Louis Rubin returns to his roots 

Uptown Boy

Charleston native Louis Rubin revisits a picturesque boyhood on the Peninsula

Charleston native Louis Rubin revisits a picturesque boyhood on the Peninsula

When Algonquin Books co-founder Louis Rubin revisited his childhood home on Sans Souci Street recently, he made a surprising discovery: There was no trace of the house which his parents had built in 1935.

"There was a large oak tree in the yard where an arbor had been," Rubin says. "It took me a minute to realize that the tree had had more than half a century to grow there. I didn't feel nostalgic, so much as mystified; I was looking at time. I didn't want to be back there again. The memory simply was — or maybe not so simply."

Rubin brings his memories to life in his most recent book Uptown Downtown in Old Charleston, published by the University of South Carolina Press in April. Since moving north to pursue a journalism career in the 1940s, Rubin has established himself as a respected writer and editor, with honors including Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships and the R. Hunt Parker Memorial Award for lifetime contributions to the literary heritage of North Carolina. His latest book looks back on his formative years with a collection of sketches and stories based loosely on his childhood. The book paints a vivid portrait of a boy growing up in the 1930s and '40s, when the old Cooper River Bridge was still new, when a Ferris wheel presided over Folly Beach, and when Hampton Park housed a zoo.

While most of Charleston's carriage tours and history books focus on the city's earliest history, Rubin provides a glimpse into an often overlooked period from the simple perspective of a young boy. Rather than dwelling on the effects of the Great Depression or the threat of World War II, Rubin's semi-autobiographical protagonist is more concerned with the action at Adger's Wharf (now Waterfront Park), playing baseball in the Twilight League near Hampton Park, and dealing with growing up Jewish in a largely Protestant town.

"I've written several volumes of straight memoir — my newspaper years, my long-lasting affair with boats and boating, and so on," Rubin says. "But I've also written several novels. That kind of storytelling — fiction — is a way of dealing with one's experience that involves shaping, combining, extending, developing to get at emotional meanings. In certain important ways, I can come closer to understanding and interpreting who I am in respect to the place and time I live in by writing about it as a story."

While much has changed since Rubin was a boy, there is still a distinct divide between the pricey, clean-cut, touristy sheen of downtown Charleston and the more laid-back, residential, and sometimes rough Uptown area, which encompasses Wagener Terrace, Hampton Park, and North Central.

"Much of the division that I remember and describe in the stories and sketches of the book existed in my emotions," Rubin says. "It wasn't just imaginary and subjective, but it also wasn't nearly as absolute and all-pervading as I thought it was. The last sketch in the book describes this beginning to become apparent to me — but in truth that's what the entire book is 'about.' "

Now based outside of Chapel Hill, Rubin still makes a beeline for his favorite places when he returns to Charleston.

"I certainly do like the restaurants, for one thing," he says. "I enjoy seeing old friends — there are still a few, mostly in their 80s like myself. But what I like most is the waterfront — even if Adger's Wharf is gone."


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