With its sympathetically utilized historic buildings, compatible infill, and tourism-based economy, Charleston, South Carolina, is regarded as historic preservation at its best. And nearly a century after the city’s preservation movement began, it’s still ongoing in a part of the city visitors rarely experience.
In April 2007, I first encountered Upper King Street–the stretch from Calhoun Street to I-26–on my first of what would become regular visits to the Holy City. I didn’t know it at the time, but Charleston is divided at Calhoun Street. Below it is the Charleston that everyone knows: restaurants with white table cloths, gas-lit lamps, and bowties. The area above Calhoun is predominately populated with more modest places and people.
As I crossed Calhoun Street that first time and walked past Marion Square, I quickly noticed the difference. Absent were the College of Charleston sorority girls jogging in sports bras, so common in the Middle King Street shopping district. In their place were panhandlers on beat-up bikes. The shabby buildings were of styles that ranged from the early 19th century to after World War II, which is a period of development rarely found south in the city’s southern reaches. Overgrown vacant lots broke up the streetscape. A few design and furniture stores called the area home, but most of the shops targeted the poor.
Like the lower reaches of the street, Upper King also was once a thriving shopping district, albeit for a less wealthy class of people. Most of the development occurred during two periods: after the Civil War and after World War II. This explained the proliferation of boxy, mid-century stores. Like many other urban areas, it suffered when populations shifted to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, and the businesses followed. Furniture stores stuck around, and it became known as the Upper King Street Design District. But despite preservationists’ efforts, the area lagged. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 dealt a severe blow to Upper King, as buildings already in poor condition were further decimated. Vacancies rose to 40 percent.
After that first visit in 2007, the only time I ventured up King was to go to the cupcake shop, safely within view of Marion Square. That changed last year in preparation for an August visit. I read a guide of the city’s best restaurants and was surprised that so many were located on Upper King. I wondered, Was this where I saw so many bits of hair weave in the gutters a few years before?
I returned to find out. A few buildings still were flagging, but many others had been restored and were occupied by small businesses. The district, near the College of Charleston campus, caters to a younger clientele–a welcome alternative to the touristy and stuffy locales that abound just a mile to the southeast. In addition to the varied food and drink establishments, there were a number of unique shops, studios, and salons. The beggars were still there, but they shared the sidewalks with the sorority girls–this time in sundresses–drawn to the contemporary bars.
As the photographs at the top of the page show, Upper King Street is well on its way, yet there is still work to be done. Preservationists have been vigilant to make sure the proposed developments do not overwhelm the historic fabric. It will be interesting to see what Upper King will be like when its conversion is complete. If preservationists have their way, it will retain its distinct identity as a place with a range of building styles that host independent businesses. If they don’t, it will just be an extension of Middle King Street, where tourists from New Jersey fly in for the weekend, stay at the Charleston Place hotel, shop at Pottery Barn, and believe they truly experienced Charleston. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.