So let’s run through the three phases of Savannah: the historical, and modernist, and what ever you call the present. First, Savannah is one of the most interesting, well-preserved cities in the country. It reminds me of New Orleans, or old parts of Boston: the historic district features a host of 18th and 19th century buildings, and the riverfront strip is an almost perfectly preserved picture of what old river cities looked like over a hundred years ago. Not only that, but these buildings sit around a unique town plan that scatters little public squares at the center of every other intersection. There's nothing like this anywhere in the world, as far as I know, and Savannah's squares are fantastic examples of walkable public space. (For example, see the other Calhoun Square at right.) They're kind of like parks combined with traffic circles, as John Berendt author of MITGOGAE, describes:
"The streets were to be laid out in a grid pattern, crossing at right angles, and there would be squares at regular intervals. In effect, the city would become a giant parterre garden. [City founder, James] Oglethorpe built the first four squares himself. 'The thing I like best about the squares, 'Miss Harty said, 'is that cars can't cut through the middle; they must go around them. So traffic is obliged to flow at a very leisurely pace The squares are our little oases of tranquillity.'"
Because of the squares, the historic district forms a pedestrian paradise, and spending time in the squares is an almost unbeatable urban experience. You really get a sense of the way that the squares became centers of neighborhood identity and interaction, as people walk their dogs and go about their daily business. (The closest I got to an actual MITGOGAE encounter was seeing this old man wearing a white suit and hat who would loudly shout “Good Morning Savannah! I am here for your sins!” while carrying a large cardboard sign on a stick that read “Jesus Saves”. Apparently this happened every day -- I saw him no less than three times -- and he often got into arguments with the local townsfolk, shouting through the park about the exact nature of sin and redemption.) In fact, the only down side to the squares is that while you’re sitting there enjoying the sunshine peeking through tree branches laden with Spanish moss, every ninety seconds a trolley bus filled with tourists rolls by with a loudspeaker blaring out how the squares allow people to sit and enjoy the sunshine peeking through tree branches laden with Spanish moss. These trolley busses are ubiquitous, and often follow each other bumper-to-bumper, so that you can hear different tour guides giving speeches at the same time, one growing louder as the other softens like a Doppler Effect from some sort of Disney Hell.
On top of the squares, there is the rich history of Savannah itself. Thanks largely to happenstance, the city escaped burning during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and you can go on tours of a bunch of the old homes. Not only that, but thanks to its position as a port city, Savannah was home to pirates (!) during the 19th century, and there is an actual historically-certifiable Pirate House where you can eat food while an animatronic pirate regales you with perilous tales. And, my favorite bit of history is called “underground Savannnah.” Apparently, when the city raised a large embankment along the waterfront to prevent flooding sometime in the 1800’s, they actually buried the first floor of the downtown area, which means that as you walk along some sidewalks you are actually walking above another set of sidewalks. (You can see one of these buildings in the above photo.) If you look down through grates in the sidewalk, you can see another door where the first floor of the building used to be.
All this leads me to the second stage of Savannah, the one I call modernism. The reason why Savannah is home to the modern historical preservation movement is that Savannah, like most American cities, was being extensively modernized during the post-war years. And, of course, when I say 'modernized' I really mean 'bulldozed'.
Its funny how, in Savannah, the main street is the most optional part of the city. Broughton Street forms the main drag of ‘downtown’ Savannah, and it definately has the abandoned department store feel of many 50’s main streets (or parts of downtown Saint Paul). What’s interesting is that most of the space along Broughton is still, to this day, vacant and unused. You see boarded up windows, ‘for rent’ signs, and empty theater marquees for even emptier theaters. Like many downtowns, all the retail business in Savannah seems to have been sucked out to shopping malls and big box stores, and there’s very little left of the once-vital 50’s retail scene.
