Editor's Note: The new normal of crime downtown

LIKE MANY other folks, I happened to be out and about with friends this past Friday night in downtown Savannah. It wasn’t at all a particularly late night by local standards, and it was nothing but pleasurable. A good time was had by all.

But when I woke up the next morning and did the now-familiar modern morning ritual of checking Facebook, I confess to being shocked by what I saw.

Two men were shot in a gun battle at Congress and Bull within hours of the time I had walked that exact area, with a stretch of Broughton Street being shut down. As this column went to press, one of the men has potentially life-threatening injuries.

I kept scrolling. Earlier that night, a woman was robbed at gunpoint at Perry Lane and Lincoln.

As I scrolled, I got that now-familiar "there but for the grace of God go I" feeling that's now common among Savannahians. The realization that you were just in an area right before someone got shot is shockingly common here these days.

If you’re a regular reader you already know the news here is that this isn’t news: Downtown is flat-out dangerous, every day and every night. It’s the new normal.

I don’t mean to be alarmist, and in a town full of alarmists I’d be hard pressed to go them one-better anyway. But the new normal is that downtown — the heart of the tourist trade — is unsafe.

If you go to The Blotter in this week's print edition, the lead item involves a reward for information about several armed robberies in the Historic District within a five-day span — essentially averaging one a day.

June 28 just after sunset, a couple was robbed at gunpoint at Jones and Taylor.

Just a few minutes after that, a woman and some Girl Scouts were robbed at Whitaker and Huntingdon.

At 2 a.m. June 30 a man was walking down Habersham when two men on opposite sides of the street attacked him, pistol-whipped him, and robbed him.

At midnight July 1 a woman was walking down Oglethorpe Lane when she noticed two men behind her. One had a gun and the other snatched her purse.

And the two incidents I opened the column with happened within hours of that.

As of this writing there are no arrests in any of the cases.

Long story short—with no exaggeration or hyperbole needed—the downtown tourist/Historic District has been absolutely awash in violent crime all week.

Again, not to be alarmist, but that’s pretty much an objective summation.

It’s unacceptable, of course, but that’s where we are. And despite the best efforts of the police and many other community activists, it’s likely to continue.

At this point every serious person understands that the roots of crime are complex, that they involve deep-seated issues of poverty and race, and that it’s wrong to focus only on fighting crime in the tourist areas at the expense of Savannah’s marginalized communities.

I think most of us accept that now. I certainly do. The debate is less about that these days than it’s about more existential issues as a city, as a quantifiable commodity which benefits and enriches us.

While there is plenty of worry about how violent crime will affect tourism, the real concern is how it will affect the decision of residents whether or not to stay.

All of us have calculated our own individual cost/benefit analysis of why we prefer Savannah to other places.

For some of us, there’s little choice, as economic or other reasons mean we simply aren’t in a position to leave.

For those of us a bit better off, we make a conscious decision to stay here, deciding that the pluses outweigh the minuses.

The point isn’t that crime is more tolerable in some neighborhoods. The point is that if crime is out of control in our marquee, marketable Historic District—heart and soul of Savannah’s persona and what we present to the world —it must by definition be out of control everywhere else.

And that point is indeed a tipping point, at which many people with the means to pursue a life and livelihood somewhere else will decide to do just that.

The idea of picking up and leaving for a more safe and friendly locale seems almost inconceivable to those of us who’ve invested many years and whole lifetimes here. It’s a kind of sacrilege.

But Savannah’s just like anyplace else— people and businesses can decide it’s just not worth it anymore. Thanks for the memories, but goodbye and farewell, and good luck.

Your response might be well, OK, that means we can focus more on the people who want to stay and fight the good fight.

The cruel truth, though, is that the more people who decide to take their pursuits elsewhere, whether in business or education or the arts, the fewer resources will be available for those who decide to stay.

It’s a downward spiral. Up until now Savannah has been able to avoid it, due to our unique character and desirability as a tourist/vacation spot and mostly sound fiscal management. But once the spiral starts, it’s very difficult to stop.

Violent crime is largely in decline across the United States. Despite the high-profile tragedies you see on the news, the country as a whole is way off its measured highs of reported violent crime.

There are about a dozen or so U.S. cities which the federal government has identified as exceptions to the trend, however. Among them are Chicago, Baltimore, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Oakland.

Savannah has the dubious honor of being on that list, and arguably we are by far the smallest metro area on it.

It’s a problem.

We are very good at very quickly building new facilities to house tourists and their vehicles and places where they can slake their hunger and thirst.

We need to bring the same sense of urgency to the mechanisms by which we can protect everyone downtown.

That may be a controversial, even offensive statement to you. I don’t intend it as such.

But the brutal, mathematical truth is that if we can’t even protect the Historic District, there’s literally no hope at all for those here who live anywhere else. We will have simply given up.

The truth hurts sometimes, but that doesn’t make it any less truthful.


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