Of all the lovely presents I received this Christmas, one of my favorites is a gift from my in-laws: The book My Grandfather's Son, the memoirs of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas is one of my favorite Supreme Court justices, not only because of his respect for the Constitution and his incisive legal mind, but for the character he displayed under assault during his confirmation and in the years since.
So far, I've read through his childhood in Pinpoint and Savannah, Georgia, his years in seminary, and his decision to enroll in Holy Cross College, in Worcester, Mass.
During my tenure at FlightSafety, I took several business trips to Savannah and spent every free hour exploring the city, particularly the historic district. I drove through Pinpoint, a little fishing village along an estuary south of town, near the Bethesda orphanage. Thomas grew up in a part of the city I've never seen; as he put it, "Savannah was hell."
Tonight I started reading the book to my two older children, ages 11 and 7. While I won't take them through the whole book -- at their ages they don't need to know about all the ugliness of his confirmation hearings -- I think they'll benefit from hearing his vivid descriptions of the poverty in which he spent his early years, the hard work and discipline of his years living with his grandparents, and the impact of racism on his life. I read part of the first chapter to them tonight and both of them were disappointed when it was time to close the book and go to bed.
Many political memoirs -- including some written by conservatives -- aren't worth the paper they're printed on. My Grandfather's Son looks to be not only an insight into one of America's most influential men, but a book full of valuable life lessons.
I'm on my way back from a few days in Savannah, Georgia, which continues to be one of my very favorite cities. I've been traveling here periodically for nearly eight years and have learned much about the city's history, how they wisely rejected urban renewal and promoted restoration, and how they carefully guard the historic district while accommodating new development. When a junior college wanted to tear down a historic block for their new campus, the city worked to find alternative accommodations and preserved the block. A private college, the Savannah College of Art and Design, has made the historic district their campus, not by asking the city fathers to condemn a hundred acres or so for a campus that looks like a shopping mall, but by buying older buildings that would have had trouble finding a new use and converting them to classroom, studio, and dorm space.
They've made so many good decisions here, that's it's almost enough to make one despair about Tulsa and all the bad decisions that have been made, decisions that have all but killed downtown and still threaten our beautiful older neighborhoods. To make matters worse, Tulsa now has the old guard that made all those bad decisions seeking to destroy the first slight movement toward progressive urban policy.
I am filing this entry from a free Internet connection in the Savannah airport -- that's right, free. They believe in making visitors feel welcome, rather than nickel-and-diming them to death. The hotel tax here -- despite the popularity of the city as a convention and tourism destination -- is only 6%. Same for the sales tax -- only 6%.
Better stop -- time to get on the plane.
* Savannah has a number of historic home tours, and one is presenting a variation on the traditional haunted house. The Isaiah Davenport house (Historic Savannah Foundation's first preservation success) has a living history presentation this month called "Deadly Pestilence", a depiction of the yellow fever epidemic of 1820, based on the diaries of a doctor and other historical records. Small group tours watch as the doctor treats a victim of the "black vomit", as it was also known, and hear period characters discuss the epidemic and the evacuation of the city.
* One of the pleasures of visiting several times over the last six years is seeing the city's progress. Broughton Street has improved by leaps and bounds, most notably with the restoration of the 150-year oldMarshall House Hotel. The beautiful Lucas Theatre is finally open -- the long restoration was finally getting back underway when I first visited in '97. The Pulaski monument had been taken down in 1997 before it fell down -- now it's back in place, fully restored. Vacant lots in the southwest corner of the Historic District are being replaced with new townhouses done in the local style -- an area now called the "Gardens District". (Infill development that fits its surroundings is another lesson Tulsa can learn from Savannah.)
* Another example of sensitive infill is the Hampton Inn on Bay Street, where I stayed this trip. It was built in 1997, with the right materials, scale, and details to make it a good fit for the area.
