Savannah, GA: Revisiting the Past

A failed newspaper editor named James M. Harney issued a now-famous curse on the city of Savannah on his way out of town: “I leave you, Savannah, a curse that is far worst of all curses—to remain as you are!” Well, apparently that curse has been lifted.  When I attended SCAD in the late 80s/early 90s, Savannah was a small Southern town whose streets emptied at night, no one really played or hung out in the many squares dotted around town, the tourists were on River Street and a smattering of them at City Market but not really anywhere else, Broughton Street was a sad collection of boarded up storefronts and wig shops, and the intense odor of the nearby paper mill could be smelled in the plane as you were landing at the airport and everywhere else once you were on land.

Clockwise from top right: Horses waiting for tourists just off City Market; Pinkie Masters; Bonaventure Cemetery; mannequin head at Oscar de la Renta exhibition at SCAD Museum of Art.

Now, the cheapest hotel room we could find was over $200 a night, there was a J.Crew, Gap, Urban Outfitters, and L’Occitane on a bustling Broughton Street, the old Savannah Morning News building has been transformed into a sleek and modern hotel, and there were local coffee shops, locally sourced and organic restaurants, SCAD has exploded all over town and I can’t imagine their Historical Preservation Dept. appreciated them painting the old wooden stairway in Preston Hall a bright neon green or inserting a gleaming modern art museum into the 1853 brick building that was once the railway depot for the Central of Georgia Railway.

Top: Preston Hall's neon green railings; bottom: Forsyth Park.

I couldn’t wrap my brain around how much Savannah has changed in the 20 years since I’d been there. I honestly don’t think I would have necessarily fit into this environment back in the day – SCAD was still fairly new when I started and they themselves were not sure of their identity yet. My class was the largest they had ever had up until that point and they had purchased an old roadside-type motel (now Oglethorpe House) to house us – and they didn’t even change the furniture in the rooms! They clearly did not know how to manage us as a group and, looking back, I kind of liked that very unstructured way of learning. Looking around last week, I don’t believe the school is like that anymore – it seemed very structured, clean, corporate – and very wealthy. I doubt I would get accepted there today and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to afford it – and if I managed to do both, I don’t think I would have ever fit in there today. It seemed so sanitary and all the rough edges that I liked about it were smoothed off and painted neon green.

Pinkie Masters

Thank God Pinkie Masters hasn’t changed and that there’s still a souvenir of old Savannah – Pinkie Masters is a slice of what I remembered best about Savannah – local, friendly, quirky, and most definitely not corporate. We walked in, the guy at the jukebox immediately became our friend - that is, until the next round of bachelorette partiers came in – and, what was up with all the ladies in tiaras celebrating their final days of freedom? – we saw bachelorette party after bachelorette party everywhere we went. Cigarettes in vending machines, PBR and Bud Lights in a bucket of ice behind the bar, and people saying things like “If you’re gonna drink from 8 am til 2 am, you gotta stay hydrated …. That’s why I’m drinkin’ PBR.”

This was the vibe we came to Savannah to find.