Share This

Is the New South No South?

When my Spartanburg-native husband got a job in upstate New York six years ago and we were packing up our Nashville house, I started making the necessary phone calls with a heavy heart. Canceling services, forwarding information. I was a new mother; I called our pediatrician to ask them to forward my son’s records. I can still hear the receptionist’s disbelieving voice: “New York? New YORK?” As if it might not be possible for one to move from Nashville, Tennessee, to New York State. “Mnmn. Ain’t no place like the South, Baby.” I could hear her shaking her head, feeling sorry for me. I felt even sorrier for myself; we loved Nashville—and what’s more, I knew she was thinking Manhattan, which I considered the best-case scenario. Not the extra-freezing and remote New York upstate.

To me, a Connecticut Yankee, the receptionist’s response was totally consistent with not only my feelings about the South, somewhere I’d been in love with since vacationing on Hilton Head and reading Pat Conroy novels as a romantic teenager with a penchant for nostalgia, but also with generic notions about old-fashioned Southern pride. And she was right: upstate New York was nothing like Nashville. Certainly no doctor’s office receptionist up North ever came close to calling me “Baby.”

So we endured five interminable, oppressive, light-starved winters full of cabin fever in New York state. (Emily Dickinson became more relevant than ever: “There’s a certain Slant of light / Winter Afternoons— / That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes—.” Talk about seasonal depression.) But we not only endured, we actually prevailed; my husband got another job that miraculously brought us back down South. And this time to our favorite place on the planet: the South Carolina Lowcountry.

I had been living in Murrells Inlet for two and a half months when my parents came to visit from Connecticut, and we went for po’ boys at the restaurant down the road by the black waters of the Waccamaw River. My dad struck up a conversation with a retiree who was singing Sinatra tunes out on the riverfront deck under a postcard-pretty live oak, practicing his act for later that week. This old crooner was a New Jersey native who had lived in Litchfield for the past few decades. My father—forgetting he was on the Grand Strand, retirement mecca for so many Northeasterners—was shocked at this coincidence. It was as though he had met the only other American in Europe. “Ha!” snorted the crooner triumphantly in response to my father’s naiveté as he coiled the power cord for his amplifier. “There aren’t any Southerners here anymore!” It was as if this proud occupation by New Jersey retirees was the belated spoils of war—“The War,” no need to clarify which one. The carpetbagging that began during Reconstruction, along with the stereotypical Northern scorn of and condescension to Southerners, seemed alive and well. Was this retiree in his NY Giants sweatshirt some less exalted latter-day version of Arthur Huntington or Bernard Baruch, those famous Yankee financiers who bought up ramshackle, abandoned Lowcountry plantations in the early twentieth century to remodel into hunting and country estates? I didn’t have high hopes. Their carpetbagging ultimately gave us Brookgreen Gardens, Huntington Beach State Park, and Hobcaw Barony. And—no offense to New Jersey retirees—I doubt they wore sweatshirts.

This faux Sinatra just about ruined my day. No Southerners? I wanted to tell him that he was wrong. I’m married to a Southerner, after all, and we live a mile up the road! Plus I have plenty of real-life Southern neighbors who’ll bless your heart any day of the week, even (or especially) if they can’t stand your guts. And my kids go to schools full of Southern kids whose mothers all drive identical and massive GMC Yukon XLs through the carpool line.

I could retreat to my “historic” neighborhood of 1980s Georgian-style custom homes and strict architectural covenants, but I could not deny the daily evidence that we had indeed arrived in the new South, built on outsiders’ views and expectations of what the South should be or once was. And I confess that sometimes I’m still surprised to see immaculate world-class golf course operations instead of derelict antebellum Big Houses when I peer down the long, oak-lined allées of “plantations” announced by historical markers. What better proof that in moving to an international tourist destination we have moved directly onto a veritable fault line of the global South? How could I help but shudder some weeks ago when our waiter in a Conway bistro addressed our table as “you guys” in his Southern drawl? What a harbinger.

I know what you’re thinking: who’s a Connecticut Yankee to care?

