Monday, February 16, 2009

Savannah's Lessons

I don't have to give too much introduction here. I was raised on one of Georgia's Golden Isles, almost half way between two cities that could not be more different - Jacksonville, Florida and Savannah, Georgia. Trips to Jacksonville were all driving and concrete interstates, glass high-rises and strip malls.

In Savannah, you got out of the car, walked through city squares graced with fountains and statues. Your feet trod over cobblestone paths past wrought iron fences and the facades of great houses whose bricks were baked from the Georgia red clay hundreds of years ago. The heat of the day was filtered through the majesty of live oak branches, dripping with Spanish moss, fading in the evening to the soft glow of gas lamps. When you were there, you didn't think of the interstates or the mall so many miles behind you where Abercorn goes to six lanes - you thought only of watching the cargo ships on the river, the smell of seafood and steaks from the fine restaurants, and the taste of praline samples from the candy store.

In a way, the path that led me to New Orleans started the first time I set foot on Broughton Street and walked north to the Savannah River and I fell in love with the character of place. Maybe it was even earlier when, back in the 30's, a young doctor named Edward asked a young nurse named Catherine on a date, and traced their courtship through those same streets. A different kind of love, to be sure, but no less important as to where my feet come from and where my feet go.

Given enough factors, comparisons between cities can come easily. I've always wondered why such giants as Atlanta and Houston dominate our conversation here. New Orleans is, after all, the youngest sister of the three iconic Southern port cities alongside Charleston and Savannah. They have their inconsolable differences, to be sure, but all siblings do. But there is similarity in the genetic makeup, and they are haunted by similar demons. Such is the price of the family resemblance.

The comparisons started to get interesting a few months ago when the TP ran a series of articles discussing "shrinking cities," with a theme that New Orleans could learn much from such places as Youngstown, Ohio. Maybe she can, but along with that comparison came one with Savannah - a city of 'roughly similar size' (New Orleans ~300K, Savannah ~250K) that was also 'shrinking'.

That the article compared the two was not shocking. Why the article compared the two was almost completely erroneous. It was as if the authors had picked from a list of cities around that population, ignored their metropolitan areas, noticed a downward turn in population and called that similar. They both have rivers, too!

Since that article, I've noticed an uptick of commentary here and there that the powers-that-be in New Orleans are attempting to make the Crescent City more like Savannah, and that this is perceived as a bad thing. I guess the overall sentiment is that, somewhere along the way, Savannah sold its soul and culture to the developers, and they were able to do as they wished. Then I start wondering if these folks are talking about some Savannah on a different planet somewhere.

I mean, if the people in charge of New Orleans' recovery are attempting to make it like Savannah, they're pretty much going about it in every wrong way. Savannah has been at this for a long time, and if you want to talk about wildly successful historic preservation, proactive community involvement, government + citizen groups working together, referendums on new developments, studies on gentrification placing minorities in at-risk situations, enforcement of codes, accountability of landlords and property owners, removal and rehabilitation of blight and speed of response (which are all issues that are killing recovery in New Orleans), you may want to start reading up on some of the successes Savannah has had in those areas.

I ain't sayin' they got it all perfect in Savannah, but can you imagine holding a voter referendum to approve an $800 million development near downtown New Orleans?

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