2019 Year In Review

Top Ten Local Stories From The Year That Was

Updated December 24, 2019 at 12:24 p.m.

1. Earthshaking Savannah election

It was a seismic paradigm shift of massive proportions: Mayor Eddie DeLoach was voted out decisively after one term, with most every other City Council incumbent either defeated or declining to run for reelection.

Fifth District Alderwoman Estella Shabazz, who ran unopposed, is the only one to return to his or her seat.

First District Alderman Van Johnson defeated DeLoach to become the next Mayor of Savannah.

And a majority conservative white male City Council turns into a majority progressive black female City Council—first in Savannah history.

The newly elected faces are not only new to Council, but new to politics.

New Alderwoman-at-Large Alicia Blakely, the top vote-getter of all candidates in the 2019 election, has never held elected office. Same for incoming Alderwoman-at-Large Kesha Gibson-Carter.

Same for First District Alderwoman Bernetta Lanier. Same for Second District Alderman Detric Leggett. Same for Third District Alderwoman Linda Wilder-Bryan. Same for Fourth District Alderman Nick Palumbo. Same for Sixth District Alderman Kurtis Purtee.

It’s a complete clean sweep of City politics. Never has the phrase “Out with the old, in with the new,” been more apt.

And it came none too soon, with increased public concern over the direction of Savannah during a time of unprecedented economic growth combined with unprecedented income inequality, with the very soul of the city at stake.

While Johnson’s mayoral victory was itself not a particular surprise—he’s been prepping a run for years and was always going to be a formidable candidate no matter the opponent—his margin of victory was unexpectedly large.

In a city, indeed a country, now accustomed to razor-thin election victories, Johnson absolutely swamped DeLoach, both in the general election and the runoff. (The only reason Johnson didn’t win in the first round is because of Savannah’s runoff rule, dictating that a winner needs to get over 50 percent of the vote.)

In the end, a largely honored pledge by DeLoach to significantly decrease homicides didn’t seem to matter to voters at all. A newly energized electorate, with record numbers of young people, women, and people of color, made its voice heard in Savannah—as indeed is increasingly the case throughout the United States.

A particularly gripping backstory involved the deeply controversial, now former Alderman Tony Thomas of the Sixth District.

After years of depending on a core of support to overcome concerns about his increasingly belligerent and erratic public behavior and toxic social media attacks on local citizens, Thomas finally found his match in a young, openly gay university police office, Kurtis Purtee.

Though new to politics, Purtee ran a squeaky-clean campaign that was a far cry from the scorched-earth tactics relied on by Thomas during his 20 years on Council.

Ironically, while Thomas was a dependable ally of Van Johnson while both served as Aldermen, in the new Van Johnson administration Thomas’s vote will no longer be needed anyway. Johnson will seemingly have a very solid policy-making majority on Council, without Thomas and his baggage.

They say that defeat is an orphan, but success has a thousand fathers. In that vein, local activists and Facebook pundits of all kinds jockeyed to claim credit for the sweeping election victories.

But the real credit, of course, must go to these remarkable young candidates themselves, who put in the work and put their reputations on the line for causes they believed in.—Jim Morekis

2. Sgt. Kelvin Ansari: RIP

A few days ago, CNN ran a web story headlined, “In the last 50 weeks, 38 officers have been shot to death in the line of duty.”

The story is accompanied by a graphic featuring a red dot on the location of each fatal officer shooting.

One of the red dots is in Savannah.

Sgt. Kelvin Ansari, a ten-year veteran of the Savannah Police Department, was shot to death in response to an armed robbery call in the Starland area on May 11, 2019.

In an especially cruel irony, Ansari was a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Army before becoming a Savannah cop—which proved to be the most dangerous job of the two.

“Last night, we lost a great man,” Savannah Police Department Chief Roy Minter said at a press conference immediately afterward. “We lost a man who spent a substantial portion of his life protecting our country and protecting our community.”

Ansari and Officer Doug Thomas responded to a call a little after 8 p.m., saying that a car connected to an earlier robbery had been spotted at a barber shop on Bull Street.

As the officers approached the car, Edward Fuller, 49, exited and fired at the officers. Ansari succumbed to his injuries, and the second officer shot in the episode, Doug Thomas, was treated at a hospital and released.

The shooter fled the scene on foot to the backyard of a nearby home. When police found him, he emerged from a shed and pointed a handgun at them.

An officer fired and struck him. Fuller later died in the hospital.

Ansari, a North Carolina native, was buried with full honors in a moving procession and ceremony that involved virtually the entire Savannah community in some way or another.

