charleston is how many of the runner-ups are better indicators of what Charleston actually is than the winners, and I think this is telling. It’s almost like Charleston is becoming two cities, one comprised of people who are taking huge risks in order to channel their passions into small businesses and art that provide experiences for us that are heartfelt and nuanced and inimitable, and one where developers who don’t even live here serve us heaping portions of indistinguishable, bland mundanities. And when we no longer have the opportunity to engage with our city in a way that connects us with our neighbors and fosters community reliance, there will be no winners.
So please, look around you at all Charleston has to offer and try something different — before there’s nothing different left to try.