The bridge that opened in 1956 connecting Hilton Head to the mainland and the Sea Pines development on the island that also began in 1956 foretold the future of Hilton Head. It would be, and now is, a place filled with resort communities. The first golf course was built in 1960, and now there are many. The first Heritage Golf Classic, won by Arnold Palmer by three strokes, was played in 1960. Arnold also landed the first plane at the Hilton Head Airport, which opened in 1967. Also in 1967, Sea Pines first installed gates.
About 70% of the island is now located behind the gates of more than a dozen communities, often with “plantation” in their names. The developments have been eco-friendly, and beautiful trees and tasteful houses are everywhere. This was a place seeking to attract the affluent. At the beginning, these were primarily second homes. Primary homes were rare; people were not going to buy Hilton Head houses because of a nearby job. Second homes in general are for the affluent, and these spacious, well-constructed homes were not meant to attract the trailer-park crowd.
I tend to think of Hilton Head communities, at least at their inception, as having especially attracted the upper crust of small Midwest towns. My image may merely be because that described the parents of friends of mine who bought a place in Sea Pines in the 1960s. But even if that image of their hometown locations is wrong, it surely is correct that the it was the affluent who were buying into this place with large homes near the ocean. Those early development days promised a new community that offered explicitly and implicitly both a uniformity and a separation from the world. Architectural rules made sure that the color and size of houses would fall within a predictable range, and of course, the location of Hilton Head and the real estate prices held the promise that neighbors would be “much like us.” Gates made sure that “others” would not be allowed.
However, another world existed on Hilton Head when the Midwestern folk started buying land and houses behind the gates. I wonder if the new arrivals ever thought about that other Hilton Head. Behind the gates it was a de facto segregated world of the wealthy who were overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, white. Outside the gates was a continuation of a formally segregated, often impoverished Southern world, a world that may have been difficult for the affluent to understand. A couple of quotations come to mind. Charles Pierre Péguy, the poet, said, “Short of genius, a rich man cannot imagine poverty.” Walter Bagehot, the journalist and essayist, said something similar: “Poverty is an anomaly to rich people. It is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell.”
(Continued on April 25.)