I’ve blogged a lot about my dad and grandmother and how they taught me to appreciate Hilton Head. I have to give my mother a lot of credit too. She’s always taught me to appreciate the beauty of things. When I was a child she would point to a Blue Jay or a Robin Red Breast. There were interesting bugs to see. I think that one backfired on her because I would hold my own bug centimeters from her face and say, “Look Mommy, interesting!” Mom would point to all the trees on the way into Hilton Head and from then on, I called it “Going through the trees”. My mother also taught us, my sister and me, to appreciate architecture or as she says, “ah-kitecture (she’s from Providence, Rhode Island). That finger of hers pointed to wrought iron fences and stone archways, Victorian Style and Gothic Style, and it was “Oh look at that church” or “Ooh look at this house.” Yes, my mom taught me that buildings of man had a history and told a story. Of course with all that exposure , I would become a planner.
My first experience with planning occurred at the age of 15. I was doing a report for history class about all of the changes to Hilton Head. I had an interview with Hilton Head’s first Black urban planner who told me that all of my beautiful trees that led to island would be replaced with shopping centers, homes, and other businesses. He was telling the truth too because in the last 15 years, the town of Bluffton went from “A State of Mind” to the place to be. Even now as I go back to visit my parents, I can’t help but to stop in the Polo Outlet to find the great bargains, but I digress.
My internship at Penn Center my summer of my junior year and the course in Urban Politics my senior year at Hampton were enough to build on my budding childhood interests and influence my decision to become a planner. I thought my volunteering with the Virginia Beach planning department was enough to get my foot in the door and start my career as a planner. I was wrong. I lacked both the education and experience needed. It took me two more years before I convinced myself to get a graduate degree. Attending the University of New Orleans was the best decision I made to put me on the career path towards my goals. Hello, it’s planning school, ah-kitecture, and culture in one place! I was in Heaven. “The Princess and the Frog” is my absolute favorite Disney movie. Tiana is right in that dreams do come true in New Orleans. They did for me. I met lifelong friends, I had excellent and knowledgeable professors like Dr. Washington and Dr. Wildgen (God rest their souls), I met my would-be-husband (Ok, technically we were in Boston but I was living in New Orleans at the time) and the best part is I got proposed to right in front of Saint Louis Cathedral. Again, I digress but I can’t help going on a tangent when I talk about one of my favorite places.
While in New Orleans, I took a summer course in Preservation Planning. My professor announced that we were going to take a two-day trip along the Mississippi River Road visiting all of the plantations. One of my classmates absolutely refused to go. Just refused. She thought it was insulting for her as a Black person to have to endure a trip to the plantation. Her loss. I’m not saying it was the perfect trip. For one, it was Louisiana in June. To say it was “hot” was the understatement of the year. Secondly, I could have lived without visiting a certain parish that will remain nameless. I will say that it was like landing on the middle of a scene from that 80s detective series, “In the Head of the Night” (You know the spinoff, “They call me Mr. Tibbs”). There were a couple of other places we could have left off the tour as I didn’t see it relevant to preservation like Carvelle. I did enjoy the cypress plantation and Evergreen. The African American museum has probably the only well preserved photograph of slaves arriving at a port in Charleston. I stared at that photograph a while, wondering if I had any ancestors in that picture. The Laura Plantation was my favorite. It was owned by a Black Woman (See – lady-who-was-insulted-and-refused-to-go-on-the-trip, you missed out). The thing about these plantation homes is that they were modest compared to that “Gone with the Wind” Mansion but they were grand in their own right. The story of each site came alive thanks to the people who had an appreciation for its history and a mission to keep it alive. Of course my graduate thesis was about preserving the Sea Islands and Grandmama has a cameo appearance. And I received the much coveted degree right before the new millennium.
I’ve practiced planning in South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. I’ve presented rezonings, approved individual plats and shopping centers, and written long-range plans. I was even a transportation planner. It was my career for 8 years. Then I left it. For me, it was too rigid. No “ah-kitecture”. I lost site of why I loved the profession. I’m just more of a preservationist. Instead of trying to figure out a way to build new, I should have found jobs that allowed me to keep what’s old because it tells a story.
Though I no longer practice planning, I still consider myself a planner. I still taught the concepts in my History, Government, and Geography classes. I use my knowledge when land issues on the island arise. Now I prefer to write about it.
By the way, I’m making plans to take my own family on that River Road trip. I think they’ll appreciate the stories as well.