I had a strange welcome when I arrived in Charleston more than nine years ago. The night before I moved into my apartment on Rutledge Avenue, a house three doors up the street caught fire. The heat was so intense that it ignited the adjacent house just six feet away.
The residents of the first house got out well enough. But the 70-year-old resident of the second received serious burns over his face, neck, and hands, according to the Post and Courier. He was taken to Medical University Hospital, where he died four days later.
I am still puzzled about that March 30, 2002, fire. It seems to fit the profile of nearly 60 other questionable fires that have occurred in the area over the past nine years. It started on a sofa on the porch of the first house, a house that was divided into apartments and packed with College of Charleston students. Like all the other fires, this one began in the predawn hours. When I rolled up in front of my new home with my moving truck a few hours later, the air was still acrid with smoke. Debris littered the ground and sidewalk around the two charred houses.
Yet, this fire was never officially counted as one of the series of arson fires that has plagued the neighborhoods on both sides of the Crosstown for more than nine years. According to the Post and Courier, the first fire in this long series occurred on April 5, 2002, at 26 Kennedy St., about four blocks from my apartment.
Since that day, there have been at least nine fires within a third of a mile of my home, several of them on Rutledge Avenue, according to the P&C's online interactive map. The most recent fire on my street destroyed a grand old house at 247 Rutledge Ave. and heavily damaged another on June 30. Like the others, it was an early morning fire and made all the news broadcasts in Charleston that day. I was not aware of it because I was sound asleep after a hard night on the keyboard. When I got up about 11 that morning, I had three phone messages from friends, asking if I was all right.
It's nice to be worried about, but I have discovered that worrying seems to be all we can do about the phantom arsonist that has targeted our section of town. A few of his targets have been vacant and dilapidated structures, but the vast majority have been occupied — far too many by College of Charleston students. Most of the fires have started on porches or under outdoor stairways, using available flammable material, often a sofa, mattress, bed, pile of garbage, or recycling bin. In response to police warnings, I have taken the precaution of removing the recycling bins from my front porch and leaving a porch light on all night, every night.
This week I am also observing another wake-up call I received shortly after moving to town. August 23 is the ninth anniversary of the death of Velvet Brown. The 13-year-old Rivers Middle School honor student was gunned down in a drive-by shooting on Sumter Street, two blocks from my apartment, during my first Charleston summer. Since then I have ceased to be surprised by gunshots in the night; I read the stories in the paper in the days that follow, with details of the crimes, including the names of the victims and suspects. Reading the obit pages, I often recognize the names of the young black men who died on the streets of my neighborhood and I see their memorial photos on the anniversaries of their deaths. And, yes, they are almost always young black men.
Throughout history, the city has been the place of hope and opportunity, the escape from farm and small-town parochialism, the place where the jobs are. It is still that way for the lucky, and I consider myself lucky. I have lived in some other rough towns — including New Orleans and Myrtle Beach — without ever experiencing a serious brush with crime. This is in part because I am white and largely immune to the black-on-black violence that plagues this and so many other American cities. But the rash of arson that has swept through this neighborhood has me wondering if my luck is about to run out. I do not want to live in some sterile white ghetto, but I don't want to get burned out, either.
Everything is a trade-off, I guess. There is a price to pay for the culture, convenience, and excitement of living on the peninsula. The price keeps going up. I hope it has not gotten too high.