Jewish World Review August 9, 2004 / 22 Menachem-Av, 5764
Neighborhoods left barren by affluence
CHARLESTON, S.C. It is the weirdest thing. Not a leaf of peeling paint mars the renovated houses in this city's fabled historic district. Teams of weed inspectors seem to crawl over the gardens with tweezers. In preservation terms, the neighborhood south of Broad Street approaches perfection. Only one thing is missing: inhabitants.
For enchanted tourists, it is easy to imagine the long-departed belles charming their suitors on the sweeping verandas. There are no modern Americans up on those balconies - no one slumping over a Diet Coke - to change the mood. The backyards seem uncluttered by children's tricycles or other signs of life. At night, it is hard to find a TV image flashing through an undraped window. Many of the houses stand totally dark.
These Twilight Zone scenes of flawless streets unsullied by human habitation can appear in historic neighborhoods everywhere. It's a phenomenon in old New Orleans as well as in Venice, Italy.
It's not that no one owns the houses. They all have owners who clearly spare no expense in keeping them up. Nor are the streets empty. They're filled with tourists - sometimes far too many for comfort.
What these places have in common is a class of property owners that spends precious little time in the houses. In the case of Charleston, rich people from places such as Chicago or Dallas happily plunk down one or several million for a romantic Southern getaway under the moonlight and the magnolias. They appreciate the ornate moldings and opulent woodwork, as well as the proximity to beaches and deluxe shopping.
Where are the deed holders? Possibilities include those whose primary residence is in Connecticut, their second home in Costa Rica, a South Pacific cruise or an African safari. The oddest thing, locals say, is that the more expensive the house, the less time people seem to spend in it. This may be urban legend, but some owners are said to occupy their great Charleston mansions only during the 17-day Spoleto Festival.
The lack of people creates loneliness for the full-time residents. And it forces local merchants to close shop for want of patrons. Children are scarce. The 2000 Census found that the number of children living in the older section of the historic area had fallen by a third in 10 years, to only 200. After a while, the place begins to stop breathing.
For communities that consider empty houses a problem - and Charleston is one - the solutions are hard to come by. The trends reflect Charleston's success in preserving a long-ago grandeur lost elsewhere, and that quality naturally attracts rich people from all over.
The Historic Charleston Foundation has held forums to discuss these issues. Some have floated the idea of getting property owners to voluntarily sign a legal document stipulating that any future buyer use the house as a primary residence.
Charleston may be an extreme case, but many historic districts face a depopulation problem to some extent. If they are near bustling commercial centers, the districts may have more full-time residents, but even these people usually have few, if any, children.
The pre-automobile-age intimacy that attracts single professionals and childless couples often seems a gross inconvenience to families. They don't want to put up with the small backyards, dearth of minivan parking and schools that are not tops. They want media rooms more than parlors. So they move off to the suburbs.
This is a tough problem to fix. It takes money and a certain amount of idealism to preserve and live in a historic structure. And, as the public recognizes the unique beauty of historic districts, the prices of their houses can soar past the pocketbooks of most families.
For cities and towns that have survived the ages, having a once-bustling neighborhood turn into a seasonal resort represents a kind of cultural defeat. Much has been said about how poverty saps the heart of a neighborhood. Wealth, clearly, can do the same thing.
Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.