People describe my new town as a fishing village. I’m from New England and I honeymooned in Nova Scotia. I know fishing villages. I’m willing to buy that Murrells Inlet was a Lowcountry fishing village—at one time. But it’s a stretch now, and perhaps mainly a stretch into tourists’ pockets. I can appreciate that this reputation has economic benefits; it attracts millions of tourist dollars annually. Tourists are willing to pay—a lot—to see The South. Yet when tourists come to the South Strand, don’t they want to see genuine Lowcountry landscape: iconic moss-draped live oaks, the gray-and-green marshes, maybe some rusty old fishing boats? Our Restaurant Row is still local, but all the big chains—and I mean all—are just a block over. In place of tumbledown, weather-beaten, or just plain modest clapboard cottages, there are expensive and magnificent Southernized raised beach houses on freshly paved, made-to-order cul-de-sacs. You can barely see the sky, much less the marsh, behind the monstrous creekside megahomes going up. I know the legendary hurricane of 1893 didn’t stop at the coast, but kept pressing and pounding inland; still, the waterfront architecture four highway lanes away from the water isn’t really fooling anyone, is it? Candy-colored houses on pilings—no matter the distance from actual water—featuring double-decker porches and majestic staircases, are springing up on any available green space, even in the median at the split between the highway bypass and the business route. Down here, you can’t help but notice what writer and champion of the Georgia longleaf pine Janisse Ray has similarly pointed out: street names that at least used to mean something in the community—people, function, even the ecology the streets themselves uprooted (Ben Horry, Coachman, Old Beach, Little Tunny, Loblolly)—are systematically replaced with generically aristocratic neighborhood names that tragically reinforce a sense of disconnectedness and placelessness. The Olde Midway is a local plantation allusion (I checked), but Queen’s Harbour? Windsor Plantation (complete with majestic lion heads on the gates)? Equally ridiculous: Key Largo? With this blurring of state—if not continental—borders, with this retouching of local history, it seems likely that tourists might easily forget where exactly they are.

The architectural nods to our collective imagination of the Old South are obvious and many throughout the developments in my corner of the so-called gloSo, but because they’re based largely on myth (advertisements, novels, Hollywood), the effect is that these gorgeous houses are strangely unbelievable, very unreal. Erasing the past and replacing it with a romanticized, one-dimensional version built more on tourists’ expectations than any kind of vernacular history means that my town is in danger of masquerading as a Disneyfied Key West, Miami, or—at best—Charleston’s Rainbow Row. Looking at these over-the-top tropical megaliths, there can be little doubt that many of our twenty-first-century developers have outdone the original landed gentry for grandeur and ostentation. This must be what historian Harvey Jackson refers to as “pastel hell” in The Riseand Decline of the Redneck Riviera: in this new version of the Old South, history and culture have been manufactured and airbrushed to perfection. Who needs character? Who needs soul? Everything is perfectly lovely or else.

If you live or visit down here, you know that anywhere you need to go means driving up and down 17, the Ocean Highway. I spend a lot of time in the car, primarily trekking back and forth to my kids’ schools, two towns and ten miles away. This drive gives me the opportunity to hone two of my greatest talents: observation and obsession. And I might not be quite as desperate to preserve a unique sense of place if I weren’t panicked about the unbridled and often redundant development I see as I drive the circuit everyday. Commercial for sale signs are everywhere—along the marsh, in the yards of the humble historic district’s charming 1940s cottages, on vacant frontage lots full of sprawling old oaks. Up and down 17, I pass how many mini-storage facilities? How many half-empty strip malls? Just this summer, an Auto Zone and an O’Reilly Auto Parts sprouted up simultaneously in fields across an access road from one another. Another Dollar Store, as inoffensive as possible in its attractive contemporary Lowcountry design, opened its doors in Litchfield this past fall.

What’s heartbreaking is that here, unlike more established neighborhoods and more urban places I’ve lived, you can still see so much of the past. It hasn’t all been built up and covered over—yet. There are ghosts and vestiges and remnants in the abandoned fields and near the wrecked cottages where the big signs are planted. These interruptions in the strip are not shiny or glamorous, but they are beautiful and soulful, crooked places with porches and paint strips hanging on for dear life. They bear moldering witness to the real past, to the special history of this place that inspires so much of our cultural imagination—and, indeed, tourism. This, it strikes me, is the “wildness” South Carolina nature writer John Lane promises we can find in any landscape, if only we care to look. And if we do look, then we may notice a palimpsest of Southern history and culture, layers of time spent and lives lived—right here.