He was honored with special proclamations in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

Ansari’s death came less than a week after Officer Robert McKeithen of the Biloxi, MS, Police Dept. was killed in an ambush shooting outside the police headquarters.—Jim Morekis

3. Not the best year for Eagle Nation

It hasn’t been a great year for Georgia Southern, but maybe that shouldn’t be any surprise.

After the ill-advised merger with (read: acquisition of) Armstrong State University, tensions between the Statesboro and Savannah campuses began building and never really stopped. This fall, it came to a head with the now infamous book-burning incident, which went viral.

Nationally recognized author Jennine Capó Crucet came to Georgia Southern’s Statesboro campus on Oct. 9 for a reading and discussion of her book, “Make Your Home Among Strangers,” which was chosen as the first year common read.

When Crucet began discussing white privilege, several of the students in attendance became angry and started yelling. Students later filmed themselves ripping pages out of, and then burning, her book, which all made it to Twitter and went viral.

(It’s worth noting that this is the second incident involving racism to make headlines out of Georgia Southern, the first being the “triggerish” incident in 2018, which prompted the creation of the Inclusive Excellence program at the school.)

Adding fuel to the fire was President Kyle Marrero’s statement on the incident, which came two days after the incident, Oct. 11, a Friday afternoon.

“Specific to the reported events of that evening, while it’s within the students’ First Amendment rights, book burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values nor does it encourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas,” said Marrero in the email.

Many felt that wasn’t enough and called on the school to take stricter action against the students responsible. That didn’t happen.

Instead, Georgia Southern began hosting panel discussions, including one on Nov. 20 on the Statesboro campus in which Professor of History Johnathan O’Neill and University Executive Counsel Maura Copeland condescendingly explained the First Amendment to a room full of bored students.

Georgia Southern also recently announced a series called Courageous Conversations, open only to students, faculty and staff. The discussions are sponsored by the President’s Student Advisory Committee on Inclusive Excellence and run through March of next year.

Speaking of Inclusive Excellence, the department in August released a report on the diversity between all three campuses, which revealed some pretty disturbing student-submitted comments about diversity backlash.

The entire report is worth a read if you have access to it, but in short, Statesboro is a much more conservative campus (and town) than Armstrong, and trying to marry those two wildly different sets of values is proving difficult, if not impossible.

It’s clear that the environment at Georgia Southern is devolving quickly in what’s a fairly apt mirror of our current political landscape. That was evidenced just a few weeks ago, when student Charles Robertson gave a presentation on replacement migration, which many critics say is a racist idea perpetuated by white nationalists.

The George-Anne, Georgia Southern’s student newspaper, reported that Robertson said, “And this is where y’all are gonna start to hate me. ‘Diversity is our strength’ is a bare faced lie. You should know this... Having them here at all damages virtually all measures of civic health. This policy is on its face, stupid.”

Robertson posted the video of his presentation on his YouTube channel, which has four thousand subscribers, and received an outpouring of support from other like-minded commenters.

In spite of Georgia Southern’s effective and helpful efforts to foster courageous conversation, there seems to be little courageous action being taken by the university to, you know, hold any of these students accountable.

Rubbing salt in the wound, enrollment is down at both campuses, especially at Armstrong.—Rachael Flora

4. Assault on Alex Bozarjian

Savannah went viral this year in another, equally terrible way.

WSAV reporter Alex Bozarjian was reporting live on the Savannah Bridge Run on Dec. 7. Runners whizzed by, jumping into frame and hamming it up for the camera. Then, one of the runners, a middle-aged white man, slapped her on the butt.

The moment is surprising and a little painful: Bozarjian’s face falls into shock in a way that’s sadly relatable for most women who have been harassed. She watched him run off, unable to react further because she was on live TV.

A dedicated WSAV viewer, Tonya, posted the video on Twitter, where it quickly went viral. By the end of the day, Twitter users had identified the offender as Tommy Callaway, a youth group leader (!) and father of daughters (!) from Statesboro. He’s apparently an avid runner, and the Savannah Sports Council banned him from any future events.

Callaway was interviewed by Inside Edition on Dec. 10, where he explained that he had meant to hit her on her back, not her butt, completely missing the point that you shouldn’t hit another person at all.

The same day, WSAV aired a nine-minute apology from Callaway where he calls his actions an “awful mistake.” That decision drew ire from Facebook users, who called out the station for giving Bozarjian’s assaulter a platform.

For what it’s worth, searching “Tommy Callaway” on the site yields no results, but the apology can still be found on their YouTube channel.

As for Bozarjian, she discussed the experience on CBS This Morning and obtained famed lawyer Gloria Allred to handle her case. Callaway was charged with sexual battery and turned himself in on Dec. 13, bonding out afterwards.

