In May 1791, President George Washington traveled from Columbia to Camden on his Southern Tour (Please note, the trip took 10 hours) and famously remarked:
May 25th. Set out at 4 o’clock for Camden, breakfasted at an indifferent house 22 miles from the town (the first we came to) and reached Camden about two o’clock. The road from Columbia to Camden, excepting a mile or two at each place, goes over the most miserable pine barren I ever saw, showing quite a white sand, very hilly.
Two hundred twenty-nine years later, in 1920, the splenetic Baltimorean, H.L. Mencken, widely accepted as a leading intellectual, commented in his racist essay, The Sahara of the Bozart: Alas, for the South! Nearly the whole of Europe could be lost in that stupendous region of worn-out farms, shoddy cities and paralyzed cerebrums. … it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert. Virginia is the best of the South today, and Georgia is perhaps the worst. The one is simply senile; the other is crass, gross, vulgar and obnoxious. Between lies a vast plain of mediocrity, stupidity, lethargy, almost of dead silence.
The “vast plain of mediocrity” meant us. Perhaps Mr. Mencken did not fully understand what the ravages of war and widespread destruction can do to a proud people, but he also underestimated, to the peril of his own reputation, that the culture here in the South was deep, complex, questioning, and could never be extinguished, especially by journalists. Whatever else, he seriously misjudged our continuity of greatness.
By mid-century the literature and the music of the South was of world importance and influence. Today, we in the Midlands remain a mecca of artists and musicians, with archives and museums and collections on almost every corner, scholars and writers behind almost every door, and a citizenry that is widely traveled. That said, for our present purpose we go beyond arts and letters.
People routinely tell me what Camden does not have and what we used to have. Some forget the Camden with a dirt Broad Street at the turn of the last century, a city like most American cities, struggling to survive before women voted, before Civil Rights, before the Internet, before penicillin, before vaccinations and mass media.
Sometimes we need to take a longer view.
The plain fact: Camden sits in the middle of the second fastest urban area in the country and the third biggest economic engine after the Boston-Washington and the Chicago-Pittsburgh corridors. As Governor Haley pointed out in her State of the State address last week, South Carolina is the fastest growing economy on the east coast and is outpacing the nation, including its neighbors in North Carolina and Georgia. And that’s just the beginning.
Stereotypes aside, the South has dramatically risen once again. Everyone, it seems, wants to be a Southerner. People move here for the superior climate, the great food, the varieties of music, the beauty of the homes, and the warmth of the people. If some areas of Kershaw County still seem frayed at its edges, rest assured the newcomers are just over the next hill.
We comprise what the Urban Land Institute terms “Char-Lanta,” a mega-region known as “the Innovation Corridor,” boundaried by Charlotte at one end and Atlanta at the other. Char-Lanta, home to 22 million, embodies a $730 billion economy, more than India’s Gross Domestic Product and about the same size as Canada’s.
As a worldwide economic region, if one includes the Raleigh-Durham area, Char-Lanta is No. 8, right after London and northern Italy (Tokyo is first). Char-lanta is a bigger economic region than southern or northern California, southern Florida, Toronto, or Dallas-Austin. Our leading sectors are finance, biotech, and telecom manufacturing. Our key creative-class jobs: computer systems designer, systems analyst, chief scientist, and bioprocessing technician.
Am I overreaching? Some might object to what sounds like an overload of promises. The social problems here, as in any state, remain. Too many children still go to bed hungry. Too many workers receive less than a living wage. Domestic violence corrodes too many families. That having been said, change for the better has broken through. The growing prosperity of the state is making inroads into the Midlands. We have reason to dwell on hope.
Last week, we lost Father Francis Travis, the pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a gentle soul if there ever was one, and former Chief of Police Jack Cobb, loved by all who knew him. May they rest in peace.