People can rave all they want about Savannah’s live oak trees, downtown squares, 19th-century housing stock, dramatic tides, pleasant winter weather conditions and number of festivals, including the outstanding March music festival.
And a lot of people do rave about those things. That’s why we’re riding a wave now. There’s great flux and great mix and great interest.
But the end, it will be the people, not the beauty, who will take Savannah to the next level, the next tier.
But do the old-timers, the Chamber of Commerce types, the sixth-generation families see this? Will they allow the new entrepreneurs, the artists, the people who think out of the box, the outsiders into the game? Will it happen before people get discouraged and leave?
And what, pray tell, do they say to possible newbies about Savannah’s three big problems -- its school system, its crime, its racial disconnect? I’d love to be a fly on the wall or in their brains when and if they address those issues.
I pity the families who move here with children accustomed to other educational systems. And yet -- and here’s the irony -- one can’t help but notice the lineup of people wanting a shot at the school board presidency. Can you believe this year’s collection? Former mayors, retiring education specialists, oil executives. They all want the job. What is that about?
Only one will win, but where will the other candidates be after the election? Just once I’d like to see their self-proclaimed interest in schools and children sustained beyond the campaign. Just once I’d like to see the losing candidates take their enthusiasm, their ideas, their desire to contribute to a school board meeting when this year’s election is history.
And what is there left to say about the city’s crime? The news is all crime all the time. But it’s not like they’re making any of it up, either. Five homicides in a week? The really creepy part of that is knowing each one of those corners where the bullets go flying.
Yes, it’s a small city. But coordinates like that lodge in one’s mind. It’s one thing to take visitors to see the not-so-famous sights -- the location of Forrest Gump’s bench, a hidden and early Jewish cemetery, scenes from “The Book,” Bradley Lock and Key, the quirkiest store in America.
But it’s quite another to pass the pay phone where a college art student was gunned down, the square where an 18-year-old was killed, the carwash where the recent calamitous and egregious police chase started.
For people choosing a place to live -- or even making the decision to remain in Savannah -- the area’s racial harmony or evolution would not be among the top three things on the list. Yes, thanks to the late W.W. Law and others, Savannah escaped the damaging race riots of the ‘60s. There were no grandiose marches or burnings. There was no destruction of property.
But except for some federally induced changes in school integration and more legal restrictions against redlining in property sales, attitudes toward -- and by -- people of the darker persuasion seem to have changed little since the ‘50s.
It’s true that there are more opportunities for middle class African Americans in larger cities such as Atlanta and others, so why would children of black middle class families -- or white, for that matter -- remain in Savannah? But it’s also true -- and this is the sad and rarely mentioned part -- that very few people, black or white, in supervisory positions at places such as City Hall or the historically black college, Savannah State University, bother to buck the tide of old colonial racist attitudes.
They treat the people they are supervising the same way -- or worse -- that they were treated 30 years ago. It’s almost as if they think, “If I had to endure this, they do, too.” They expect and/or ask for very little. And guess what? They -- and the rest of the city -- get very little back.
Every time I stay away from Savannah and then return I am struck by two things: the realities, which are dire, and the possibilities, which are endless. While people who live in larger cities have the room to stratify and the luxury, if you can call it that, to “stick with their own kind,” most people in Savannah have to mix and match.
It doesn’t take long for the pharmacist to remember your name. You can get a letter-to-the-editor published. You can drive somewhere without too many entry ramps or exit mistakes. You can go to an art opening and not be crushed by the crowd.
While it’s hard for people in large cities to make a dent or to make their voice heard, it’s just the opposite in a place like Savannah.
IF people care enough to speak up. IF people can embrace new ideas. IF people can let go of a little power.
Would that we could line everyone up, like we did in gym class in elementary school, count off by numbers -- one, two, three, four -- and form new teams or new communities. Then we would have to throw away all the old barriers, the assumptions, the prejudices and start again.
Now that would make a great reality show. ç
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