Here’s another quote from MITGOGAE:
"[MITGOGAE’s anti-hero, Jim] Williams had played an active role in the restoration of Savannah's historic district, starting in the mid 1950s. Georgia Fawcett, a longtime preservationist, recalled how difficult it had been to get people involved in saving downtown Savannah in those early days. 'The old part of town had become a slum,' she said. 'The banks had red-lined the whole area. The great old houses were falling into ruin or being demolished to make way for gas stations and parking lots, and you couldn't borrow any money from the banks to go in and save them. Prostitutes strolled the streets. Couples with children were afraid to live downtown, because it was considered dangerous.'" (5)What you realize when you walk through Savannah is that the 50’s were a brief window of opportunity and optimism for downtown retailers, as the decades of depression and wartime gave way to a booming American economy. No doubt stores like Lord's (pictured at right) were doing great business. At the same time, though, American cities were changing rapidly as centrifugal forces like the automobile and the television moved wealthy population out into suburban areas. Reading the descriptions of the women striving to save the Davenport House, a 1830’s house that spearheaded Savannah’s preservation movement, you get a sense of the desperation that downtown business owners must have felt as they saw their business disappearing for want of parking lots.
All of this helps to explain Ellis Square, a huge construction project underway in downtown Savannah. Ellis Square was originally a giant covered market, the likes of which have all but disappeared from the American landscape, that was bulldozed in the early 1950s to make way for a giant municipal parking garage. The city is now un-bulldozing the market by moving the parking garage underground, and ‘restoring’ the square, which lies at the heart of downtown, back into a park (pictured at right). While it struck me that Savannah was already kind of awash in parking lots (there were a number of big ramps surrounding the riverfront district), but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
Apart from the parking lots and large-scale Main Street buildings Savannah’s other urban planning disasters are the giant hotel and convention complexes that dominate the city’s skyline at various points. Not only are there huge, thirty-story hotels that form little campuses – like the Westin and the Marriott – but there are two large convention centers that sit within the city, or on the island right across the river. But by far the worst of these is the Hyatt Regency Hotel, which sits right next to the city hall and forms a giant pink mountain of concrete that actually covers River Street, the main riverfront strolling spot. It blends into Savnnah’s old historic building stock with all the grace of an earthquake at the Faberge museum. It sticks out like the Pope at a slot machine. It's terrible, not only architecturally, but because it ends up dominating the landscape surrounding what should be the focal point of the city. Not only that, but I have it on good account that their beds are horribly uncomfortable. I can only imagine the bribes that must have exchanged hands when the building was approved in what I can only assume was the 1970’s. All together, the decades after World War Two were not that kind to Savannah, Georgia. And though I suppose its nice that so much of the town’s beautiful history has survived, I was oft struck by how much nicer the city could have been.
Today, though, Savannah has seen something of a renaissance since the redlining, crime-laden days described by MITGOGAE’s Ms. Fawcett. Following the lead of Savannah’s pioneering historical preservationists, an art school has spent the last few decades buying up historic properties throughout the city and turning them into classroom buildings, and the tourist industry is certainly booming. There are pirate tours, ghost tours, history tours, civil war tours, house tours, riverboat tours, and even tours featuring all the films have been shot in the city. But at the same time, it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot else going on in the local economy, apart from some industrial jobs centering around Savannah’s status as a shipping port. So while there are parts of town where, if you squint, you can pretend you're not surrounded by tourists (for example, I really liked hanging out in the 'City Market' area, over on the West side of downtow), at the same time it's hard to see how a city like this could ever really become something other than a resort town. Its hard to imagine Savannah having a bustling diverse population filling its city streets with life, but that doesn’t change the fact that its an excellent place to go for a vacation.
Walkability: 9 ... Better walking you will not find, this side of the Atlantic
Interest: 7.5 ... Lots to love if you love history
Vitality: 6 ... Lots to hate if you hate tourists
Verdict: Savannah is the USA writ small, and has some of the best Sitting Benches in the world.
P.S.: For more on race relations in Savannah, read this article on Troy Davis, the condemned death row inmate.