In her CBS interview, Bozarjian says, “I would say that the reason why maybe it caught so much fire is because the emotion is extremely relatable for women all over the world.”

The incident has garnered national attention, making it the second year in a row that Savannah women have gone viral for being sexually harassed by men from out of town. Keep it up, tourists!

If you make the mistake of reading the Facebook comments on this story, you’ll find that public opinion is divided over this incident in what’s actually a quite fitting parallel to where our society stands.

Sure, there’s plenty of support and demands to hold Callaway accountable for his “awful mistake,” but there’s also plenty of people whining about cancel culture and how Bozarjian should just learn how to take a joke (read: find it acceptable to be sexually assaulted while doing her job).—Rachael Flora

5. Starland’s moment has arrived

Starland is having a major moment right now.

The development—or gentrification, depending on your perspective—of the Starland District hit its peak this year.

Sure, the New York Times has been covering this “new Brooklyn” since 2014, but this year, everything seemed to finally take off.

Starland Yard was all anyone could talk about for a few months back in the summer. It was either a really cool idea or the harbinger of doom, depending on who you asked.

The project was taken on by Lominack Kolman Smith and used repurposed shipping containers to build a food truck park and multi-use gathering place.

Its opening prompted lots of snarky posts on Facebook, as well as a “Trader Joe’s: Coming Soon!” sign on the old Save-A-Lot building that was intended to be a commentary on gentrification by the artist.

Despite the side-eyes Starland Yard still gets, it supports local food trucks and chefs, including Kyle Jacovino, a longtime player in our culinary scene. They also commissioned local artists to paint murals on the containers and local musicians to perform through the week.

Speaking of murals, the Starland Mural Project kicked off this year. A longstanding labor of love by jack of all trades Clinton Edminster, the project funded eight murals on the corner of Bull and 41st. Edminster, and other artists, have been fighting for a more vibrant public art scene here for a while now, and this year, it finally happened.

Starland’s development this year also saw the opening of Moodright’s, which feels like a Milwaukee bar with a Southern flair. On Abercorn and 41st, it’s pushing the boundaries of the district further east, which will be an interesting trend to watch.

Possibly the news out of Starland with the biggest impact on the local cultural scene, however, is the big opening of Victory North, a multi-use event space which immediately began hosting a series of well-attended, diverse music shows.

Savannah’s newest venue has been off to a great start since their soft launch in May, thanks in part to their partnership with talent buyer Zero Mile (known for their association with venues like Athens’ Georgia Theater and Atlanta’s Terminal West).

Construction was swiftly completed after months of chatter about what was to come at the space, and the concert hall—which also doubles as a wedding venue—was ready for launch almost as soon as it got off the ground.

The idea from the get go was to design a venue that could easily house a variety of shows—from rock and roll concerts to cabaret performances to orchestra shows.

“Here we can do standing room shows, we can do seated shows. We want to do everything from pop to rock to country to chamber music,” consultant David Harris told Connect in March.

Since the partnership with Zero Mile started, the venue has pulled in a really impressive list of shows—most notably headlining shows from Drive By Truckers, Perpetual Groove, Little Tybee, Tab Benoit, Reverend Horton Heat, and more.

Coming up on the Victory North calendar for 2020 is an eclectic mix of shows that include Hawthorne Heights, Citizen Cope, Reel Big Fish, and SUSTO.—Rachael Flora and Sean Kelly

6. Assault on history

There was no more symbolic display of the DeLoach administration’s pro-development stance than the decision to move one of Savannah’s most beloved cultural icons, The Waving Girl statue, from one end of River Street to another, to serve as showpiece for the new Plant Riverside hotel development.

The application to have the statue moved even admits the display space for the Waving Girl was included in Plant Riverside’s original design. Pretty weird that they would already know that long ago that Council would approve this very controversial idea, right?

Despite huge public outcry, the lame duck Council approved the move—which could happen very soon, according to sources.

The local preservation community was still reeling from the cynical death sentence meted out to the Seaboard Freight Station, a historic train depot last used as a theatre space, Muse Arts Warehouse.

That historic resource will be dismantled to make room for new high-rise apartments from local architect and former politician Patrick Shay.

In a particularly insulting decision, supporters of the project claimed that they were doing the community a favor by preserving 20 percent of the original building.

In a perhaps less-outrageous decision, City Council decided in what seemed like a very casual vote to demolish the entire 1970s-era Civic Center complex.