I saw a sign the other day: Historic Sunnyside Plantation For Sale. It’s marshfront, prime property. I think about how almost all of this land was once one historic plantation or another, stretching in slivers from the riverfront to the ocean, how secrets are hidden underground with signs of the place’s past. Would the old inhabitants of the Waccamaw Neck—those who owned land here and those who worked it—recognize the new Caledonia Plantation? What about Litchfield Plantation? Wachesaw or Richmond Hill? They wouldn’t be able to get through the gates without a pass. Every day I nervously check the status of the signs around me with a sense of foreboding. Someday I will drive by and see condos or a home improvement store instead of these beautiful trees or that faded vestigial barn. New signs will read “Farmfield Plaza” or “The Oaks at Historic Sunnyside Plantation: Lots Starting in the Low $500’s!” I can only imagine the stories those backhoes and excavators will dig up and dump aside.

Somewhat ironically, amid all of the cultural shifting and historical erasure where I live, genuine Southern identity matters and manifests in even small ways—as if the bona fides might stem the tide of globalism or at least distinguish themselves from the New Jerseyites. Here, not only do Ford trucks sport bumper stickers proclaiming “Local” status, they also up the ante with the more prestigious and far less common “Native” sticker. In honor of the state tree, the “I” is the shape of a palmetto. I get it: I may currently be local. I will never be native.

As a Northern transplant (and as a Target-loving Northern transplant who doesn’t even “go local” as much as she should), do I have much of a right to lament these signs of the global South even as I contribute to them? Probably not. Yet I want what that Nashville receptionist said to be true. I want there to be no place else like this. If I’m going to live down South, then I want it to be all live oaks and Spanish moss and friends who say “y’all.” I don’t want this place to look like everywhere else I’ve ever lived, no matter how good the shopping or how breathtaking the homes. But if developers bulldoze what makes this place the South Carolina Lowcountry and turn it into a super-luxe, tarted-up caricature of itself, complete with couture shopping and discount mega-retailers on every corner, then it will inevitably be just like every place else—and therefore no place special at all. A tourist utopia, if you’ll pardon the pun, indeed.

This is why the best way to hang onto the uniqueness of the South Strand might be to practice what University of North Carolina anthropologist James Peacock calls “grounded globalism.” My historic fishing village of a Lowcountry tourist town is a place where globalism increasingly and inevitably happens, but we must try to maintain its local integrity and character as much as possible. I get it that the “old world” Italian restaurants, “authentic” New York–style pizzerias, and Philly cheesesteak stands are here to stay, along with a spanking-new Target (that I’ve visited twice in the past week and whose Bahama shutters I do appreciate) and a proposed fourth Walmart in a twenty-five-mile radius. In response, a vigorous grassroots “Don’t Box the Neck” campaign (complete with its own bumper stickers and lawyers) has lighted up. Peacock wisely reminds us to negotiate: “Some kind of grounding in locale is necessary to human beings. Once we achieve global identities, we must ground them, integrating the global and the local in some way.” All of us—the developers, the tourists, the natives, the New Jersey retirees, the Connecticut Yankees—need to respect and honor this landscape, this history, this culture, these stories; we need to ground this ever-expanding mowing down that eventually turns little towns like mine into treeless hodge-podges of chain retail busts, acres of weedy tarmac, and creekside mansions in foreclosure. We cannot forget to see the beauty and wildness here. Maybe the newest Walmart will occupy one of the vacant strip mall grounds instead of a green tract of gnarled live oaks. Maybe we will only buy local shrimp. Maybe those people with the “Native” stickers are onto something.

Since moving here, I have loved a century-old falling-down barn way back in the trees and brush by the corner of the road leading to my neighborhood. It’s a silent and lonely testament to a way of life here not that long ago. I don’t know what farm the land was once part of or what crops or livestock used to be stored there. But I wonder. Clearly this square of property was forgotten for a long time. But not anymore. As if on cue, a big, blocky commercial for sale sign went up a few days ago.