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Steely Dan Feb 7, 2017 5:42 PM

Why aren't Charleston & Savannah the Boston & Philly of the south?
i was just in charleston over the weekend for the 1st time. what a wonderful city! i've also visited savannah in the past, another wonderful small southern colonial city with charm and history pouring out of its ass.

they are probably the two best and most important colonial cities of the south (along with new orleans, which is a different beast). why didn't they grow into major seaport metropolises like the the old colonial port cities in the north did, such as boston and philly?

why are atlanta and charlotte such big deals? the urban bones of charleston and savannah are on another level. i mean, what if boston had a metro population today of 600,000 and albany was a metropolis of 6,000,000 people? or if philly was now home to 300,000 and state college was a burgeoning city of 3,000,000? wouldn't that seem really fucking weird? why was the script flipped in the south?

ChargerCarl Feb 7, 2017 5:54 PM

My first guess would be because most of their growth occurred after WWII and the invention of air conditioning after we destroyed our cities with highways and bad regulations.

Emprise du Lion Feb 7, 2017 6:07 PM

The ports certainly grew, even if the cities didn't. Why I'm not certain.

Also one problem that Charleston will likely have going forward is that apparently any building that is 75 years old or older is automatically given landmark status. I remember being told this on a carriage tour I took a few years back, and the guide pointed out a group of buildings that were built to house servicemen during WWII that had since been turned into housing projects were about to hit the 75 year mark.

Buckeye Native 001 Feb 7, 2017 6:25 PM

Weather, possibly? I loved Charleston when I visited in 2012 but there's some residual PTSD among long-time residents from when Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989.

JManc Feb 7, 2017 6:30 PM

The northeast cities also had heavy industry and more developed economies than their southern counterparts. The south really didn't grow until after WW2 and by then, ports were not that essential as they were in the past.

Ant131531 Feb 7, 2017 6:41 PM

Atlanta was always going to boom. It's all about location. Atlanta sits in arguably the best spot in the entire southeast when it comes to logistics and transportation especially considering 3 major highways(which goes in all directions) intersect right in the city center.

Also the South simply didn't have a huge industrial base prior to WWII. Most of the new immigrants completely ignored the South and went straight to the Northeast or Midwest which had more advanced economies and weren't as provincial. You have to remember...the South was still mostly a slave/agriculture economy including Charleston and Savannah and by the time slavery ended, the South was too busy rebuilding and trying to implement Jim Crown laws while the Northeast/Midwest were far more welcoming to immigrants and blacks which is why the cities went kaboom between 1860-1940.

ue Feb 7, 2017 7:08 PM

A mix of two things

1 - slow to urbanize until after WWII, meaning as Boston, Philly, and NYC industrialized and became behemoths, Charleston and Savannah weren't and the South was still predominantly agrarian until air conditioning became commonplace.

2 - the major rail lines (and later highways) by-passed Charleston and Savannah, going for cities like Atlanta and Raleigh, which was crucial in the air conditioned age, when the South began to urbanized (and suburbanize).

maru2501 Feb 7, 2017 9:06 PM

Massachusetts colony's importance is well known, and boston was a great deep-water port that much closer to England. Philly of course was the lynchpin of another major colony and enjoyed a stint as US capital. NYC similar, and grew very quickly with access to interior waterways that cemented its importance.

as stated, the South was poorer and more rural in general at the time those cities exploded. Stayed rural and yes, no air conditioning limited growth. Chiefly southern port cities were cotton exporters to England, mostly. Georgia was infamously first a prison colony of sorts.
Charleston even dealt with piracy in the 1700s, and was a bit out of the way to serve most of the US population anyway

barney82 Feb 7, 2017 9:54 PM

It would be cool if Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans had become the Southern analogues to the Acela Corridor cities. Population wasn't even an excuse, since Virginia had by far the largest population of any state for a very long time. I guess it all comes down to the plantation slavery economy, and how that retarded economic development in the South for the longest time.