While the Civic Center has more than its share of detractors who point out the site’s obsolescence and decrepit management style, the decision still came as a shock to many members of the public, who still retain a nostalgic attachment to the Civic Center and are perhaps understandably reluctant to embrace the idea of the new Savannah Arena, still years away from opening.

The idea right now is for the entire footprint of the site to be converted back to the Oglethorpe town plan, with perhaps even the recreation of an entire square, much like what was done with Ellis Square.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you—either on that, or on the Civic Center being demolished at all.—Jim Morekis

7. LGBTQ organizations merge, and Savannah’s first-ever Pride Parade is a huge hit

On the first day of the new year, the merger between Savannah’s four LGBTQ organizations will take effect, creating the First City Pride Center.

The merger, proposed in September, sought to merge Savannah Pride, First City Network, Jeffrey’s Place, and the LGBT Center in an effort to streamline fundraising efforts.

At the meeting, Chris Apple of First City Network said, “I was asking one donor for money and he said, ‘I thought I already wrote you guys a check.’”

That confusion led the organizations to the decision to merge, which was well-received.

The biggest changes in the merger will be internal; all community-facing operations will essentially stay the same.

“Because of our merger, there’s now no-cost mental health care, no-cost HIV testing, all sorts of things in the community that are really valuable and important,” said Church in October. “That’s an important piece for me.”

The merger comes after the most exciting Savannah Pride Festival to date. In addition to the blowout weekend that Pride is known for, this year included the first-ever Pride Parade.

The parade was, by all accounts, a huge success. It was spectacularly well-attended, drawing a huge crowd along both River and Broughton Streets. The attendance is even more spectacular considering it happened during what John Bennett termed Savannah’s “Mega Weekend,” which also saw the Jewish Food Festival, the Savannah State homecoming parade, the Savannah Speed Classic, and probably others as well as Pride.

2019 was also an important anniversary for the LGBTQ community. It marked fifty years since Stonewall, the historic uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Savannah Pride hosted a block party in commemoration of the date, which was also well-attended and toed the line between fun and informative.

With the strength of all four organizations working together towards the same goals, 2020 proves to be an even greater year for Savannah’s LGBTQ scene.—Rachael Flora

8. Savannah’s silver screen success

Move over, Los Angeles—2019 was another banner year for Savannah in the film industry. Several major films and TV shows filmed in town were either produced or released this year.

It was a noteworthy year for Savannah-connected film projects, despite many Hollywood heavyweights threatening to boycott production in Georgia following a controversial abortion law mid-year, which essentially banned the procedure. That law was ultimately blocked by a federal judge from taking effect in January.

On the TV side of the coin, Hulu’s The Act—which tells the horrifying and bizarre story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and stars Patricia Arquette and Joey King—was filmed primarily in town and features scenes shot at the Savannah Mall. That project was released to mostly critical acclaim in March.

Of course, we’d be remiss not to mention Shia LaBeouf. Everyone remembers the actor’s now-famous 2017 arrest during the filming of The Peanut Butter Falcon, his critically-acclaimed movie released this year. LaBeouf was downtown in the early hours of the morning when the arrest happened. He was ultimately charged with, among several charges, public drunkenness.

Two years later, The Peanut Butter Falcon was released to rave reviews and LaBeouf’s performance in particular was applauded for his performance in the film.

Disney brought production to town late last year, in the form of its Disney + Lady and the Tramp reboot. The film, which was just released in November, is noticeably Savannah-centric. Even in the trailer, it’s easy to spot several familiar locations. It was a pretty big project to come through town, given the fact that most productions filmed in Savannah prior were relatively lower-profile or scale.

Disney wasn’t the only major studio that made its way to town this year, though—Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer’s action thriller Gemini Man was partly shot in town and in nearby Glennville. That movie stars Will Smith, which is a pretty big deal in terms of star power coming through the city.

All in all, it was a good year for film production in Savannah, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the coming year and what projects come to town.—Sean Kelly

9. Arts scene roundup

This year marked some big changes at arts organizations across the city.

Telfair Museums experienced change throughout the year. Robin Nicholson, the new Executive Director/CEO of the organization, assumed his position on March 1 of this year.

This year also saw the departure of contemporary curator Rachel Reese, who worked extensively on the Suzanne Jackson retrospective. In her absence, Erin Dunn was promoted to the role. Dunn played a vital role in the #art912 program, which supported local artists by giving them the opportunity to exhibit in a museum in their own city.

Also promoted was Jessica Mumford Estes, who will assume her role of Director of Collections and Exhibitions on Jan. 1.

This year also saw the completion and opening of the Savannah Cultural Arts Center. The Center was the source of a lot of contention: its opening was continually pushed back, it cost $24 million, and it was funded primarily with SPLOST money.

