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"Crawford’s book stands apart from its predecessors because of its sustained focus on one threatened city. Charleston is a fascinating and haunted locale, and Crawford is gifted at sketching its grossness and grace." —New York Times Book Review
An unflinching look at a beautiful, endangered, tourist-pummeled, and history-filled American city.
At least thirteen million Americans will have to move away from American coasts in the coming decades, as rising sea levels and increasingly severe storms put lives at risk and cause billions of dollars in damages. In Charleston, South Carolina, denial, boosterism, widespread development, and public complacency about racial issues compound; the city, like our country, has no plan to protect its most vulnerable. In these pages, Susan Crawford tells the story of a city that has played a central role in America's painful racial history for centuries and now, as the waters rise, stands at the intersection of climate and race.
Unbeknownst to the seven million mostly white tourists who visit the charming streets of the lower peninsula each year, the Holy City is in a deeply precarious position. Weaving science, narrative history, and the family stories of Black Charlestonians, Charleston chronicles the tumultuous recent past in the life of the city—from protests to hurricanes—while revealing the escalating risk in its future. A bellwether for other towns and cities, Charleston is emblematic of vast portions of the American coast, with a future of inundation juxtaposed against little planning to ensure a thriving future for all residents.
In Charleston, we meet Rev. Joseph Darby, a well-regarded Black minister with a powerful voice across the city and region who has an acute sense of the city's shortcomings when it comes to matters of race and water. We also hear from Michelle Mapp, one of the city's most promising Black leaders, and Quinetha Frasier, a charismatic young Black entrepreneur with Gullah-Geechee roots who fears her people’s displacement. And there is Jacob Lindsey, a young white city planner charged with running the city’s ten-year “comprehensive plan” efforts who ends up working for a private developer. These and others give voice to the extraordinary risks the city is facing.
The city of Charleston, with its explosive gentrification over the last thirty years, crystallizes a human tendency to value development above all else. At the same time, Charleston stands for our need to change our ways—and the need to build higher, drier, more densely-connected places where all citizens can live safely.
Illuminating and vividly rendered, Charleston is a clarion call and filled with characters who will stay in the reader’s mind long after the final page.
Susan Crawford is the John A. Reilly Clinical Professor at Harvard Law School. She is the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age and Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution—and Why America Might Miss It. She divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
"All true climate-change stories are about the abuse of power. Knowing this, Susan Crawford makes a plea for climate justice in Charleston, her sweeping case study of the South Carolina city. Crawford’s book stands apart from its predecessors because of its sustained focus on one threatened city. Charleston is a fascinating and haunted locale, and Crawford is gifted at sketching its grossness and grace."
The New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice
"Crawford’s book about Charleston’s imminent coastal climate crisis, intertwined with the city’s racial issues, is truly an eye-opener. Crawford’s writing style is clear and engaging, and she deftly involves the reader in the problems she addresses. An engaging book on the important national intersection of racism and the natural environment. Ideal for book discussion groups or citywide reading." Library Journal, starred review
"Crawford persuasively links the precarious position of the city’s Black neighborhoods to other 'legacies of slavery and racism,' including segregated schools and a lack of affordable housing for low- and middle-income families. By turns heartbreaking and hopeful, this is an eye-opening look behind Charleston’s genteel facade." Publishers Weekly
"Days after reading Susan Crawford’s masterful Charleston: Race, Water and the Coming Storm, I found myself telling strangers impromptu anecdotes about the South Carolina coastal city. This is a fascinating, in-depth, soul-searching look at a beautiful city with a dark past and an uncertain future. It’s a book that I wish every community could have for facing economic inequality, racial injustice and climate change. In a blend of history, policy, science and journalism, Crawford brings Charleston to life and reveals why the city is a harbinger for the United States and the world.' Laura Trethewey, author of Imperiled Ocean
One of the nation’s finest public interest technologists, Susan Crawford has used her pen and position to shed light on the rural, low-income communities left out of the story of America’s digital future. In Charleston, Crawford once again asks us not to look away, detailing the inner life of a city’s legacy of racism, and calling into question whether that history will drown Black and low-income residents in the present tense, as waters rise and levees break across Charleston and America's coastal cities. This is a book that will stay with you long after you've turned its final page.” Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, author of From Generosity to Justice
"Charleston is a ghost story for the climate age, a sweeping and unflinching analysis of how a history of racism, greed, and political cowardice is creating a wet dystopian future for an iconic American city. Read this book and you'll understand the enormity of the challenges that coastal cities face in a rapidly warming world, and why people are fighting for change before it's too late." Jeff Goodell, bestselling author of The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World
"“An important and prescient book, presenting a clear-eyed view of the inevitable track of sea level rise and how it intersects with the historic and present issues of race in Charleston. The precarious situation in which this low-lying city finds itself is a microcosm of many other cities by a rising sea. But this is a story of people and not just policy. Crawford gives due attention to Black voices and the neighborhoods that are receiving the brunt of climate-driven flooding. The case for a retreat from land in jeopardy and the need to plan for future dense, affordable development on high, dry ground are eloquently expressed. A powerful portrait of the cost of climate denial coming due.” David Goodrich, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Observations and Monitoring Program, former Director of the UN Global Climate Observing System, and author of On Freedom Road