The Charleston Market sits on land conveyed to the City of Charleston in 1788 by Revolutionary War general Charles Cotesworth Pinckney in order to “lay out a street from the channel of the Cooper River to Meeting Street 100 feet broad, and in said street to establish a public market or markets for the purpose of vending all sorts of butcher meats, poultry, game, fish, vegetables and provisions.” The agreement notes that the land donation would be rescinded if it were ever used for any other purpose. Please note that the terms “T-Shirts,” “Trinkets,” and “Civil War Bric a Brac” are absent from this clause.
Anyone who has spent any significant time in our city has, at one point or another, heard the Market referred to as “The Old Slave Market.” That being said, one of the conditions upon which the land was conveyed expressely forbade the sale of slaves in the market space. For further evidence of this, simply look up while standing in front of the Market Hall. Above the Roman style Doric columns, there, embedded in the frieze is an advertisement of the building’s purpose: bull skulls.
One can easily imagine the market cries of the vendors hawking their wares. Remember Elvis Presley’s duet with the street vendor in the opening of King Creole?
In 2008, the long-term lease on the historic market was awarded to City Market Preservation Trust LLC, comprised of Hank Holliday, Steve Varn and Lawrence Thompson. The partners spent one year studying the nuances of successful public markets in San Francisco, CA; New York, NY; Havana, Cuba; and Lyon, France. In addition to capital improvements, the partners had one primary goal according to Holliday: transform the historic landmark for the benefit of locals.
In 2011, the City Market Preservation Trust was awarded the prestigious Robert N.S. and Patti Whitelaw Founders Award by the Historic Charleston Foundation for their role in renovating and restoring much of the market. In 2012, they were awarded the 2012 Phoenix Award from the Society of American Travel Writers for “individuals and communities that have enhanced a travel experience through conservation, preservation, beautification or environmental efforts.” Additionally, their efforts were recognized by a Carolopolis Award by the Preservation Society of Charleston.
While the restoration of the Charleston Market remains a crowning achievement in Charleston’s preservation efforts, it strikes me that the wares sold there today are not very different from those sold 20 years ago when I first came to Charleston.
Having personally enjoyed culinary markets such as San Francisco’s Ferry Building, Seattle’s Pike Place Market or Barcelona’s Boqueria begs the question”Why isn’t at least some part of our own public market more specifically geared towards the sale of South Carolina produce and foods, and why isn’t it geared better to serve the people of the city for which it was originally established?”