FOR YEARS in Savannah, there's been an unspoken agreement that crime could continue "out there" as long as it didn't impact downtown, the "better" neighborhoods, and of course the tourists.
Crime outside those areas could continue, if not unchecked then certainly only temporarily inconvenienced, and Savannah could still present a clean, pretty face to the world.
For the most part, for whatever reason, the agreement seemed to suit both parties involved in the unwritten, unsigned treaty.
Through the decades, business was good on both sides:
On the one side, big developments, big payouts, sweetheart deals, invitations to all the right cocktail parties, and no one in the inner circle nor in the press asking pesky moral questions.
On the other side, an underground cash economy, a broken justice system acting as criminal continuing education, and a degree of self-determination historically denied them through mainstream channels.
Left out were the tens of thousands of citizens, black and white, richer or poorer, who reluctantly went along with the old agreement because “that’s just the way it goes here and nothing ever changes.”
The spell has only been broken once before that I know, in the early 1990s when the Ricky Jivens crime organization—“gang” seems far too patronizing for such a well-organized business—violated the unspoken agreement.
It happened simply enough, when an elderly man walking his dog was shot and killed—executed—in Ardsley Park.
That’s what it took for Savannah to say enough, and cast off its sitting mayor of two decades, John Rousakis.
There had been plenty of violent crimes here before, but that one crossed the unspoken line, the agreement that had never been written down but which everyone knew as gospel.
There was one difference in that the Jivens organization had a structure. It could be disrupted, if one tried hard enough and with enough integrity. This time there’s no big man at the top to bring down and no incorruptible force of moral authority available to do so even if we could find one.
We are at the cusp of another “enough” moment, this one a conglomeration of brazen crimes and imminent threat to tourism’s golden goose, the symbolic heart of the pretty city with a dirty face.
One of Savannah’s biggest and most valued tourist draws is the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace on Oglethorpe Avenue.
Even more so than River Street, the Birthplace and its attendant droves of young Girl Scouts from all over the country are the most iconic single attraction we have here, a wonderful and symbolic blend of history and hope for the future.
This past Friday, there was a drive-by shooting in broad daylight within yards of the Birthplace and its young Scouts, near one of downtown’s most notable restaurant success stories, The Collins Quarter.
That is a sign which cannot be ignored.
And it was just one in a series of shootings around the Historic District this summer, including a shootout in Ellis Square—another tourism success story—that injured five bystanders.
But of course it’s not just about the Historic District. Savannah’s less-celebrated neighborhoods continue to be ravaged.
This weekend on 38th Street, two men were shot in a drive-by while walking with a small child.
Before that, a two-year-old child was grazed in a drive-by on Carolan Street.
A 16-year-old killed in Wessels Homes.
Shootouts in Gordonston.
Seemingly endless gun battles on the Westside, with the growing body count of a war zone. (Another triple shooting there, after we went to press for this issue.)
The unspoken agreement has been breached, and the entire City itself is broken, as mayoral candidate Murray Silver Jr. said in my interview with him last week, which not coincidentally is probably the most-shared article we’ve ever published.
That interview was insanely popular certainly not because of any brilliance on my part—I basically set the recorder in front of him and he started talking—but because he spoke so openly about that unspoken agreement.
It is time for a new agreement in Savannah—this time, spoken and written down!
It must be negotiated with everyone at the table.
It must address crime and it must address poverty. Doing one without the other is more wasted time.
It must address preserving downtown and a healthy tourism industry and the quality of life outside downtown.
It must address the broken, revolving-door justice system which acts as a college to produce professional career criminals.
It must address the bloated bureaucracy of the public schools, more focused on building new buildings than molding young minds.
The old agreement had a good run. It’s time to relegate it to memory.
The incumbent politicians had a good run. It’s time to retire their jerseys.
The next “enough” moment is here, and the first step—just the very first baby step!—is sweeping change at the ballot box this November.
The deadline to register to vote, if you’re not already registered, is Oct. 5.
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