* A great example of adaptive reuse is Parkers' Market, an old gas station on Drayton Street restored a few years ago as a gourmet convenience store. (Think of a small Wild Oats Market. Here are pictures of the inside.) The covered forecourt is striped for three lanes of customers -- left lane has three gas pumps, the right two lanes are for other shoppers -- and each lane can accommodate three or four vehicles. You pull up as far as you can, and you may have to wait a bit for the person in front to leave, but usually not long. The forecourt was a convenient shelter on Saturday night. I was out for a late walk, stopped in for a bottle of pop. It was close to midnight but the store was full of shoppers -- many of them students from nearby SCAD residences. While inside, the skies opened up, and so I spent the next twenty minutes under the canopy drinking my Diet Dr Pepper, watching the downpour and the customers come and go, and waiting for the rain to slacken enough so I could walk back to the hotel. (The only exterior photo I can find is this one, as it's being boarded up for an oncoming hurricane.)
* Sunday morning, I worshipped (with only 22 others) at Thunderbolt Baptist Church, and after lunch went for a walk in Bonaventure Cemetery, remarkable for the variety of statuary and monuments, the last resting place of Johnny Mercer and Conrad Aiken, and famous as the site of the photo that graces the cover of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil". (The "bird girl" statue in the photo is now in the Telfair Museum downtown.) It was a beautiful afternoon, a fine day for contemplating one's mortality (particularly as one's 40th birthday is rapidly approaching). And there is something wonderful about a live oak tree draped with spanish moss, and the way it filters the sunlight, and even more wonderful to walk down a lane lined with live oaks.
I'm back from Savannah, as of late last night, but I still have observations to pass along.
The weather was just beautiful -- mid-70s, blue skies, a dry breeze from inland. October is still hurricane season, but except for one stormy night, the weather was ideal. Most of my trips have been in July and August, so this trip evened things out a bit.
I fell off the low-carb wagon this week. I did Atkins over the summer and lost about 25 pounds. I regained a few this week, thanks to sweet tea, fresh biscuits and gravy, and candied yams. Savannah's the home of Dixie Crystals, so you don't think they'll use Splenda in their recipes!
My last morning in town -- I've packed up, checked out of the hotel, and have some time to walk around and get some lunch before going to the job site, and then on to the airport.
It's a bit OCD of me, but when I'm in town, I like to set foot in all 24 of the historic district's squares, even the two (Liberty and Elbert) that were nearly obliterated back in the '30s. That way I cover the entire historic district -- get my exercise and see what's changed since last time. So I was finishing my rounds and crossing Jones Street. It's about 12:45 and I notice that the line outside Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room is not very long. I had not figured that eating at Mrs. Wilkes' place would be possible this trip, and had planned on getting my last fix of Southern cuisine at a buffet I hadn't tried yet, on my way to the job site.
It took about 15 minutes to get seated. Mr. and Mrs. Wilkes ran the house as a boarding house for railway workers, using the raised basement (basements in Savannah are at street level, front doors are 8 feet or so above) as a dining room. Food is still served boarding house style. I sat with tourists from New England, Florida, and Oregon. As dictated by the dynamics of family dinners, all the serving dishes tended to cluster on one side or the other.
There are usually about 20 dishes on the table. Wednesday we had fried chicken, beef stew, mashed potatoes, gravy, white rice, brown rice, pickled beets, candied yams, boiled okra and tomatoes, collard greens, green beans, lima beans, boiled cabbage, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, sliced tomatoes, butter beans, turnips, squash, biscuits and cornbread, sweet tea, and banana pudding for dessert. All for $13.
So I completed the trifecta of Savannah Southern restaurants -- The Lady and Sons (now about three weeks away from opening in their new, much bigger space a couple of blocks east), Nita's Place, and Mrs. Wilkes'.
Paula Deen, the owner of the Lady and Sons, has her own show on Food TV, and her restaurant is always packed. With the new location, it will finally be possible once again to show up for lunch without a reservation. This time, we booked ahead for Tuesday at 11, and were there when one of the cooks came out to announce the menu, ring the dinner bell, and holler "Come and get it!" My first visit was back in '97. I needed a place to eat Sunday lunch, and Mrs. Wilkes' is closed on weekends. I saw a little newspaper ad for a Southern buffet, and decided to give it a try. Paula was out meeting and serving the customers, and she autographed a copy her self-published cookbook for my wife. (My anniversary gift to her that year.)
