The Heart Of Savannah

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Savannah: the name begins with a whisper and ends with a sigh, inciting dreams of a nevernever South, of belles and balls, soft accents and gentle courtesy, magnolias and Spanish moss, and all the rest. If all that ever existed, it doesn’t any more; not anywhere, not in Savannah.

 

Savannah: the name begins with a whisper and ends with a sigh, inciting dreams of a nevernever South, of belles and balls, soft accents and gentle courtesy, magnolias and Spanish moss, and all the rest. If all that ever existed, it doesn’t any more; not anywhere, not in Savannah.

On first acquaintance Savannah belies the romantic suggestion of its name. When the wind is wrong, which it often is, the aroma of Confederate jasmine in bloom mixes with the stink from the Union Camp paper mill —the largest of its kind in the world and Savannah’s biggest taxpayer, biggest payroll, and most obvious nuisance —to make an essence known as “Savannah Perfume.” Savannah’s namesake river suffers Savannah’s raw sewage added to its heavy burden of upstream waste, and it is claimed with only the slightest giveaway smile that ships anchor in the river to have the barnacles poisoned off their bottoms.

Restrained by the river to the north, Savannah sprawls to the south, east, and west in nondescript imitation of the commercial slums, suburban subdivisions, and roadside disaster areas that commonly affect urban America today.

What gives Savannah an advantage against the epidemic urban disease is that at heart—in the two and a half square miles that include its nineteenth-century city limits—Savannah preserves almost intact from its establishment in 1733 as salubrious a scheme for urban settlement as this country has ever seen. An even more hopeful sign of the city’s resurgent health is the fact that its unique old district is being defended and lovingly restored to life by determined citizens who refuse to admit that the best of the past is irrelevant to the future.

 

The virtues of Savannah resist description in words and photographs, but a walk through the old district quickly makes apparent what is unique and good in Savannah, and how close it came to being lost. The leitmotif is the park square: twenty of them, each individually landscaped, march in regular formation across the area. They provide a centerpiece for each ward, the irreducible modular unit of old Savannah. In that sense, each ward is self-sufficient in Savannah’s special amenity: quiet, green open space close at hand, for many people right at the front doorstep. In New England terms each ward is a residential village with its common, or village green, surrounded by three- and four-story buildings in a variety of styles and materials harmonized by common dignity and restraint.

The perambulatory visitor perceives the pattern of squares, monotonously regular on the map, as a series of variations on a theme, a progression of oases in the urban landscape. The modulation of space from narrow streets to open squares is constantly refreshing, making Savannah that rarity among automotive-age cities, a pedestrian’s delight.

The eminent urbanologist John W. Reps, attesting to the unique importance of Savannah’s plan in The Making of Urban America , notes that “the basic module—ward, open square, … and local streets—provided not only an unusually attractive, convenient, and intimate environment but also served as a practical device for governing urban expansion without formless sprawl.” Reps’s colleague Edmund N. Bacon, the planner responsible for the renewal of Philadelphia, celebrates the Savannah scheme as “a plan so exalted that it remains as one of the finest diagrams for city organization and growth in existence.”

Unlike the ad hoc plans of most American cities, the diagram of old Savannah is not the product of historical chance or commercial necessity. It is the enduring inspiration of one man, James Edward Oglethorpe, who established Savannah in 1733. If the plan is “exalted,” it may therefore owe something to the spirit of the planner. The poet Alexander Pope noted at the time that Oglethorpe “will fly from Pole to Pole, driven by strong benevolence of soul.” But the original purpose of the plan, and the colony it prefigured, was more mundane.

Savannah was, in truth, founded as the capital of England’s last and poorest foothold in the New World, Georgia, the thirteenth of the thirteen colonies, a southern bulwark for the Carolinas against the threatening Spanish in Florida. At the same time the Georgia colony was conceived as a convenient and profitable repository for the swelling population of England’s peculiar institution, the debtor’s prison.