What’s more remarkable, though, is that the Center seems to be making it easier for the Department of Cultural Resources to do more.

This year, for the first time, the City was involved in December’s Jubilee Freedom Day, offering the use of its facility to the event. The Center also played host to the Savannah Ballet Theatre and plenty of exhibitions. That momentum is poised to continue in 2020.

In other cultural news, the Savannah Philharmonic announced in July their new music and artistic director, Keitaro Harada, who replaced Peter Shannon. 2019 was a pretty sparse first year for Harada, conducting just the first and last concerts of the season as he finished up conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. 2020 will be the first time Harada conducts the full season.—Rachael Flora

10. Openings, closings: A year of change in Savannah food & bev

This year was yet another year of continued growth for Savannah’s foodie scene.

Like always, downtown was a hotbed for much activity.

Ele and the Chef have had, quite possibly, their busiest year yet with the opening of Coco & Moss, Shuga Girl, Flock To The Wok, and the Peacock Lounge, all located within minutes of each other in the heart of downtown near Broughton Street and lively Ellis Square. 

Also on the far end of Broughton Street, nestled on MLK Blvd, The Fat Radish has established itself as the second restaurant of two, the original restaurant hailing from New York City. 

Owner of Ordinary Pub Mike Vaudrin opened a second restaurant, Broughton Common, which is also located on Broughton Street. The spot is a new hub for elevated pub fare just a handful of blocks east of its sister restaurant. Chef Justin Grizzard will commit his full-time attention to this new concept and leave Ordinary Pub to Sean Freeman, his former sous chef.

In the same area, Savannah Spirits closed this past September. The construction and renovation of the historical space was exciting for many, but paired with all of the new development downtown it proved difficult to stay afloat.

Sapporo’s Broughton location closed, and it was replaced with Namaste Nepalese Fusion.

SEED Eco Lounge closed its doors for the last time this year.

Octane Bar & Lounge replaced FULL Lunch and Late Night’s old spot on Whitaker Street after a soft opening in late October.

The Gaslight Group’s East End Provisions was replaced by a second location of The 5 Spot, another Gaslight Group-owned restaurant in Habersham Village.

Also part of the Gaslight Group, restaurant Blowin’ Smoke is closed for the winter. Some questions can be raised about the actual fate of the restaurant—a for-sale sign now decorates the frontage of the popular cantina.

South of Savannah, Leoci’s in Twelve Oaks is was replaced with Pitcher’s Sports Bar. Chef Leoci moved on to be Executive Chef at Green Fire Pizza, which plans to open new locations in the new year.

Fiddler’s Seafood Southside closed at the beginning of this year, with no word yet on who will take over the unmistakable wooden building.

Huge changes rocked Starland this year as well. 

As hip places like the Starland Yard open in the up-and-coming area, it rapidly becomes a preferred alternative to the chaos of downtown by Savannah locals. Within this space, Pizzeria Vittoria Napoletana established itself as Savannah’s first Neapolitan pizzeria with the guidance of chef Kyle Jacovino, who was involved with the Florence years ago.

Moodright’s opened in August. With the bar’s focus on duckpin bowling, it fosters the vintage-quirky identity of Starland that so many love.

Also in the area, Big Bon Bodega opened its doors on Bull Street. Big Bon Bodega, as you might have guessed, was the anticipated follow up to Big Bon Pizza, the food truck concept formed in 2016 by Kay and Anna Heritage.

Nom Nom Poke Shop opened on Bull Street, as well as Bocci, an intimate Italian eatery.

El Coyote closed its doors for the last time in November, coming as a surprise to many. The Tex-Mex restaurant occupied the spot for less than two years, but seemingly had a good run. This provided more fodder for those who claim the site nestled on West Victory Drive is “cursed,” deemed so from the abrupt closing of The Florence in 2017. But the reality is that the closing is due to its lease not being renewed by SCAD, the building’s owner.

House of Strut cut its humble Starland ties and moved to West State Street downtown. Mamie Ruth’s newest addition, Starland Strange & Bazaar, will replace the iconic, historic pink house.

More recently, beloved River Street staple Kevin Barry’s announced it will be closing on New Year’s Day.

After 39 years of business, it was a shock to many to see a location with such seniority go. For more on Kevin Barry’s, see page 31.

With other iconic Savannah spots like Civvies being in danger of being bought out, the message becomes clear as the year comes to a close that it is imperative to support local businesses, especially as Savannah grows. After all, they are the identity of Savannah. —Josephine Beisel

Published December 24, 2019 at 4:00 a.m.

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