October 19th, 2012
Last week I was on the road yet again, but for the first time all semester not on a work-related adventure. A dear friend was getting married and so husband and I decided to take advantage of the time of year and appealing destination and attend. It was a long way away, with luggage getting lost en route, but well worth the time and effort. This postcard therefore comes to you from Savannah, Georgia. You might think you already know the town, having been made famous in the non-fiction work Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. That’s one of the gardens you see here.
Author John Berendt’s 1994 best-selling tome on a scandalous murder involving southern gothic tropes and an underworld of sexual transgression was made into a half decent 1997 movie by that chair-talking Republican, Clint Eastwood. Anyone who has seen the film will remember the heavy torpor that hangs over the city like a bad mood, or the expanse of shadowy squares and live oak trees that characterize its scenery. Well, walking through Savannah in 2012 was a lot like being on that movie set, without the sexual weirdness and torpor, of course.
What an unexpected surprise! The experience of the city was well worth blogging about. I had read, partly in passing and partly prepping for the trip, a few references to and by Richard Florida and his interest in Savannah. I am almost always interested in what he has to say about the creative class, urban planning, the revitalization of cities, the wise investment in art and culture at the core of a city’s life and health, and so I followed these up. Sure enough, turns out that Savannah is a rare but vital example of an urban space that once was almost in utter ruins. Its grand old merchant-class (slave-owning) mansions had become bat-infested hell holes, its parks and squares turned to rot and neglect.
I still haven’t quite tracked down who exactly had the wisdom to see beyond the road to decline, but clearly some risky decisions were made a few decades ago and the city was not only saved but transformed into an ideal community of art and commerce. The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) started establishing its presence all over the urban space, buying up many of these old and failing properties and turning them into learning and studio spaces. They also bought up a large tract of land smack in the middle of downtown on which they built the main campus headquarters. The thing is, and as Florida has argued, the more you spread the arts and cultural presence around the more of an impact it will have. So, yes, there is a central campus but with lots of other attractive sites integrated into the larger community.
Man, what impact! Even without knowing any of this when you arrive, one of the first things you realize is there are a lot of young people in Savannah. They look healthy and hip. They are walking or biking or peddling three-wheeled open taxi vehicles, shuttling tourists from one block or yummy restaurant to another. Their presence has generated more coffee houses and funky shops than you can possibly spend all your money in. They all flow in and out of the Art College, making a huge contribution to the social economy of this now prosperous centre. It’s all such a brilliant living example of what happens to the quality of life when you invest in the right ideas—that is, in the pleasure of architecture, history, nature, and culture. Much to our astonishment, as we rambled randomly through one of the dozens of tree-saturated squares we came across a large imposing but gorgeous white stone building, clearly a museum or art gallery. It looked strangely familiar. Sure enough, Canada’s architectural star, Moshe Safdie, had been commissioned by the city in the early 2000s to unify its collections of historic and contemporary art in one glorious building. It is as light-filled and welcoming as any of the magnificent pieces he has done all over the world, an impressive achievement, and an enviable one at that. Savannah has a fairly small population, pretty similar to St John’s, and it has a Sadie building. Where do I sign?
It’s wonderful to have social theories tested. Savannah is one of those living examples of urban planning gone right, a real inspiration for any of us who believe in the restorative power of art, and the economic benefits that accrue from such power. It makes you ashamed of all the bad urban ideas that dominate our thinking these days.