The Lady and Sons have an incredibly rich dessert called gooey butter cake, which comes in various flavors -- I've tried pumpkin, chocolate, and lemon, and I've even made chocolate gooey butter cake for potlucks ("providential dinners" as we Calvinists call them).
Nita's Place used to be here on Abercorn; now it's on Broughton, the main shopping street. Meg Ryan ate here and loved it. Postcards from satisified diners from around the world are on the walls and under the glass on the table tops.
I had no shortage of good meals in Savannah:
* Barnes' Restaurant -- good ribs and brunswick stew
* Don's Famous Barbecue -- Lexington, North Carolina, style sliced pork in downtown Pooler, Ga.
* A Big House breakfast at the Huddle House in Garden City, on my way in to work at 1:30 a.m. (Huddle House restaurants bear a shocking resemblance to Waffle House -- not sure who copied whom, but sure looks like someone copied someone.) Listened to the only other customer in the place pour out his troubles to the waitress -- his wife doesn't understand why he needs to go down to Huddle House in the middle of the night for coffee, a cigarette and time to clear his head.
* A big omelet at Clary's Cafe
* And bubble tea (boba nai cha) at Boba!, the Internet cafe in City Market. I won't try to explain it -- read about it here.
I'm grateful I didn't gain any more back than I did.
The prime force behind the restoration of Savannah's historic institutional buildings is the Savannah College of Art and Design. Founded 25 years ago, SCAD began in the armory in the Historic District. As the college expanded, it continued to acquire and restore individual buildings across the Historic District and in the Victorian District to the south. SCAD now owns 2 million square feet of space in 50 buildings. You can visit the buildings online through this link. (This page has links to a brief description for each of SCAD's buildings, and many of the building descriptions have a further link to a website with more detailed information.) SCAD's inventory includes a '60s motel now used as a residence hall, a department store that serves as the library, an art moderne movie theatre that serves as the school auditorium, a diner, and the old county jail, which houses the athletic department and the English as a Second Language program.
A college typically wants a large contiguous campus, isolated from the rest of the world and fully under its control. In Tulsa, college campus development has relied heavily on urban renewal. The City of Tulsa promised to acquire 240 acres for the campus of the University Center of Tulsa (now OSU-Tulsa). Greenwood had already been demolished to form the core of the campus; the western portion of the campus has been acquired by demolition of homes on Standpipe Hill overlooking downtown. Many of these homes were two-story, of the sort and vintage that you find in North Maple Ridge and Brady Heights. The University of Tulsa has also enjoyed the help of the city's power of eminent domain to acquire the property of homeowners unwilling to sell.
By acquiring and adapting buildings across the Historic District, SCAD has integrated its campus with the surrounding community, reused historic institutional buildings that would have been unsuited for residential or commercial use, and added 24/7 life to Savannah's downtown, as SCAD's nearly 6,000 students go between dorm rooms, classrooms, studios, and shopping. The approach to campus-building is in perfect harmony with the school's mission, providing to its students a responsible example they can follow throughout their careers as architects, designers, and city planners.
(Here's a large PDF map showing the location of SCAD's buildings.)
Skeptics will object to my use of Savannah as a role model for Tulsa. Savannah, after all, was founded in the 1730s, the first city in the colony of Georgia. It's renowned for its beautifully restored historic district, full of buildings which were around long before the railroad came to Tulsa.
All this is true, but one of the most interesting streets in the historic district is full of buildings that were built in the first decades of the 20th century about the same time, and in the same character, as those once lining Tulsa's Main Street. Broughton Street is a major east-west thoroughfare through Savannah's historic downtown, a commercial street of buildings from one to four stories high, mostly two or three stories. Every building has a storefront on the first floor, nearly all of them with an active business. The continuity of buildings is a major reason that the street is a pleasant place to be at any hour -- the street as a whole seems intact, not a shattered remnant.
Like every other American Main Street, Broughton Street went through a long decline as the population moved to the suburbs and the retailers followed. Remaining retailers tried to bring customers back by refacing their classic turn-of-the-century buildings with "modern" metal cladding. But unlike the Main Streets in most other medium-sized cities, Savannah did not indulge in an orgy of government-funded demolition in the name of "renewal". The buildings remained, albeit neglected and underutilized, and there remained eight or nine blocks lined on both sides with a nearly continuous row of storefront buildings, a tremendous resource to be rediscovered.
