The lens centers upon a row of boarded up buildings, with tattered siding and leaning roofs. Along the edges of the image, there is a crumbling sidewalk strewn with derelict characters. At night, the streets in this neighborhood shine bright with globes installed by the city. Behind closed doors, the community rages: shouts of anger burst through a cracked window, a woman calls for help, two kids light up in hopes of drowning reality. Young parents long to see their children graduate high school, to make ends meet on two or three jobs, to find a way to feed each little one. Several middle-aged residents aim to take pride in some small way, perhaps a backyard garden, or a carefully-lit fire blazing in a papered room that is encased behind barred windows. The juxtaposition of brokenness and a grappling towards hope is unmistakable.
Cut and scene. The camera shifts to a different perspective a mere fifteen years down the road. Kids pummel down the street on tricycles, a neighborhood baker greets passersby with a wave and warm smile, boys ready to play basketball lace up beside a flower-crowned bed and get ready for some three-on-three. The aroma of fresh food wafts from building-tops and residents rouse themselves for a bright and early farmer’s market prize as Saturday morning begins to rear its head.
Recently immersed in a design school project tied to issues of urban revitalization and community change in one of Savannah’s most illustrious neighborhoods, I have found myself longing deeply to bring hopefulness and restoration to my current home yet struggling for answers. As a newcomer to the city, I have been thrown into a melting pot of southern charm, lingering racism, and deep-set hopes and dreams. I came to Savannah from further north with ideas about the things that make a place successful, and more personally the things that make a place enjoyable.
When friends from afar ask me about my experiences, admittedly I often refer to Savannah as a mixed bag. It has so much character: incredible historic architecture and streetscapes, unique and well-seasoned food offerings, and families with generations of rooted traditions. The city also boasts a thriving art and design school that churns out some of the United States’ most vocationally equipped creatives. Simultaneously, though, Savannah has a pungent underbelly that anyone who has spent more than a few weeks in its heart will recall. Well-known for its prevalent crime and racial segregation, Savannah is a city still in the throes of finding its voice.
On the surface Savannah glitters with the charming warmth of the Old South. Known as one of the first planned cities, Savannah developed around several central city squares and small grassy parks. Once populated with horse-drawn carriages, its wide streets and grassy roundabouts facilitated a ready flow of traffic to and from its bustling waterfront corridor. Today, many people still stroll the downtown area’s wide sidewalks well into the night, often with pets or kids in tow. These patrons, many of whom are tourists, frequent the local bars and restaurants for a taste of southern flair and laid back conversation. Paula Deen has set up shop near the old city market, offering a buffet of delicious sweet and sultry regional cuisine to those willing to come early enough to reserve a seat. Around the corner, the Savannah Bee Company sells everything from honeycomb to honey-scented lotions and offers free samples of many of its honey flavors. Yet another shop breathes the air of French culture to Savannah’s visitors, boasting a well-curated collection of jewelry, soaps and scents, books, tasty treats, and vintage furnishings. Such spots make Savannah feel a bit like an eighteenth century port town in which onlookers are transported into a slower way of doing things and where the most important item on the agenda is the dinner menu.
Further from the heart of downtown, Savannah begins to feel more like a Flannery O’Connor novel. O’Connor, notably, grew up in Savannah, so this musing should come as no surprise. Here, the streets are peppered with wandering jobless men and the occasional local gem, such as Back in the Day Bakery. A brief visit to one of Savannah’s Chu’s Market locations will offer a colorful glimpse of local culture, a beat on teen drug and gang activity, and a close-up of the tightly-knit community bonds of those born and raised in its many homes. As an outsider entering into these parts of town, one will probably feel both discouraged by the marks of extreme poverty and surprised by the depth of local character. Crumbling homes are brought to life through carefully-manicured lawns and colorful accents. Groups of elderly men mill around outside local car repair shops and abandoned grocery stores, carrying with them rich stories of community lifeblood, at times pumped rich and at others parched. Teens wander the streets in the late afternoon, some looking for a few bucks through a quick break-in while their peers are busy seeking out friends to accompany them to the park.
I’ve never met a people as courageous and determined as those who live at the crux of these perimeter communities. One, a woodworker, situated his shop in a neighborhood with kids and teens in desperate need of after-school alternatives to crime and drugs in order to serve as a catalyst for change. Another, a local printmaker and professor, opened a Tex Mex-inspired coffee shop housing locally-made furnishings and intriguing art pieces in an area of town desperately in need of more mixed-use development. Yet one more, a local music teacher, regularly gathers up the trash that populates her block, plants flowers along an ill-repaired crackling city sidewalk, and encourages the city to get more involved in her neighborhood.
As I think on Savannah’s future and my own as an urban resident, I am both moved and inspired by those who have chosen to live in the gap as agents of change rather than shirkers of responsibility who escape for an easier, more comfortable way of life. Dwelling in the clutch of the renowned “Garden of Good and Evil,” I have begun to understand, perhaps more deeply than ever, that we always live in the flux between two extremes: brokenness, and great, vast beauty. At times, the immense pain of a community may leave us feeling paralyzed, unable to discern how to help it move forward. But change is never easy, and a place full-dose is rarely what we make of it at first glean. I believe that somehow, in communities like Savannah, we must hold in hand the two extremes. We must be both passionate repairers of the broken walls and patient investors who recognize that a full-spectrum revival probably will not happen in our lifetimes. To reference Jane Jacobs, we must be willing to become the seeds of our cities’ regenerations, those seeds that bring “energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside [ourselves].” And like Jacobs, we must be content to make our little mark and let the work of future generations extend our efforts into new domains.