A rumble in The Alley
By Charlie Mitchell
How much longer will The Alley’s iconic neon sign be lit? Image by Charleston Mercury Staff.
It will come as no surprise to most of you that a new hotel has been approved for construction in downtown Charleston. Perhaps Charlestonians have become so accustomed to the peninsula’s tragic capitulation to tourism that we no longer have the energy to protest. This time, however, this city is losing one of its most beloved nightlife spots in the process. If all goes to plan, the downtown hotspot known as The Alley will soon be demolished in favor of a large new hotel that will cater to Charleston’s ever-growing tourist market.
The proposed structure would seek to capitalize on a planned up-fit of the Upper Peninsula. One aspect of this is the Lowcountry Lowline, which aims to clean up a decrepit stretch of wasteland that lies beneath the thundering steel and concrete terminus of Interstate 26. Currently, this barren area is mainly frequented by spray paint amateurs, hypodermic needle enthusiasts and other shady characters looking for a place to drop their litter. The planned park would create a sprawling green space in the heart of downtown Charleston — a massive improvement to land that was recently the site of the notorious “tent city” homeless encampment. It follows naturally that a nearby hotel with a lively restaurant and bar would complete the picture of reclaimed urban space. These arguments are objectively hard to question and no doubt complicate the duties of a zoning board that must juggle preservation, progress and people’s opinions.
However, it seems like each year gives birth to another highly anticipated boutique luxury hotel; the latest monstrosity being the The Cooper adjacent to Waterfront Park and the famous Pineapple Fountain. Through the marvels of modern engineering, this stretch of sodden marshland on the harbor’s edge has been made firm enough to build an eight-story, 225-room hotel. To anyone who has ever tested the tensile integrity of coastal pluff mud as a foundational building material, this will boggle the mind. It also lays bare the great lengths to which developers will go to score a piece of prime commercial real estate in our city.
I spoke to commercial real estate broker Alex Irwin about this. Naturally, he and his colleagues are thrilled with the steady influx of deep-pocketed buyers, and what salesman isn’t overjoyed by his product being in high demand? As a local himself, and a true steward of the city, Alex empathizes with those who eschew development but sees this change as inevitable.
When I heard the news about The Alley’s potential demise, though, it came as a shock and reminded me that I had not been there for quite some time. My last visit was certainly before the coronavirus shutdown. On that occasion I vaguely remember challenging a bemused stranger to a match despite being somewhat overserved myself. To make a long story short, I lost. Quickly. And so, surfacing from this embarrassing reverie with a shudder, I decided it was time to check the place out again to see what I could uncover about the proposed demolition and perhaps redeem myself from my last performance on the ping pong table.
A lively crowd had gathered by the time I arrived around eight o’clock on a Friday evening. Small knots of laughing parties clustered around the arcade games, which beeped and blinked cheerfully in a symphony of colorful lights and sound. The bar was turning a brisk business, and in the back, the lanes were packed with raucous bowlers. The man behind the bar was pleasant and seemed to be pliable for conversation so I asked him what he thought about the possible closure of The Alley and the idea of a hotel opening up in its place. Though he was quick to remind me that nothing about the potential plans was definite, the topic seemed like well-worn territory and he was happy to oblige me with an opinion.
The problem was much larger than just a spat over a hotel, I soon realized. The city, he said, focuses far too much on tourism dollars and pays scant heed to practical livability for the locals. For means of an example close at hand, he pointed out the lamentable condition of the roads just outside the front doors of The Alley. Riddled with dozens potholes and thoroughly quilted with patches of rough asphalt, these are regrettably indicative of many of the roadways in downtown Charleston. I find myself wincing in vicarious pain several times a day as my car bounces and slams through these unavoidable holes in the road or collides sharply with the leading edge of a steel plate meant serve as a solution to those holes. Between the salt water that bubbles up from the storm drains and the ribbons of asphalt that regularly lose integrity and collapse into the marsh, it is honestly tragic what this city does to a car.
Traffic and congestion seem to be popular themes whenever the topic of tourism is discussed, and for good reason. Infrastructure on the peninsula is quite obviously crumbling and pulling itself apart at the seams as visitors continue to stream in from out of state. It is easy to understand why many locals feel somewhat neglected by their local officials as small businesses struggle to gain a foothold and corporately funded enterprises, like these hotels, appear to thrive.
I think any rational citizen would agree that Charleston relies heavily on the positive economic impact of the tourism industry. It is one of our city’s most treasured resources, after all, and has, in many ways, put Charleston on the map. It is easy to see how the money gained from tourism enriches the area and gives Charleston the distinction of an internationally recognized metropolis. It would not be far off base to claim that much of the industry that has recently taken hold in Charleston — Boeing, Volvo, Bosch — is in some way a result of the city’s popularity as a tourist destination. Therefore, tourism and the hotels that support it appear to be a somewhat necessary evil with which the general populous must learn to deal.
So much of what makes Charleston wonderful is the fierce pride that local citizens maintain for their city. Places like ours are rare, and possibly becoming more so, which is why their preservation is of such importance. However, to preserve what makes Charleston unique, we must also embrace progress in one way or another. Finding balance between these two extremes often proves to be a puzzle; not everyone can be pleased.
I sometimes find it amusing to hear grievances levied against such a charming little port by its inhabitants — myself being a regular perpetrator — and I realize that this is one thing that will never change. Leave it to the humans living in paradise to find reason to complain. For now, The Alley maintains business as usual. Trivia is still on Wednesday nights, I was politely reminded, and will continue to be so indefinitely. As I sipped my beer in the convivial surrounds of this truly unique establishment, I found myself hoping that the hotel never gets built.
Charlie Mitchell has been swinging a golf club since he could stand. He remains humbled by the game and the lessons learned both on the course and in the clubhouse. Always eager for enlightenment, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.