The rediscovery began to happen in the '90s, just one phase of a long-term commitment from city government and the private sector to restoration of Savannah's historic district. One of the ways city government is helping is with a facade rehabilitation revolving fund. A building owner or tenant (with the owner's permission) can borrow from $12,000 to $30,000 at low interest over eight years to pay for restoring the building's facade to its historic condition. Over the 10 years of the program, $600,000 in public investment has leveraged $6.5 million in private investment and the rehabilitation of 28 buildings. (Click the previous link to look at a couple of examples and see program details.) The city also offers sprinkler cost assistance loans to encourage the redevelopment of the upper stories of these buildings. More and more upper stories have been converted into loft condos, selling for over $100 per square foot.
Broughton storefronts have filled with restaurants -- on this trip so far, we've had lunch at Nita's Place, a famous soul food cafe that relocated to Broughton a couple of years ago, and dinner at the Casbah, a Moroccan restaurant featuring belly dancing. There are bars and clubs, clothing stores, and the Gap has arrived, which may herald the return of national retailers to the street.
The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) restored an 1947 art moderne movie theatre as their school auditorium and performance hall, now called Trustees Theatre. (Can you imagine if some Tulsan had had the vision to reuse one of our glorious downtown movie palaces as a concert hall?) Across the street, an 85,000 square foot department store, built in the 1890s, is now the college library.
There are still a few gaps in the streetscape ripe for infill development. Savannah has rules (scroll down to "Commercial Design Standards") to ensure that new development is consistent with the historic character of the street, thus protecting the investment made by those who have restored older buildings.
Tulsa can't bring back our Main Street as it was, but we can protect our successful historic commercial districts, like Brookside and Cherry Street, and where old commercial buildings still exist, the public and private sectors can take steps to encourage their preservation and renovation. Sadly, demolition continues to be the preferred approach to redevelopment, and there is a sense of resignation when a historic building is demolished.
Here in Savannah, resignation was replaced with outrage back in the '50s, when the city market, a Romanesque structure, was demolished for a hideous parking garage, and when historic 18th and early 19th century homes were being torn down for brick to be used in new suburban homes. Private resources were marshalled to purchase and preserve endangered properties, and laws were changed to provide protection for historic buildings. Today the public and private consensus supports rehabilitation and adaptive reuse and sees demolition as a last resort rarely required.
Tulsa has historic preservation zoning, but by all accounts homeowners, developers, and preservationists are all dissatisfied with the way the system works. There is no protection at all for historic commercial buildings in Tulsa. When will Tulsa reach the tipping point?
UPDATE: Added link above to Savannah zoning regulation governing the Historic District. The entire Savannah zoning code can be found here.
Saturday was a work day for us, and in fact I had to go back in to work that evening. I got the call about 10 p.m., went out to the site, and got back sometime after 1 a.m.
As I drove back to the hotel in downtown, I was amazed at the numbers of people still out on the streets in the wee hours. Mostly young, some middle-aged. So I decided to park the car and take a late night walk.
You need to know that Savannah is not a huge city -- less than 300,000 people in the metro area. I was in Montreal a couple of months ago, another city with a bustling street life, mostly the result of high population density -- a million people in a few square miles.
On my walk, there were lines outside night clubs -- as some clubgoers left, others were admitted to keep under the fire marshal's limit. Groups of young people stood around on the sidewalk and in the city market district's plaza. Hot dog vendors on the street had a steady line of customers.
With all this activity, there must be a 20,000 seat arena nearby!
Well, there is an arena, built in the '60s and ugly in the style of government buildings of that era. At 9,600 seats it's about the size of Tulsa's downtown arena. The Civic Center also has a 2,500 seat theatre which appears to be busier than Oklahoma City's Ford Center. But nothing was happening at the arena that night, so why the crowds?
Savannah has a promenade along the Savannah River, in front of the old cotton warehouses, now filled with restaurants, bars, and souvenir stands, but that's not where the crowds were. They were along Broughton Street, in the City Market district, and along Bay Street, well away from the river.
