Columbia has always been a crossroads, even long before it was a city.
It’s a crossroads between places and people, politics and culture. It is a place where history is cherished, and the future embraced.
It is built on the fall line between the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain, where rivers connect in rocky shoals on their way to the sea. Sandhills and scrub pine cover the land north of the line, Spanish moss and oaks to the south. Native Americans on the Cherokee Trail used the shoals to cross the rivers. Later merchants and soldiers would travel up waterways and highways, northwest from coast, to trade and fight.
Columbia was founded as a political intersection, the nation’s first planned city — older than Washington, D.C. — a new state capital where lawmakers from the Lowcountry and the Upstate could meet in the middle and hammer out compromises.
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Today, Columbia is the state’s center of government, where laws are enacted and political stars are made or broken. Strom Thurmond was governor here, and James Byrnes. More recently Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley made national headlines — some good, some not.
It is home to huge military bases, drawing soldiers and airmen from across the nation and the world to train and fly. Fort Jackson is the Army’s largest basic combat training base – graduating 50,000 soldiers a year. McEntire Joint National Guard base houses F-16 jets and soldiers. And Shaw Air Force Base to the southeast in nearby Sumter, is home the largest F-16 wing in the nation, and also hosts Third Army and Ninth Air Force, which plan and supply operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Columbia is home to the state’s flagship university, the University of South Carolina and its Fighting Gamecocks, as well as at least 10 other institutions of higher learning.
And increasingly Columbia is becoming a crossroads of tourism and the arts, nightlife and dining.
Riverbanks Zoo is the most popular ticketed attraction in the state. EdVenture Children’s Museum, S.C. State Museum and others draw thousands of visitors a year. The S.C. State Fair is the center of the universe each October for shows and rides and all things fried.
In the past decade, Columbia’s downtown has seen a renaissance, drawing residents, restaurants and shops to newly landscaped streets in the Vista, Main Street and Five Points. Festivals draw people to celebrate everything from foreign cultures to crawfish. There’s Artista Vista, Indie Grits and St. Patrick’s Day in Five Points, one of the biggest parties in the South.
And new galleries and artists are increasingly transforming Columbia into an arts crossroads. Arts centers have opened on Main Street, augmenting the galleries in The Vista and the Columbia Museum of Art. It is a center of music, dance and theater, too, and of course, home to Hootie and Blowfish, complete with a statue and street named in their honor.
But most of all Columbia is a crossroads for families, a comfortable city with a good climate. Although sometimes Famously Hot, it’s comfortable place where people come together to live, work and play.
Jeff Wilkinson writes about business and the military for The State.