The Advocate

Jay Williams, Jr.

The roar permeated the night air well before they appeared. Suddenly 12 motorcycles flew across Columbus Street and careened down King Street, the leaders with the green light, the remainder blasting through the red. Weaving in and out of traffic, they thundered down the street, and as cars braked and veered to miss them, pedestrians froze to watch. Engines revving, neon lights aglow, the pack picked up more speed as traffic thinned before they turned, racing west on Broad Street, engines screaming into the night.

Charleston is a city rich with life, teeming with a quiet energy, and justly renowned for its culture, architecture, history, museums, fine restaurants and sophisticated ambiance. But as she grows and changes, her most appealing attributes are threatened with extinction.

City life is a challenge anywhere. Traffic, noise and tourists are everywhere, but Charleston has always been special — a cut above. She’s always been a city with exceptional goals and exceptional people who’ve made exceptional achievements. But what makes her incomparable is that Charleston is somehow more polished, more polite, more welcoming and caring than other places. Charleston has manners. Those manners have translated into livability for many of us.

But the invasion of surging economic growth and tourism may ruin this great city in ways that the British and the Yankee armies could never do. To stop this last invasion of massive money and throngs of visitors, we must defend the city, manage the growth, uphold and enforce our laws and create new ordinances to meet a growing list of threats.

But we aren’t doing any of that well.

If the plethora of problems were ranked in order of importance, motorcycle infractions wouldn’t make the Top 20. But motorcycles are emblematic of the larger problem, structural divisions among city departments and a lack of resources devoted to the issues of tourism, growth and infrastructure. And deliberately obnoxious motorcycle riders are a part of the larger, growing problem — a lack of civility, manners, ignoring or infringing on the rights of others, and even breaking the law.

Small problems are warnings of bigger problems

Dan Riccio, director of the city’s Department of Livability and Tourism, knows his job and takes it seriously. Among other things, his department manages tourism functions like carriages, large and small tour buses, pedicabs, walking tours and food vendors. But his department is on the street with just five unarmed tourism enforcement officers, none of whom work after 8:00 p.m. “That’s not enough,” Councilman Mike Seekings asserts. “They need to be able to write tickets and up the fines; they need to be part of the police department,” he said.

Certain other “livability” problems fall to the police department, and that includes motorcycles. The police also handle bicycle violations, the unlicensed palmetto peddlers who some residents claim are vandalizing trees on private property and the panhandlers increasingly sprawled across King Street sidewalks. But some suggest that the police have better things to do than bother with these infractions and that sentiment isn’t unique.

Although caravans unlawfully parking overnight on city streets, oversized motor coaches rumbling down East Battery and derelict houses might not appear worthy of individual attention, but when they’re all added together, livability offenses have become significant.

Most importantly, they’re directly connected to the larger issues.

When it comes to motorcycles roaring down our streets, Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society said, “There’s no enforcement. Why don’t we enforce all these rules, these quality of life mechanisms? Are we afraid to scare away tourists?”

That’s a good guess.

For safety reasons, the police avoid “hot pursuit” of motorcycles for violations, and the “noise ordinance” appears to be difficult to enforce as riders assert that nearby buildings amplify the sound. But something has worked — the visible presence of police cruisers, especially around The Battery where motorcycles are a routine menace. So these smaller livability issues can be successfully addressed if solutions are thought through and enough resources are applied.

If Charleston is to regain its balance, we have to address these smaller livability problems simultaneously with the larger ones. We can’t protect the city we love if we don’t.

Jerry Smith, co-chair of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association’s Crime and Public safety Committee, agrees with King, “Laws and ordinances are not being enforced.” To address these problems, Smith suggests that we “take a comprehensive view. There is an active group of citizens willing to help,” to contribute to a city-led “livability task force,” he suggests. “We could take these issues one at a time and focus on them in a work group with all the right stakeholders for each issue involved. We should make livability a paramount issue.”

But “livability” doesn’t register as an issue of importance to many city officials, especially some councilmembers from West Ashley and James Island. They don’t understand the connection between livability, out-of-control tourism and the higher cost of living in Charleston.

“How do we control tourism when city leadership sees it as a means to fund every district in town?” asked King. But the upside of tourism will be short lived, because the damage tourism is doing to the peninsula is already palpable. “We need to stop pursuing the magazine accolades; hotels and tourism should be a city-wide issue. Hotels are upending the balance by forcing out businesses that residents rely on,” King said.

We don’t have what it takes to fix them

Citywide home prices are skyrocketing, especially above the crosstown. Longtime residents, African-Americans and monthly renters are being run out of town by speculators and opportunists angling for short-term renters by the night, weekend or week.

It isn’t only manners that are being lost: it’s Charleston itself. We’re losing our identity along with our people. Councilman Mike Seekings says that 75,000 people lived on the peninsula in 1950, but now there are only 30,000 residents here and 10,000 of those are college students. Compare that to “five to six-million tourists” who come to Charleston annually, according to Dr. Bing Pan, the former head of research at the College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis.

Charleston is being overrun by tourists from away, from off and from online. They’re coming in massive motor-coaches, they’re taking drunken nighttime pedicab tours, they’re displacing local businesses and apartments with hotel rooms, they’ve driven out locals with the apartments they rent, they’re throwing all-night parties, they’re camping on city streets, and they careen their loud motorcycles through the streets as if they’d bought a ticket.

“Livability” is not a four-letter word. Wherever you live, you want your community to be livable. If it’s not livable, you’ll leave. Now the people leaving are those who can’t afford to stay. Next to leave will be the people who can afford to stay, but would rather not.

Can the people from West Ashley and James Island think the lack of controls on the peninsula will be good for their communities?

We quickly passed a moratorium on multi-family housing on James Island. But here, Kristopher King says, “No one is working together; no one is collaborating. We need to fix the damn problems.”

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.


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