Even tonight, there's been a steady flow of people through the internet cafe (Boba, in the City Market district).
So what was the attraction in Savannah? My guess is that people came because they knew lots of other people would be there.
Isn't this what young Tulsans are really after when they talk about entertainment options? Not sitting for hours in an arena listening to a concert, but going from club to cafe, mixing and mingling. So how did Savannah bootstrap that process? Building an arena -- even if we pick the ideal location -- by itself won't create that kind of excitement. We need to understand the other elements at work in cities that have the qualities we're after.
Savannah is a port city. Located on the Savannah River, about 20 miles inland from the Atlantic, it was a key port for cotton shipments and today is a major container port, handling over 13 million tons of cargo last year, about 9 times the cargo handled by Tulsa's Port of Catoosa.
The other night, I was down on River Street, where Savannah's old cotton warehouses have been converted to restaurants and souvenir shops, walking past a huge yacht and a couple of Royal Canadian Navy vessels, and people-watching, when I saw, barely visible in the darkness, this huge thing coming downstream under the Talmadge Bridge. The deck of this suspension bridge hangs 185 feet above the water, and this huge thing must have covered 80% of that height. It was a container ship, the MOL Discovery, Panamanian registry, its deck stacked six high with containers -- the kind you see pulled behind semis -- and the bridge and towers looming even higher.
I watched in awe as this massive ship obscured our view of Savannah's convention center on the other side of the river. It had come from New York and Newport, and was on its way to the Panama Canal, then Yokohama, Pusan, Shanghai, Yantian, Hong Kong, and Kaohsiung, a 32 day journey. This ship can carry 16,000 tons of cargo.
The sight of this behemoth drove home the meaning of the phrase, "deep water port", oft mentioned in the context of Boeing's search for a home for its 7E7 final assembly plant. A deep water port can accommodate an oceangoing vessel like the MOL Discovery; Tulsa's port can't. In the time it takes for a vessel coming from the Pacific to reach New Orleans for cargo transfer to a barge, the same vessel could be unloading cargo in Savannah.
Savannah has been mentioned as a finalist for the 7E7. In addition to the deep-water port, Savannah has a trained workforce, thanks to the presence of Gulfstream Aerospace, which does design and final assembly of its luxury business jets here. It's a very livable city, hot and humid in the summer, but pleasant the rest of the year, and beautiful all year round, with plenty of cultural and entertainment options. If Boeing doesn't stay in Washington, I'll bet that Savannah gets the nod.
(Yes, I'm aware that Boeing is now talking about moving subassemblies by large cargo plane rather than ship, but the winning city will have to pay for the planes, and Boeing says that a port is still a necessity.)
As I type this, I am sitting at a corner table in Boba, a 24-hour internet café on the second floor of an old commercial building in Savannah's City Market, a double cappuchino next to my laptop, which is connected to the internet at high speed via a wireless connection (free for customers). Some folks are out on the balconies listening to live music downstairs in the market. Others are surfing the web, playing checkers, studying.
I'm in Savannah, Georgia, for a few days on business. It's one of my favorite cities to visit, and in the next few entries I'm going to try to convey what makes it such a wonderful place, and what lessons Tulsans can learn.
Tulsans have been talking about how to make our city more exciting, how to create a lively urban district, how to attract to tourists and new companies, how to make our young people want to stay here. I wish every Tulsan concerned about these issues would visit this city. Savannah is by no means a perfect city, but it has many of the qualities Tulsans want for our city, as well as most of the qualities we already enjoy (such as family-friendliness, a strong Christian community, a relatively low cost of living, not too big and not too small). Savannah has made its mistakes and has its problems, but Tulsa would do well to make it a role model.
Urban design experts talk about walkability and a pedestrian-friendly environment -- Savannah embodies those concepts, and you see people (normal people) out walking until the wee hours.
I'll be posting some observations from this and earlier visits over the next couple of days. In the meantime, here are some links that will give you an introduction to the city.
The Savannah Morning News: The daily paper
A brief historical sketch from the Savannah CVB site.
Historic Savannah Foundation, the driving force behind the revival of downtown Savannah.
Savannah Development and Renewal Authority -- imagine, an urban renewal authority that looks for alternatives to demolition!