Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Night [and a year] In Old Savannah

Bonaventure Cemetery
Now that I have some reference brought on by 62 years of experience in this world, I am sometimes amazed at what great changes can be brought on by rather unexpected, ordinary circumstances. Great masses of people and the courses of their lives can be changed overnight or in an matter of months not only by a natural disaster, war or human event, but also by a subtle cultural shift. That comes to mind when I think of Savannah, Georgia, one of the nation's most beautiful cities, and a city I have admired and enjoyed for over thirty years.

Yes, really, it was a rainy night in Georgia. It was also cold, foggy, and 3 a.m. The year was 1967, and we were on our way to south Florida for winter break. After navigating the Route 17 /I-95 construction puzzle in South Carolina, Savannah was a welcome glow in the fog. At the end of the Talmadge Bridge, the very heart of town and beyond, we were stunned to find every store and gas station closed. The stench from the nearby paper mill left us gagging. After regaining our bearings, we sped south thinking Savannah was little more than a dump.

I have two recollections of Savannah that night. First, there was a boulevard lined with stunning live oaks draped in Spanish moss and glistening from the glow of street lights high above the trees. And second, beyond the oaks was the shadowed facade of one weathered and neglected building after another. It was surreal. The image has never left me.
OTR's Jones Street project
In 1977, and quite unexpectedly, I found myself seduced by Savannah's charms and restoring a townhouse in the historic district. But after a year, events in my personal and professional life changed and led me to conclude that I was not a happy man. Almost everything had changed that year. The townhouse sold quickly and profitably and I moved east to the islands and enjoyed life there for another decade. In Old Savannah the architecture remained. The divisive social issues of race and class remained. The weight of an enormous heritage of the American South and all the baggage that accompanied it remained.

Two events would soon come to change Savannah. First, there was SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design. Founded about the time I moved to town, SCAD's student body grew quickly into the thousands, almost all of them housed in the historic district. The school contributed to the preservation of many historic buildings and, in several ways, revived commerce and excitement in the downtown community. The second event was the arrival of "the book." I had been living in Savannah only a few months before realizing it was a most unusual place, full of interesting characters, and perhaps as surreal as my memories of Oglethorpe Avenue. Writing a book never entered my mind until years later. But it did almost immediately to New York journalist, John Berendt. He captured both the city and its characters to perfection in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, published in 1994.

Bonaventure Cemetery
The book was a sensation, a best seller, and tourism exploded.The Savannah experience changed within months. There were more restaurants to enjoy. The night life flourished. Tour options abounded, from ghost, to pirate, to transsexual. The pace changed: faster, broader, deeper, never ending, and more expensive. The historic district became a fishbowl. Soon, the pioneers paid $6,000, $8,000, then $10,000 or more in city/county taxes to live in the homes they had lovingly restored. Many of them left. Had I stayed, I too would have been displaced. My wife and I could no longer have afforded to live in the home I restored. That saddens me, along with the realization that the divisive issues of race and class and social baggage remain unchanged.

Today, the people go about their daily lives shadowed by those magnificent, moss draped live oaks. The wonderfully restored facades look down on them daily. The ships glide in on the incoming tides. And Bonaventure's ancient gate welcomes the living and the dead into what I believe is the nation's most beautiful cemetery. So much has changed in Savannah, but in the quiet hours, in the intimate gardens, and in the music of the squares as well as that of a piano a few door aways, you can find the city I knew thirty years ago.

History tells us that Savannah will not, perhaps cannot, be everything to everyone, but it remains a most seductive place. I invite you to enjoy this historic city - do read "the book" first - where you too may be changed as much as I was those many years ago.

Bonaventure Cemetery

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