Once one has alighted upon Hilton Head Island, South Carolina – howsoever briefly- it is impossible to ignore the pungency of privilege and entitlement. This is especially so if one roosts in one of the private gated communities such as Sea Pines or Palmetto Dunes whose history hearkens back to the original Sea Island Cotton trade or oyster plantations financed by Irish nationals and Wall Street tycoons and built upon the backs of the uneducated and the disadvantaged (primarily ex-slaves who flocked to Hilton Head Island once it fell to Union troops during the Civil War). Even today – a century and a half later – when the narrow-headed blond Patrician is being incrementally crowded by the stout, broad-faced descendant of the Incas, the Republican flavour of the Island is indisputable and unmistakeable. Everything contrives to sustain the preference for exclusivity – the mansions, the manicured lawns, the parade of high-end imported motor cars, the ubiquitous golf courses, tennis courts, country clubs, sailing yachts and swimming pools.
Approximately 70% of the island, including most of the tourist areas, is located inside gated communities. The Town maintains several public beach access points, including one for the exclusive use of town residents, who have approved several multimillion-dollar land-buying bond referendums to control commercial growth.
There are no neon signs on the Island and cautionary notices are posted throughout the Island to require “lights out” by 10:30 p.m. on the beach to avoid the distraction of hatching turtles from the natural attraction of moonlight on the Ocean.
Hilton Head Island offers an unusual number of cultural opportunities for a community its size, including Broadway-quality plays at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, the 120-member full chorus of the Hilton Head Choral Society, the highly rated Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, the largest annual outdoor, tented wine tasting event on the east coast, and several other annual community festivals. It also hosts the Heritage Golf Classic, a PGA Tour tournament played on the Harbour Town Golf Links in Sea Pines Resort.
There is a recognizable civility about Hilton Head Island which further entrenches the element of prerogative and advantage. Much like other maritime enclaves (Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard for example) there is an immunity to social aggression epitomized by neighbourliness which is uncharacteristic for most North American urban centres. It would for example be unthinkable to pass another on the bike path or beach without sharing a friendly nod or greeting. The unique community spirit is strengthened by these courtesies and formalities. In an odd paradox the very distance which the Islanders tacitly cultivate operates to cement the token bonds of camaraderie.
Even if one is a mere interloper, it stands to reason that many of the others whom one encounters or sees on the Island are inhabitants of the multi-million dollar beachfront homes. The entire Island screams posh resort and eco-friendly development, a bastion of sophistication championed by a select few (a year-round population of under 40,000).
The town’s Natural Resources Division enforces the Land Management Ordinance which minimizes the impact of development and governs the style of buildings and how they are situated amongst existing trees. As a result, Hilton Head Island enjoys an unusual amount of tree cover relative to the amount of development.
As of the census of 2000 the racial makeup of the town was 85.3% White, 8.3% African American, 0.1% Native American, 0.6% Asian, <0.1% Pacific Islander, 4.5% from other races, and 1.2% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 11.5% of the population.
It would plainly be guileless to imagine that all people would feel welcome in this elitist community. Its superior attitude is unmistakeable and militates conformity, largely forged by agreement and accommodation for self-preservation and perpetuity. One need only scratch the surface of the local government to discover the active participation of security and maintenance forces which buoy the pristine and seemingly casual vernacular. It is no coincidence that the frequency of spas and health clubs outnumbers bars and night clubs on an island whose peak summertime population bulges to 275,000. Athleticism is as much a mark of distinction as the upscale residences and automobiles. Nowhere is there to be found a venue which caters to nursing the Gin Crawl for late-night revellers. There is an unwritten code of conventionality and conservatism though as always reasonable tolerance is lubricated by social propriety, prestige and position, reminiscent of the Southern gentleman.