You can tell a lot about a town by the way they treat strangers and vacationers. I’ve only been walking around Savannah with a map and a camera for about a half-hour before two people stop to ask me if they can help with directions. It doesn’t hurt any that one of them has a nice Southern drawl as in, “Can I help y’all?” Gotta love it, and I DO love Savannah, the quintessential Deep South town.
Meander for just a lazy day under the signature moss-draped oaks that line the streets and celebrated public squares of the city, and even the most jaded traveler will be charmed. From the bawdy bars on the old city docks to the French Gothic grandeur of St John the Baptist Catholic Cathedral, this city celebrates its past like no other.
And what a history it is! Founded in 1733 by James Oglethorpe, it transitioned from a Utopian vision to a slave-owning economy to the tragedy of the War years and Reconstruction to age like a fine wine into what it has become today: a laid back, atmospheric throwback to a bygone era of genteel charm that is still very much alive.
It’s possibly the best walking city in the USA. Start out with any tourist map and just explore on your own, or better yet take a walking tour like I did to get the lay of the land: it really doesn’t matter, because the logical grid layout punctuated by shady squares and fountains is easy to navigate. Pick your way down centuries-old cobblestone streets to enjoy the music scene and shopping on River Street, or meander over to Colonial Park Cemetery, where you can find the gravesite of Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, or take a tour of one of the many fine 19th-century homes. Dine out or enjoy some underground jazz near City Market. Gawk at the place where Tom Hanks philosophized about life and chocolates for the movie “Forrest Gump”, or the mansion where Kevin Spacey met his untimely demise in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”. Enjoy the fine museums, like the one dedicated to Juliet Lowe, founder of the Girl Scouts (and Savannah native), and another to where the genocidal General Sherman stayed for 6 weeks after raping, burning, and pillaging his way through Georgia. Make sure to stop by Leopold’s Ice Cream, a century-old tradition and what I found to be a great antidote to a hot Fall day. Everything is within about a 20 minute walk in the historic district, which is where you want to stay.
At twilight, we stroll through Forsyth Park, the largest such in the downtown core. Near a (now controversial) Confederate monument, I hear the opening to “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. Amazed, I round a tent corner to see a symphony orchestra at play under a pavilion. I soon learn that they’re only practicing, but still we spend a few minutes listening to the (excellently rendered) Pops music. We return to our bed and breakfast at dusk and I note that there are no homeless visible in the park (or most anywhere else in the city); just people walking their dogs, enjoying the music, and children at play.
On Saturday morning it’s Savannah State’s homecoming parade, and I am watching it from the sidewalk on Broad Street. Savannah State is a historically black college, and they have done their school proud: there must be a thousand strong in the parade, between the marching bands, cheerleaders, and floats. As they pass by, girls pass out candy to the children, black and white, who are watching the festivities from the sidewalk. I am surprised to see a hearse in the procession near the end. A slim man dressed in a dark suit approaches me, smiling, and offers me a small bottle of hand lotion. Being 61, I hope this isn’t some kind of omen, but reflect both on how incongruous it is to see this kind of business promoted in a celebratory event as well as that race relations here seem to be better than in my native Florida (or at least appear that way on the surface to me).
Sunday finds me walking through one of the 22 public squares in the city, and, though it’s October, it’s hot as it can only be in the South. The church bells are ringing, and the parishioners are scurrying to worship, dressed in their Sunday best in spite of the heat. I have my camera hanging from my neck and pass by two well-dressed older ladies sitting at a park bench just chatting and people watching. One of them asks, “How ya’ll doin’ today?” in a slow drawl that brings a smile immediately to my face. “Fine,” I say. “How are you?” She sweetly smiles back. “We’re good, honey. Ya’ll enjoy your stroll.” This is the kind of hospitality that you can’t fake, it’s universal in its appeal, and it’s everywhere here. Taking a trip to Savannah is like a entering another, better world. You can almost feel the clock slowing down, your steps involuntarily assume a more languid pace, and you find yourself taking the time to enjoy the here and now in a way that’s impossible in a larger, more frenetic city…or even, increasingly in small town America as well.
How Savannah manages to keep its dignity in a world dedicated to…well, not much more than greed, fame, and ego I cannot say for sure, but I can speculate. Unlike many other Deep South cities, Savannah avoided the utter destruction of the Civil War era, and so the plantation-era culture of chivalry, honor, duty, and faith was passed on in ways that were impossible in the ash heap that constituted, for example, Atlanta in 1865. But of course, there had to be an accommodation made: to the end of the ugly institution of slavery, and the beginning of something better. I would like to think that black and white citizens here are more keenly aware of the sufferings endured by both peoples than those denizens of the new cities that arose, phoenix-like, from the Reconstruction period elsewhere in the South, which now largely consist of newcomers and carpetbaggers who have no attachment to the land or the people on either side of the racial divide…but then I don’t know, of course, for sure. I only know what I feel here, which is a sense of more respect on both sides of the issues than I’ve seen displayed elsewhere. Yes, there are many problems: I”ve been told of gang violence in the “bad” parts of town and that there’s a controversy brewing over how (and even whether) to honor the Confederate war dead. But I get a feeling that Savannahians will overcome all that, just as they have for nearly 300 years now. They, collectively, value their history and heritage too much to tarnish it. At least, that is my hope, and if they can manage it, maybe there’s hope for the rest of America as well, and surely, right now, we could use a good example to follow.