AS MANY of you can attest, one of Savannah’s most entertaining — and revealing — pastimes can be found in the phenomenon of Neighborhood Chat Pages.
Entertainment value aside, it is increasingly there where we can find the true and genuine pulse of the public, warts and all, playing out in real time on Facebook in sometimes jaw-dropping fashion.
There are several notable neighborhood Facebook pages in town, a couple of which are already the stuff of legend.
Most all of them provide a similar mix of helpful information, effective community organizing, unintentional comedy, and outright nasty confrontation.
And most are also fully engaged in the long-running attempt to conclusively answer the age-old conundrum: Fireworks or gunshots?
Often though, there isn’t much that is neighborly going on in them, nor is there much actual chatting. Sometimes, the people who leave the most comments don’t even live in that neighborhood.
My favorite chat page story is a thoroughly harmless one. A fellow who’d recently moved to a popular Savannah neighborhood angrily inquired about the mysterious bugle music he was hearing at precisely the same time every single night.
Who can I contact to put a stop to this loud nuisance, he posted.
The nightly bugle music, of course, comes from Hunter Army Airfield, which has been a military facility since the days when the Southside was mostly pastureland, long before this fellow bought a house in Savannah expecting the idyllic, carefree Southern oasis promised in tourist brochures and on realtors’ websites.
The post spawned an epic comments thread, as answers rolled in suggesting he call the Pentagon, or the commanding officer, or the president, and that the “nuisance” was actually the sound of freedom.
The fellow was a good sport about it, and eventually poked fun at himself too.
A frequent and much less benign aspect of chat pages is, you guessed it, racism. Not all pages are created alike in this manner, with some being more infested with racist commentary than others.
The examples are too legion and mostly too ugly to mention. But one brief and succinctly egregious example does come to mind, when someone posted, “Just saw a black guy pushing a moped.... Anybody get their moped stolen?”
One’s faith in humanity is restored —somewhat — in reading the responses calling out such ugly sentiments.
In this case, the truly neighborly response being: “Did you offer to help him out? He was probably out of gas.”
Some chat pages are heavily concerned with describing vehicles alleged to be suspicious. License plate numbers and full descriptions are bandied about like candy.
Basically if you drive around the block twice, you’re “suspicious.”
I’m sure in some cases the suspicion is justified; Savannah has plenty of crime, after all, and there’s nothing funny about it when it happens to you.
But I’d hate to be that person who was just lost and looking for an address, or who forgot something and had to return home, only to have the police roll up on me to see what I’m doing and where I’m going.
(Full Disclosure: I’m such a persona non grata on my own neighborhood chat page that for awhile there was a pinned post at the top of it specifically addressing some of my own recent concerns about the neighborhood association, without mentioning me by name. I guess you can say I’ve finally “made it” in Savannah. Now you kids get off my lawn!)
One recent local chat page controversy seems to take things to the next level, however. It involves a new owner’s plan to demolish a historic bungalow in Ardsley Park and build a new home on the lot, with variances requested.
On a post featuring a photo of the bungalow on 49th Street, many neighbors, fearing a new McMansion on the site would set a terrible precedent, vented their anger.
Though this particular case is more complicated than it seems — the bungalow in question has apparently been vacant for over a decade and is possibly beyond practical repair —the extent of neighborhood opposition is such that the new owners did indeed withdraw their variance request at a heated MPC meeting last week.
In a sense, the community and political organizing on the Ardsley chat page was remarkably effective. The neighborhood spoke, and they were heard loud and clear. But I wonder at what cost.
During the online debate, the basic human integrity of the new owners was called into such public question on the chat page, in such virulent and personal fashion, that I wonder how one would feel comfortable moving into that neighborhood at all, old house or new house.
I can certainly understand the neighborhood’s concerns; if this were going on near me I’d be alarmed too.
Once lost, the historic character and fabric of a neighborhood cannot truly be restored, and people’s concerns in this area shouldn’t be brushed aside.
On the other hand, I’d hate to suddenly see a photo of my house posted on Facebook, with dozens of comments calling into question my suitability as a human being just because I wanted to seek a legal variance which was completely within my right to pursue.
If you want to describe neighborhood chat pages as real democracy in action at the most grassroots level possible, I wouldn’t argue.
But at some point along the way I had the epiphany that the common denominator of neighborhood chat pages seems to be that they encourage people to immediately see the worst in other people.
Whether in issues of race, or otherness, or privacy, or culture, or real estate, the common thread on these pages is that fellow citizens are rarely given the benefit of the doubt we’d hope to be given ourselves in similar circumstances.
And entertaining though it can be, that’s literally the opposite of neighborly.