Savannah’s downtown Historic District is well known—renowned in fact. The city, with its unique plan of an orderly grid of streets and placid, verdant squares, was designed by General James Oglethorpe and easily represents the most thoughtful and directed design of a colonial city in America. What’s more, the city’s luck—and effort—in preservation is unmatched. Spared by General Sherman during his infamous march to the sea, the city then fell into a pattern of benign post-bellum neglect: it simply lacked the economy to spur new development and the tearing-down of older buildings. Besides, the colonial-through-antebellum-era structures were sturdy, often grand, edifices that begged continued use—beautiful, stately homes, brick and stone office buildings of moderate size and perfect scale for the old city around them.
However, Savannah’s geography had quickly expanded beyond Oglethorpe’s plan and into the area south of the original city. Constrained by the Savannah River to the north and a marshy but wondrous region of islands to the east towards the Atlantic Ocean, usable land for settlement was limited. The area immediately south of the extant city was most logical, and it prospered. Foremost, what is now known as the Victorian District was established, its current name inspired by the propensity of Victorian homes there. Further southward, like-minded development took place but with less grandeur—people who could not afford the downtown or Victorian districts or who had business in the expanding southside of the city settled here. By the 1950’s with racial tensions increasingly high, “white flight” or the moving en masse of white citizens to newer suburbs flung around the outskirts of the city opened up this area—which was being called the “Metropolitan” due to its location in the growing heart of Savannah—for black residents.
Savannah currently has a majority black population, and some neighborhoods have been predominantly black for at least a full century. Sadly, in the mid-twentieth century, the combination of white flight and a general moving away from traditional industries and center of the economy—such as retail stores relocating from the downtown shopping area to malls in the suburbs—led to a gradual loss of revenue for the Metropolitan neighborhood. Despite this, several retail corridors developed in the Metropolitan, and black-owned businesses there thrived. Segregation had made black neighborhoods very self-sufficient, and with the loss of downtown businesses in general, black communities were able to foster their own retail and services sectors.
This wasn’t a trend limited to Savannah, but one all over the South in medium to large cities and one essential to understanding the broader issues in race relations in the South. The barbershop and beauty salon, the seafood seller who sold both raw fish and cooked goods such as garlic crabs, the buffet or BBQ restaurant, the funeral parlor, the lounge, the record and tape store, and many others formed—alongside the church, perhaps the most crucial social institution of black Southern communities—a basis of community, anchors of daily society. The main thoroughfares of the Metropolitan—Montgomery Street, Martin Luther King Boulevard (which was once known as West Broad), and Bull Street all had such businesses.
When most people think of Savannah’s architecture, they often think of those grand homes between River Street and around Gaston, or maybe as far back as Anderson. If you draw the line of the extent of Historic District and Victorian District to Anderson, then that which is between Anderson and Victory Drive is the Metropolitan District, and it also contains some strikingly fine homes. Many fell into disrepair over the years but are now seeing a revitalization in interest and care. Some of this came about when John Deaderick and Greg Jacobs, two graduates of the esteemed historic preservation program at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), began to renovate old buildings of the Starland Dairy into an arts-centric combination of restaurants, shops, and residences in 1998.
The Starland Dairy itself has an interesting history which in many ways mirrors the history of residential and commercial growth throughout the twentieth century in America. The dairy was founded in conjunction with a group of dairy farmers in nearby (and back then, very rural) Pooler, Georgia, in the early twentieth century. The Starland Dairy delivered milk to local families up into the 1950’s—often via horse-drawn carts—but the aforementioned changes in demographics led to a decrease in demand for milk and dairy product deliveries, and in the 1980’s, the Starland Dairy closed, leaving its buildings vacant and victim to decay. Deaderick and Jacobs envisioned these buildings not torn down but renovated to cater to the needs of Savannah’s quickly-growing arts community, and they have found great success with this vast project.
Today Starland businesses such as Back in the Day Bakery have become local favorites and garnered national accolades in leading travel magazines, being mentioned in the same manner as Savannah’s better-known downtown enterprises. Beyond even the actual definition of the old Starland Dairy properties, other businesses have very much embraced the Starland name and aesthetic. The Florence, an outpost of acclaimed chef Hugh Acheson, has become one of Savannah’s best-loved restaurants, and it’s a stone’s throw from Starland, as is One West Victory—a new student-oriented housing development. A variety of galleries and quirky shops also have cropped up in the area as well as two other restaurants of special note: The Atlantic, and Cotton and Rye. An upscale Asian fusion restaurant—The Vault—has even cleverly taken over the space of an old bank and, true to its name, kept the bank vault intact so diners can even eat sushi in that very secure space, or watch chefs at work in an open kitchen separated from the customers by the former tellers’ counter.
But what does this mean for the old neighborhood? It’s safe to say that it too is benefiting and hanging on to some of its core institutions such as the bar and lounge Say Hey and Mary’s, or Little King’s Restaurant. Narobia’s Grits and Gravy, a relatively new establishment, looks back on the soul food traditions of the neighborhood while bringing those concepts forward into our own time intact. There are valid debates on gentrification, questions especially of whether white folks going into traditionally minority communities with the intent of bettering them is actually ethical. However, the success of Starland and of the further efforts in the Metropolitan speak for themselves. What was extant here has largely been able to remain—Say Hey and Mary’s is probably much as it would have been in the 1980’s even, and in a good way—while new businesses have brought in new consumers—a vital aspect for their success.
In many ways the type of economic redevelopment underway here and elsewhere beyond the Historic District of Savannah is a loose tripartite effort between the city, private businesses (many new), and the Savannah College of Art and Design, which has from its earliest days endeavored to purchase vacant and often very large buildings such as schools and even an old Maas Brothers department store, which it then turns into classrooms, libraries, and other academic facilities. These are clearly buildings no one else would likely purchase, such as turn-of-the-century neighborhood elementary schools which otherwise would stand vacant and in ill repair until finally condemned and torn down. A sizable SCAD facility—Arnold Hall—stands on Bull Street in the Metropolitan, and without SCAD the former 35th Street Junior High School, built in 1920, could have been an eyesore and discouraged people from buying and fixing up nearby homes—some of which are beautiful, intricate Victorians.
There was a time, even twenty years ago or so, when economic growth in Savannah was not a certain thing—yes, several colleges make their home here as do several notable corporations, and the port is still key to American logistics, but growth was not what city leaders would desire. Now that has changed. Growth is occurring throughout the city, and neighborhoods such as the Metropolitan are leading the way.
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