Because Charleston was founded in the 17th century at the southern tip of a north-south peninsula, power and class here have always run on something of a north-south axis. So in the 1970s, when the area around the navy base incorporated as North Charleston, the name spoke as much about the new city's blue-collar identity as it did about its relative location.
Well, I think it's time we imposed a new axis on Charleston. Not North and South, but Old and New.
Charleston, for all its considerable charms, remains a backward-looking city. Not "backwards," as in unsophisticated or unintelligent, but more enamored of its past than its present. So while the city officially recognizes the value of its "creative cluster," its "tech sector" and its "knowledge-based industries," Charleston's institutions, typically dominated by the same old families and traditions, remain wary -- if not openly hostile -- toward new ideas and new people.
Since that anti-outsider bias tends to limit opportunity, Charleston has developed a reputation as a place where who you know is more important than what you know. It's why so many talented people here seem to direct their energies toward celebrity instead of substance.
Once upon a time I wanted to change that. Now I believe we should let eccentric, odd Old Charleston be whatever it wants to be. I thank Old Charleston for preserving this beautiful city, and aren't we stronger when we value and preserve indigenous cultures?
Instead, I want to encourage Charleston's outsiders to start appreciating their own significance. The prosperity of the Lowcountry depends on the energy, creativity and spirit of people who moved here "from off," and once we start acting on that knowledge it simply won't matter whether Old Charleston recognizes this truth.
New Charleston doesn't have to beat Old Charleston. It simply has to stop looking to Old Charleston for permission.What are we waiting for?
Go to a New Charleston event -- Kulture Klash, Pecha Kucha, BarCampCHS, a TweetUp or an SMCCHS happy hour -- and look around. Hundreds, thousands of musicians, writers, artists, designers, art directors, photographers, programmers, Web-heads, researchers, engineers, architects, entrepreneurs, chefs, dancers, filmmakers, actors and big-thinkers live here. How many are "from off?" Most.
Yet I still meet people who tell me different versions of the same story. Instead of being encouraged in their new ventures, they are visited by members of the local establishment who always deliver the same message. Get back in line. There's some kind of old-boy system here, and it wants to pick the winners of every contest in advance. I don't understand it, but there it is.
My question is, so what? Yes, these people have some money. Yes the city has various programs and perks it can dole out to the favored few. Yes, the local paper acts an unofficial enforcer of Old Charleston orthodoxy. Again: So what?
We don't need mass media to spread the word. We don't need membership in exclusive social clubs to meet interesting people. And the sophisticated tool users here can do more with less money in less time and with less formal organization than Old Charleston can even imagine.
It isn't as if they're offering us an alternative. You're never going to be accepted into the Old Charleston clubs, so why bother conforming to their rules? What have you got to lose by ignoring them?
When we stop fighting and cajoling Old Charleston, we can invest all that energy into building a healthy New Charleston. A separate culture that reflects the values of the people who came here by choice. A culture that's more egalitarian, educated, productive and open.
This change doesn't require government loans or angel investors. Just start small. Cooperate. Do business with each other -- and with the thousands of like-minded Lowcountry natives who are our good friends and collaborators. Support each other. Work together.
Opposing an existing power structure gets us nowhere. Building our own power structure, with our own open networks and values, is progress.In conclusion...
You don't undo an old habit. You have to create new habits, and to make them stick you have to reinforce those new patterns until the old ones silt over.
That's how we're going to make progress. And the funny thing is, Old Charleston won't even notice it.
It will simply benefit from it, along with the rest of us. Now go forth, join ranks, and start inventing a new city.
(BarCampCHS photo via Ken Hawkins on Flickr)