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Eastside Story 

New documentation project explores the history of the Eastside neighborhoods

Before there was a golf course, gas station or water treatment facility there, President Street hosted a shipbuilding facility, a shanty town of railroad workers, a rice plantation, a Civil War fortification and a Native American village.

Throughout those changes, families settled there and what was once nothing more than trees, grass and river bank became a chain of communities, each with their own history and identity.

A comprehensive new multi–media documentation project being released this month by the City of Savannah, titled Ebb and Flow, explores all of those changes in a search for the long, intriguing history of Savannah’s Eastside.

 In its totality, Ebb and Flow includes a book (in paper or digital versions), a documentary film, a website, an iPhone app, special events and a museum exhibit – representing the work of a team of dozens of people from photographers to designers and more.

While the project takes advantage of the diversity of media available in the modern age, at its heart – no matter which format through which you might access it – is the work of the project historians, Dr. Martha Keber and Dr. Charles Elmore, along with the vision of the project manager Michelle Hunter, from the City of Savannah’s Cultural Affairs Office.
They also worked together on the 2008 release Low Land High Road, which documented the history of neighborhoods on the Westside.

“Every time we do one of these, I re–conceptualize Savannah,” says Hunter, a native Savannahian. “I come to understand that while all of this in the Historic District is arresting and attractive, there are other neighborhoods with compelling history, stories and voices.”

Although there are only a few miles separating the city’s East and West sides, the neighborhoods follow different arcs across time. They are part of the same city, but their histories, circumstances and personalities are unique.

“Too many people think history resides downtown,” Keber says. “There’s a lot of history there, no doubt about it. But there’s a lot of history everywhere in Savannah if you care to look for it.”

For the Eastside, history is inextricably linked to the river’s tides – from the Native Americans who settled what is now known as the Deptford Village along its southern banks, to the massive wartime shipbuilding industry that was the area’s largest employer during the Second World War.

It was the Liberty ship builders who worked in shifts around the clock for years who prompted the construction of housing in Pine Gardens (later Strathmore Estates and soon to be Savannah Gardens), which changed the Eastside from a predominantly pastoral network of enclaves to the more fully developed neighborhood it became.

“The neighborhoods we were dealing with had connections to the river,” explains Keber, who chose the book’s title. “There were ties to the wars, to the railroads, to shrimping, fishing and canneries. The river was the critical thing.”

The title also serves as metaphor. Assessing hundreds of years of history in a small area reveals high and low points across time, a series of booms and busts guided by the whims of human activity.

“It’s interesting how the development of community comes and goes,” explains Keber. “Some things draw people together, but when they disappear then you have new magnets that will eventually emerge.”

Understanding the ebb and flow of neighborhoods over time was part of the reason these documentation projects began in the first place.

Several years ago, then–City Manager Michael Brown had the foresight to understand that change was coming to several neighborhoods, and it would seriously alter their social fabric.

“Initially the intent from the former City Manager was to document change over time,” Hunter explains. “The city really initiated this project to serve two purposes – one is preservation and the other is education.”

The first documentation project took place in the Ben Van Clark neighborhood, and included photo and video that accompanied oral histories gathered by Elmore. The Westside followed, coinciding with the razing of Fellwood and its rebirth as Sustainable Fellwood.

The Eastside project, research for which began in 2008, was intended to capture the community before Strathmore was leveled to make way for Savannah Gardens.

During his interviews with Eastside residents, Elmore discovered many who had been living in Strathmore, originally built as temporary housing for shipyard workers, who had been living there for 40 or 50 years and who remembered much of what time had forgotten or development had erased.

“There are things they told me that wouldn’t be known otherwise,” says Elmore, who conducted more than 40 interviews for the project, including many folks in their 80s or 90s and several centenarians. “Some of them are now deceased.”

Had the project taken place a few years later, the firsthand accounts that are the foundation of what makes the book exceptional would have been lost.

The historians are searching for much more than just names or dates. They are capturing the stories that are the mortar between bricks of history that rest in property transfer records or municipal archives; trying to uncover the events that serve as catalysts for change in neighborhoods.

“When you have a neighborhood like Strathmore, and it has come to a state that is somewhat blighted, there are certain conditions that produce that, and part of this is an investigation of that and a framing of that conversation,” says Hunter. “What brought that change over time?”

And what might be the key to revitalization? As one example, Hunter cited an interest of the Public Development Bureau to better understand what sorts of businesses that once lined Pennsylvania Avenue, which many residents described as vibrant 30 years earlier. Firsthand accounts by longtime residents often are one of the few resources for such information.

While the history of the neighborhoods has a pragmatic application, that shouldn’t overshadow what is an eminently readable and intriguing view of an often overlooked part of the city.

Keber’s historical research is breathtaking in its depth and accuracy. She was already a practicing historian, and initially joined the team for Low Land High Road after retiring as a professor at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. However, she specialized in the history of 18th Century France, rather than Coastal Georgia.

