With the arrival of 2008, the Daffin Park Centennial celebration, a year-long agenda of community events, historical lectures and fireworks, is officially a memory.
A commemorative booklet published by the City of Savannah features an essay outlining Daffin Park’s chronology and its varied uses over the years—automobile races, temporary airfield, baseball and football field, and as the site of two Bicentennial celebration events in 1933, one of which was attended by President Franklin Roosevelt. The role of the park in Savannah’s racial civil rights history is extensively documented, including landmark attempts to integrate the basketball area and the public pool.
Before closing the Daffin Park history book, at least one overlooked chapter begs for a little investigation. That chapter is titled “The People’s Park: Ground Zero for Savannah’s Counter Culture.”
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s I was in elementary school, too young to be a hippie and too sequestered in the suburbs to know any hippies personally, or so I thought. When my Uncle Eric gave me as Christmas presents my first two record albums, Donovan’s Greatest Hits and Simon & Garfunkel’s Wednesday Morning 3 AM, I took them at face value, singing along obliviously to “Mellow Yellow.”
I’m told that the impact of San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love didn’t reach Savannah until two or three years later, while I was still a member of my mom’s Brownie Troop.
Sometime during that era I recall several instances of riding in the back seat of the car, Mom at the wheel, as we rolled past the corner of Victory Drive and Bee Road, the location of Daffin Park, a somewhat neglected section of the unremarkably landscaped public facility. At some point in this period, less than a decade after Daffin Park was center stage for two racial desegregation lawsuits, this corner of Daffin became known as “The People’s Park,” the unofficial gathering place for Savannah’s hippies.
Savannah’s beatnik gathering place was likely named for the original People’s Park in Berkeley, Calif., site of a 1969 confrontation between 30,000 counter culture folks “armed with peace signs and daisies” and 2,000 members of the California National Guard, according to the American Friends Service Committee website.
My recollections of Savannah’s People’s Park are probably colored with images of hippies in other places, as seen in news footage and movies. My “station wagon” memories of Bee Road and Victory Drive feature dozens of young people, maybe several hundred, sitting on cars or on the ground.
They looked different from the well-coiffed, dressed-up teens in the upper grades at my K-12 school. There were beards on the hippie boys, and blue jeans on boys and girls alike.
One day, as we passed by, I thought I saw the older sister of a classmate among the milling crowd, but my mother assured me I was mistaken.
In the past several weeks I’ve inquired of several of my friends, native Savannahians of a certain age, if they ever hung out at People’s Park. Despite the hordes of people gathering there daily, I’ve yet to talk to anyone who was a regular.
Several claim to be too young, estimating that the park was at its heyday in 1970 or ’71. One neighbor recalls her lone visit to People’s Park, sneaking out with her best friend from St. Vincent’s, just to see it.
Another Savannahian went to the gathering only once, to check out a “Free Lieutenant Calley” rally. A few people claim to have left town by then, either for college or due to the draft board.
A family acquaintance, an iconoclastic professor at Armstrong during that period, told me that during the 1970’s he made a decision to stay away from the drug culture prevalent on campus and beyond. By then he was already married and had children to consider. Avoiding People’s Park was part of that decision.
The drug culture of People’s Park was harder core than Savannah had ever experienced, according to one of my “only visited once” sources. Pot was everywhere, and heroin was easy to find. Perhaps it’s that hardcore reputation that has made it difficult to find people willing to talk about this slice of local history.
In the next few weeks I’m heading to the public library to wade through microfiche copies of the Savannah Morning News for articles about the Lieutenant Calley demonstration. Now that Savannah’s 1970’s hippies have children and grandchildren, some of them hippies themselves, I’m hoping to find one or two People’s Park alumni willing to share their recollections of this chapter in our history.
If Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil can spawn a minor tourist industry, why can’t a random gathering of hippies?
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