MY FRIEND and longtime local community builder Tom Kohler pops up a lot in my columns because of his unique ability to wisely and succinctly distill Savannah’s identity and issues down to their very essence.
Recently he said — and I’m paraphrasing — that the local people who for generations used to turn north to head downtown to find things to do are increasingly turning south, to different neighborhoods entirely, to meet up with friends and family.
His point, of course, is that the day has finally come when the locals have largely abandoned downtown to the tourists — because they no longer feel at home there — and that signifies a major change in direction, both figuratively and literally, for Savannah culture and history.
I concur 100 percent with Tom, and in this paper we frequently cover development-oriented issues mostly having to do with downtown and the rapidly changing area between downtown and Victory Drive.
There are two reasons for this, one big-picture and one more mundane:
1. These dramatic shifts are most emblematic of the changing civic identity of Savannah itself;
2. That’s where many of our readers live, and that’s where much of the interest of our readership lies.
But while I often criticize out-of-control development in old Savannah proper, let’s face it: That’s nothing compared to what’s happening west of town, in Pooler and West Chatham County.
(Note: Not “West Savannah,” but West Chatham County.)
For every out-of-scale apartment building set to go up north of Victory, there’s an entire new subdivision already popping up in West Chatham, to almost no media attention.
So I would make this addendum to Tom’s sage observation: People who used to turn north into downtown to find things to do are now increasingly turning west.
Case in point: Gone to a movie lately? Savannah is now down to only two multiplexes – the same number as Pooler, except Pooler’s are much bigger, newer and more well-attended.
Case in point: The much-touted chain stores on Broughton Street ushered in by Ben Carter often continue to struggle for sales. However, Carter’s other local project, the Tanger Outlet Mall in Pooler, has basically the same stores but often with many more customers.
Case in point: As far as cultural critique goes, there are actually eating and drinking establishments in Pooler that folks in Savannah will make the drive for, such as Pie Society and Naan Appetit, to name just a couple. That is a real change, especially for longtime Savannahians who remember and still largely disdain Pooler as our poor and backward cousin on the wrong side of the tracks.
But here’s the thing, and it’s hard to overstate:
In a society which increasingly values and strives for diversity – Pooler has become arguably the most truly diverse community in our area.
If you go out for bowling or laser tag at Frames n’ Games in Pooler for example (and I can hear the sneers from snooty Savannahians now), you’ll discover yourself among a remarkably diverse group of people from all walks of life — Black, White, Latino, Asian.
It’s almost like.... the big city or something!
The old marketing campaign “It’s cooler in Pooler” was once an instant punchline, but maybe not so much anymore.
The samba drumming group I’m a part of recently played a gig in Pooler for a group of Brazilian expatriates who mostly live quite happily and serenely in West Chatham, and who rarely venture into Savannah proper. They don’t really need or want to.
You can go all over West Chatham and find happy enclaves like this, from recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean to Eastern Europeans.
I have to say, this rapid demographic change is not only a big change from West Chatham’s historically nearly all-white roots, but a refreshing switch from the parochial tribalism in Savannah proper, which usually breaks down as hipster vs. tourist, preservationist vs. developer, old-timer vs. new arrival.
In Pooler, pretty much everybody’s a new arrival, and they don’t get bogged down in the ancient grievances that have encumbered Savannah culture and politics for generations, with no end in sight.
Of course, the obvious downside to using Pooler and West Chatham as a model is that they’ve always had a different stance towards development — namely, the more and bigger and faster, the better.
The City of Savannah has unfortunately internalized this stance toward development; it’s perhaps not a coincidence that our Mayor, Eddie DeLoach, is a native son of West Chatham with long political ties to that area.
In an ideal world, Savannah would moderate its development to conform to the historical and cultural identity which has made it a world-class destination, for the time being anyway. We wouldn’t kill the golden goose.
As Tom Kohler has also said, “When we get to the point where we’re selling Savannah’s sizzle instead of our history, we’re done.”
But also in an ideal world, Savannah would get out of our bubble and acknowledge the wider world around us, and that not everyone outside of Savannah is wrong, nor is everyone in Savannah automatically superior because they live here.
The mere fact that a place like Pooler can co-exist alongside a place like Savannah – and do a few things as well or better than Savannah – is food for thought.
Maybe we need each other more than we like to think.