When the railroads were built in the South, they weren't built to link urban centers, but to service the plantations? So they linked minor interior cities that became big as a result?

memph Feb 7, 2017 9:57 PM

Atlanta overtook Savannah in population in the 1870s and Charleston in the 1880s. By the time the government was trying to decide how to build the highway network, Atlanta was already significantly larger than those two cities, not to mention more centrally located, so it's no surprised that they decide to build multiple highways to connect Atlanta.

New York City and the other NE coastal cities were also already much larger than Charleston and Savannah in the 19th century.

So any explanation has to look at why Charleston and Savannah didn't grow much in the 19th century and why growth was already shifting towards inland southern cities in the 19th century.

Once the cities of the inland South had established a lead over the coastal South, there was little reason for the population to shift back towards the coast since ports weren't as important to city economies in the 20th century as in the 19th.

Charleston was actually not much smaller than the big NE cities during the 1700s, barely smaller than Boston, bigger than Baltimore, and only 3 times smaller than NYC in 1790. However, the NE cities grew much faster than the SE ports between 1790 and 1860, so that by 1860 Charleston was already far behind and NYC was now 30x more populous.

So at least some of the causes were already set in motion before the Civil War.

memph Feb 7, 2017 10:11 PM

One thing to notice is that already in 1790-1800, the census shows that most of the counties of the coastal South were fairly sparsely populated compared to the counties of the coastal North. Even the counties of the coastal North without any big cities like Plymouth (MA) or Monmouth (NJ) were about 3-5x denser than most counties of the coastal South. Only Chatham (Savannah) and Charleston county were comparably dense.

In fact, already then, the inland Piedmont region was more densely populated than the coastal counties.

So what was going on there?

maru2501 Feb 7, 2017 10:31 PM

Charlotte, which is west of the real piedmont, was originally a cotton town and then became a textile town before it's much more recent shift to major banking. Atlanta sprung up at the crossroads of several rail lines, hence it's original name Terminus

I think most of them just developed later. The Southern port exception is really New Orleans, but it was tied to the Northeast economy and Chicago by water

Shawn Feb 8, 2017 12:31 AM

Plus, the South just didn't receive the immigration levels the Northeast did. From the end of the Civil War to the end of WWI, Massachusetts received almost 3 million Europeans of largely Irish, Italian, and Portuguese origin. South Carolina didn't even hit 3 million state-wide residents until 1979.

Charleston is gorgeous though!

badrunner Feb 8, 2017 12:48 AM

How many large port cities can the east coast really support? I don't think the coastal location of Charleston and Savannah really gives them any economic advantage over their inland cousins. Maybe the civil war and the Charleston earthquake also helped to slow their growth.

brickell Feb 8, 2017 5:07 AM

The Boll Weevil (and some of the other stuff mentioned).

initiald Feb 8, 2017 1:59 PM

Just visited Charleston for the first time two weeks ago - lovely city.

Charleston is locked in by water on three sides, and the city can't annex any more area due to North Charleston boxing it in. Everything is deemed historic and protected, which has preserved most of the city while also turning it into a "living museum." Homes in downtown Charleston run 1+ million to 6 million along the battery. It's like a celebrity retirement home than a functioning city, where the working class have to live up in North Charleston.

For comparison, look at a city like Charlotte. Charlotte's population in 1920 was 46,338. The Charleston population in 1920 was 67,957.

Now in 2015 Charlotte's population is 827,097 and Charleston is 132,609.

This is largely due to the fact that Charlotte had plenty of cheap land to sprawl into in post-WWII era, and plenty of space for mills and manufacturing, plus a willingness to raze any and everything in it's downtown for developers.

the urban politician Feb 8, 2017 2:32 PM

I haven't been to Savannah, but have been to Charleston several times. It is a shocker because I always viewed southern cities as ho hum sprawlville USA up until that point. Charleston turns that viewpoint completely on its head. It's just such a damn charming place, you feel like you're in a dream walking around there. Kinda gives you a sense of how Boston, New York, or Philly probably looked (albeit different architecture) in their early years before industrialization kicked them into hypergrowth mode.

Regarding Steely's question I have often wondered the same and it looks like that question was adequately answered here.

