Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

March 28, 2004. Savannah.

Matilda and I finally made it out of Chapel Hill on Saturday. The folks at Transporter Werks did a lot of work on Matilda’s brakes, which seems to have fixed the smell. They were a delight. Sean, the owner, is an enthusiastic vanagon owner himself, and happy to talk about them. The other people working there, Gary and Carrie, are just as friendly and outgoing. And Vela and Guinness, the two big black dogs who hang out there, bonded instantly with Cris’ black lab mix Lily. The threesome bounded and chased around the lot, into the vans, through the garage. They quickly learned that Cris had a supply of treats, and Lily was required to share with her new friends. When it was time to leave, Lily tore off to the other side of the lot and wouldn’t let Cris coax her into the car, though Vela would have been quite happy to get in Cris’ car in return for a few pretzels.

Sean seems to have been right about the brakes, because we made it to Savannah without any problems other than boredom and one short nap.

Savannah is, as I’m sure you all know, very pretty – a city of renovated houses surrounding verdant squares that were sited by the town’s founder, Mr. Oglethorpe. Savannah saw hard times in the middle of the 20th century, but a group of women organized to fight for historic preservation, and now the old city is one big historic district with tight restrictions preventing change. It is indeed lovely – old wood and brick homes with sweeping entry-ways, wisteria-covered balconies, and wood shutters. The squares are a riot of brightly colored azaleas, shaded by towering live oaks, their spreading branches draped with Spanish moss like tinsel on a Christmas tree. The texture of the old city is much like Georgetown or Beacon Hill, but the vegetation is nothing like the north.

Two forces have apparently spurred the redevelopment of Savannah in recent decades. One was the founding, twenty five years ago, of the Savannah College of Art and Design, a private school that created a campus by renovating buildings scattered throughout the downtown instead of trying to amass land in one place. The SCADification of Savannah has, according to one article I read, led to a change in the urban ambiance; hearty Polish delicatessens replaced by trendy coffee shops decorated with the works of SCAD students. For the city, SCAD’s strategy is brilliant – dozens of large boarded-up buildings have been converted to classrooms, studio space, dormitories, libraries, galleries, and all the other facilities needed by a college. Though from what I’ve seen on café walls, the students may not be quite as brilliant. Indeed, I met someone who is selling furniture to the school for its student center – wouldn’t that be a great opportunity to showcase their own students’ designs?

The other force that stormed over Savannah was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. That book was most of what I knew about Savannah before arriving (though I thought it was a novel, not a true story!), and the same is apparently true of most of the US.

It turned out to be a more effective advertisement for the city than any economic development authority could ever dream up. It brings in tourists, and perhaps with even greater impact it brings in northerners looking for a warm, pretty, urban environment to move to.

The combination of these two forces can be summarized in a single word – gentrification. Or perhaps I should say Gentrification. The historic district is already largely gentrified, but in midtown, as it’s called – the adjacent neighborhood – every house has just been renovated, is for rent, is being rebuilt, or is a half-demolished shell with a “for sale” sign on it. Property values are rising rapidly in marginal neighborhoods.

I see this with very mixed reactions. Of course like all visitors I am charmed by the historic district, which is a pleasure to walk or bike in – I’ve mostly been on my bike. But the segregation is glaring as well. The historic district is white. The older houses that have not yet been renovated are black. Plenty of streets are mixed, but only because gentrification is in process. I am staying in a quite marginal neighborhood, in a large apartment in a renovated house (which belongs to a cousin of Celia’s, but that’s another story). My fancy polished fresh-painted house is next door to a much smaller one with fresh green paint that seems to be lived in by a group of middle-aged black men – I haven’t quite figured out who lives there and who are their friends hanging out to eat barbecue and

shoot the breeze. When I drove in on Saturday, they all greeted me, asked if I was the person who had come to stay next door, and assured me that my kayak would be fine on my van, they would look out for it. The two houses across the street are well-kept, with masses of flowers in front. Down the block is what looks like a small public housing project, a long red and white brick two-story building with scruffy yards surrounded by chain-link fence. Big old cars are parked on the grass next to the fence – there’s no parking on the other side of the street.

Will any of these people get anything out of the gentrification of their city? That’s what worries me. If they own their houses, they will see the values go up – but will they be able to reap any of those windfalls? Without capital and knowledge, it will only means an increase in property taxes which perhaps they can’t afford – so they will be forced to sell and move elsewhere. They may gain something on those sales, but nothing compared to what the developers who buy from them will gain. I talked to Celia’s cousin about it. His comment was that the owners should do the renovation themselves so they would reap the real benefits of the storm sweeping over the city. It’s their fault, he seemed to imply, if they can’t get it together to take advantage of the opportunity offered to them.

Many of the houses being renovated are boarded up wrecks, no one is being forced to leave those homes because they are uninhabitable. Someone owns them, though. Are any of those owners able to seize the opportunity? Is it a problem if the original owners only see a small portion of the increases in value, and outsiders to the immediate community capture most of it? I think so. I would like to think that community development groups would form to help these owners

master the skills to renovate their own properties and capture the increased values themselves. That might not halt the destruction of community caused by the gentrification – after all, if the original owners are poor, they may have more pressing uses for newfound wealth than living in a very valuable home, and might reasonably sell it – but it would at least mean that the poor community would have the opportunity to increase their assets.

Would it seem as bad if there didn’t seem to be such a clear racial divide between the people going out and the people coming in? I don’t know. At least it wouldn’t be as visible.

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