She immersed herself in the project, and gained an unparalleled knowledge about Savannah’s east and west sides as a result. She uncovered the framework of history – names, dates, deeds and transactions – a skeleton whose bones were covered with the flesh of oral histories gathered by Elmore.

The retired professor is a walking encyclopedia of people. As we talk he lists the names of dozens of residents he has spoken with, their accomplishments, places they lived, events they witnessed.

“I related to them,” he explains. “I’m a born and raised Savannahian. It was a great pleasure to meet our people.”

His knowledge and understanding of local history provided the perfect foil against which residents could dust off stories that lay dormant for decades in the corners of memory.

Being both a native Savannahian as well as a practicing historian who’s written a half dozen books in countless articles, Elmore’s methodology for finding people and their stories is instinctual.

“I find my own people,” he says. “I have a feel for this city.”

A path across history would unfold before him, and each person he spoke with would recommend one or several others who he should contact for the project.

The book is broken down into aspects of neighborhood life – housing, work, youth, etc. It’s something Hunter describes as “thematic history” rather than a dry chronology. Readers are immersed in the experience of the neighborhoods themselves, whose homes, streets and personalities are illustrated by numerous photos pulled from archives and borrowed from families.

While the book’s substance consists largely of work gathered by Keber and Elmore, it is not their book by any stretch of the imagination and the true historians are the people whose stories and lives are captured within its pages.

“I talked to Patricia Jenkins. She is a historian,” says Elmore. “She may not have a Ph.D, but she’s as much a historian as I am or Martha is. She knows that area. She helped them to save the LePageville cemetery.”

The stories of the residents whose lives are the threads weaving together the fabric of the Eastside communities often held surprises, even for lifelong Savannahians like Elmore and Hunter.

“I spoke with Thelma Welch Hodges. She is now 103 years old,” Elmore recalls. “She worked at the Southeastern Shipyard, and told me a story that would’ve never ever been told if she’d been dead.”

The story, which made it into the book along with a picture of Welch, is truly unique.

Welch worked as a “burner,” expertly wielding an acetylene torch for long, hot 8–hour shifts – one of the rare women who transcended clerical positions in the service of her country during WWII. Although racial segregation was a regular practice at the Southeastern Shipyard, Welch’s life was saved by an African American man named Sam Cohen, who jumped into action when her coveralls caught fire.

Some time later, an incident arose at the shipyard when an unknown black man gave some candy to a white woman. An angry mob of white men gathered to exact punishment for the impropriety and were heading toward Cohen. Welch fired up her torch and stepped between Cohen and the mob, threatening to burn anyone who laid a hand on the man who saved her life.

Hunter, surprise came in a different form. Now on her third documentation project, the ritual she’s developed prior to beginning research in earnest is to drive around the neighborhood with her father to mine his memories.

When we got to President Street, we pulled off next to the Parker’s and he said to me, ”there used to be, when I was a little kid, an African American village here. They tore it down in the ’50s,“ she recalls. ”That was really surprising to me. He described it as being very pastoral and undeveloped. To see it as an urban landscape kind of belies that truth.”

The book does justice to its subjects – and the peculiarities of Savannah – in the minute yet significantly human details that are so often missing from the broad strokes of other histories.

One striking moment is a reminder of the Fountain family, who pioneered the Twickenham Terrace subdivision when it first opened, which managed to survive and ripple out across time. While Terry Tindol was stripping paint in the Fountains’ former Lawton Avenue residence, there were childish scrawls on the wall made by Luther Fountain’s granddaughter as a young girl, still hidden behind a coat of paint decades later.

It is moments like this that make a history of Savannah so much richer than other places. Much of it is still waiting to be discovered, just below the surface of daily life.

Exploring the Eastside

The release of Ebb and Flow will be accompanied by a series of events. Free copies available to City residents, though there are limited supplies. For more info: www.savannahneighborhoods.org

Documentary Screening

What: Youth participants and filmmakers from All Walks of Life Inc. worked with historians to create a documentary.

When: May 19, 10 a.m.

Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.

Info: Space is limited and reservations are req’d. Call 912–704–3812.

The Unveiling of Ebb and Flow

What: Books available, meet with authors and residents. Reception follows.

When: May 19, 5 p.m.

Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.

The Exhibition

What: Collection of photos and other ephemera exploring Eastside history.

When: May 7–July 17

Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.

Cost: Museum admission, except during May 23–29 when it will be free

Lecture: Streetcar Boycotts in Savannah

What: Historian Martha Keber discusses organized efforts to fight against segregation of public transportation.

When: May 25, 12:30 p.m.

Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.

Baby Boomers in Eastern Savannah

What: A talk and discussion including residents moderated by Charles Elmore

When: May 26, 6 p.m.

Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.

 

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