Leo the Dog Feb 8, 2017 2:57 PM

I can't speak for Savannah, but I've visited Charleston sporadically over the past 3 decades. Among some of the other reasons brought up earlier in this thread, I think the physical geography of the region was/is a huge deterrent in why the region didn't explode into a metro of 4-6 million people.

Charleston is also known as "The Low Country". It consists of low lying land, swamps, tidal marshes, shifting waterways, meandering rivers and streams with risky barrier islands susceptible to tidal over-wash and act as the last defense for coastal storms. Just think of the Meadowlands, but everywhere!

The explosive development of East Coast barrier islands has happened only in the past 40-50 years. Prior to AC, this region was truly a miserable place to call home. I have a family member that grew up in Charleston in the 1940's/50's that has stories of sleeping on the porch at night (with the bugs) and falling asleep to the sound of gators in the swamp just off their front yard - because it was too hot inside.

Fortunately due to the coastline, hurricane risk is much lower than other places close by such as, Wilmington, NC, and typically strike about every 25-30 years, with that said Cat 4 Hugo absolutely devastated the region (all the way up to Columbia, including the Francis Marion National Forest) in 1989. I remember these scenes like they were yesterday.

Ironically, it is because of the storm that some are crediting it with the resurgence of the city and surrounding region as older dilapidate housing stock was wiped off the map and allowed billions to pour in for development and replacing infrastructure.

In addition to hurricanes, Charleston is seismically active and can produce a quake of 6.0+.

The new Boeing plant in N. Charleston adjacent to the airport is a sign of the times, the city being able to draw huge employers that fuel the local economy. The city has suddenly been rediscovered in recent years by outsiders.

I see Charleston continuing to blossom into a well known tourist hub and growing into a mid sized metro in the coming decades.

brickell Feb 8, 2017 4:28 PM

to follow up on my above only slight tongue in cheek post.

I think we're looking at this in the wrong way. In my opinion these cities were more like boom towns. When they're primary sources of wealth (cotton, slaves and timber) no longer held the same importance to the worlds economy they declined relative to the northern ports. Just because they were big and important at one point doesn't not mean they were destined to be.

We all know what happened to the slaves. Probably the single biggest hit to the South's economy. Not just in terms of their utility but in actual dollars and sense. Trillions of dollars in today's dollars wipe out with a stroke of the pen.

You can't talk about the south without bringing up Cotton. It's inextricably woven into the whole economy, culture and manifest of the south. The South was cotton and the cotton was the south. Cotton became less important after the war for a few reasons, slave labor no longer used, boll weevil and new growing regions, especially out west.

And for timber, when they started building ships out of iron and steel that sort of put a stop to their cash cow.

Shortly after these crashed, railroads became vogue for shipping to the industrial centers further inland and up north.

Charleston and Savannah aren't the only examples of course. In Florida Apalachicola was once a primary gulf shipping port, but now is little more than a small fishing village. Key West made millions off wrecking and sponging and was once the largest most prosperous city in Florida.

eschaton Feb 8, 2017 4:55 PM

Short answer: Malaria, and to a lesser extent yellow fever.

Living in the south, especially the lowland south, was pretty horrible up until he use of qiinine in the early 20th century, and the eradication of these diseases within the U.S. outright in the mid 20th century. If you were black you likely had a natural resistance to malaria, which is why they were used as slaves over European indentured servants to begin with. But if you were white you would get sick with malaria at some point in your life. If you were lucky you'd get the P. vivax strain only, which likely wouldn't kill you, but would mean spending many months functionally bedridden with flulike symptoms. If you're unlucky and get P. falciparum, you could end up with permanent liver damage and die.

For white people who were native to the south, this wasn't a huge deal. You'd usually get sick once in your life (often childhood) and if you survived you'd be semi-resistant for the remainder of your life. But it was a big concern if you were a migrant from Europe or elsewhere - so much so that it was generally suggested immigrant laborers have time set aside for "seasoning" once they came into the South.

But as a result, the South was just a bad place for cities. The more people who were concentrated together, the more chance malaria could spread, and the more stagnant pools of water for mosquitoes to breed in. Productivity was low, and the area was not attractive to immigrants.

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