Charleston is a city where the past lives on in a palpable, if misappropriated way. Couples wed under oak trees adorned with Spanish moss, on the grounds of plantations which bore witness to a history of American atrocity. College of Charleston students party and tap kegs in newly renovated houses, unaware or unconcerned that gentrification and the expulsion of lower income families is the flipside of their recently trendy neighborhood. The re-appropriation of Charleston’s history and the gentrification of its neighborhoods, are part of the same process. If one listens carefully to the people of this city and deeply deliberates on the stories being told, Charleston’s emergence as the 21st century gem of the South becomes less an economic miracle and more an opportunistic retrenchment of Charleston’s socioeconomic hierarchy. How, though, did the city’s past take over the present, and perhaps the future?
When the category 4 Hurricane Hugo made landfall on September 22, 1989, Charleston was still a sleepy port city dealing with the long economic fallout dating back to the Civil War. In its wake, Hugo left utter devastation, with seven billion dollars in damage and 49 people dead. The city was left destitute: boats from the harbor lay strewn across lawns and roads, and beachfront houses imploded. After the hurricane, however, the quaint, overlooked city, which had long since ceded its power, reinvented itself.
When disasters strike, those in power rebuild a capitalistic order predicated upon the privatization of infrastructure and social services. Those in the lower income bracket, meanwhile, are left to rebuild their shattered homes with meager government subsidies and what little of their belongings were not destroyed in the “natural” disaster. Rather than rebuild from the inside-out in a manner beneficial to all Charlestonians following Hugo’s ravaging of the Lowcountry, the city seemed to rebuild at the expense of its most marginalized residents.
Today, in the heart of the Ansonborough neighborhood, the glistening white facade of the South Carolina Aquarium shimmers against the Cooper River. It looks idyllic, but only if you remove the scene from history. For prior to the construction of the Aquarium, Ansonborough was home not to captured sea turtles and otters, but African American families. In the months and years preceding Hugo, however, officials struck upon the notion that the Ansonborough neighborhood would be the ideal location for the Aquarium. That such a facility would be constructed in their neighborhood initially aroused the suspicions of the local community. City council meetings concerning the Aquarium held a perceptible air of acrimony. As described by a gentleman who attended the meetings:
A representative came and demanded some answers, ‘You’re going to put an aquarium there? Downtown our tourist area is on the other side of us. What’s going to happen in between?’. And Joe Riley… looked at them in the eyes and said, ‘Tourists will love to walk through your beautiful neighborhood and go to the aquarium!’
After more than two decades, many residents remain frustrated by this top-down decision. Those who wished to stop the city held little leverage. Within six months of the city council meeting, which took place in the early ‘90’s, the African American community that called Ansonborough home was forced out. Today the Aquarium stands as a towering manifestation of Naomi Klein’s “Disaster Capitalism”, where people are replaced by touristic dollars and hope.
The transformation of the once predominately African American Ansonborough neighborhood into the tourist Mecca that is the Aquarium is more broadly indicative of how the city rebuilt after Hugo. The irony of the Aquarium story is that the residents of Ansborough survived a category 4 hurricane, only to be evacuated for the development of a massive fish tank to entertain outsiders.
Charleston is a city still in a storm that began nearly 3 decades ago. In hindsight, its story of development seems almost inevitable. A massive storm ravages a city and the powers that be, unburdened by the entrenched power of the lower classes (many of whom have lost everything and have no means to rebuild), can now construct their capitalistic paradise. Charleston’s development into a vacationer’s pseudo-paradise, I have learned, is masterwork in Disaster Capitalism.