WHEN YOU'RE an outlier thinking outlaw thoughts, sometimes it feels like your only friend is the city you live in. Sure, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were singing about Los Angeles and heroin instead of Savannah and how to make it better.
Yet there’s a relatable sense of loneliness, especially if you believe that sustainable economic development has less to do with building more beige hotels and more with creating opportunities where innovation can flourish.
As the tune goes, however, salvation might be found under a bridge downtown.
The A-Town Get Down Festival has been connecting all kinds of citizens to music and art for seven years, and this time it’s busting its boundaries to illuminate civic engagement and public spaces.
By the time you read this, what was once a forlorn patch of weeds under the Talmadge Bridge will have been transformed into a public park bustling with bands, food trucks and visual art, a testament to the possibilities and potential of climbing outside the proverbial boring box.
“The stage is going to be here,” described A-Town’s indefatigable organizer Erin Wessling last Tuesday, pointing to a small slope next to a concrete pylon, traffic shuddering overhead.
“And the shipping container with the art installations will go over there.”
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As we traipsed across the fire ant beds to be leveled and laid with sod, she pantomimed where folks will lounge upon sculptural benches constructed by artist Matt Toole and take in Will Penny’s dazzling light projections. We circled the imaginary dance floor in the dirt, conjuring up a mirage of families getting down in the sunshine. Maybe because I’d already peeked at landscape architecture grad student Jimmy Darling’s colorful renderings, I could picture it all perfectly.
It’s also due to Wessling’s dynamic diligence. In addition to A-Town, she has championed and executed of some of the city’s most memorable projects, including Savannah’s Fashion Night and the revolving mural façade at Judge Realty. She’s also facile with all manner of bureaucratic minutiae, patiently presenting Powerpoints to the Site and Monument Commission and filling out piles of permit requests in the pursuit of more public art in Savannah and beyond.
Reclaimed spaces under bridges are an ancillary passion, and she cites marvelous examples around the globe, notably Les Corts skatepark in Barcelona and the Garscube sculpture garden in Glasgow.
“Other countries do this really well,” sighs the world traveler and part-time resident of Warsaw, Poland.
After A-Town’s awesome attendance last year, it was evident the festival had outgrown the Morris Center, so she began seeking new digs. Undaunted by downtown’s high rents and prohibitive zoning, the unconventional thinker became enchanted with the cracked pavement and crumbling parking lots past Service Brewing and Ghost Coast Distillery at the end of Indian Street, landing on the crummy little spot across from SCAD’s Alexander Hall.
“It’s just outside of the historic district, so there weren’t all of those restrictions,” Wessling explained of the festival acreage that includes the 24,000 square feet under the bridge that was previously littered with beer cans and old appliances.
“With the proper permitting, we’ve been able to transition an unused, neglected space into an artistic application of urban design.”
Bringing beauty and music here also evokes the day’s namesake, Alex Townsend, who loved to look at the Talmadge Bridge and whose parents, Tom and Jeanne, carry on his legacy through the festival and its programming.
While it might’ve been a lonely idea to move A-Town across town, Erin is adamant that it’s taken a village to realize the vision. Tom Havens of Coastal Civil Engineering volunteered the aerial views to map out the grounds to the last square inch, tapping his buddy Eric Tucker of Eastern Excavating Co. to bring on the bulldozers and dump several tons of dirt.
SCAD urban design and architecture professor Ryan Madson lent his consulting services as principal of Madson Modern Workshop, overseeing the renderings and talking through the terrain itself.
Madson knows this spot better than most Savannahians, having explored it back in 2005 as part of the Savannah Psychogeographical Society, a semi-secret group of urban planning geeks who enjoy exploring creepy places.
Apart from lost tourists and design students sneaking a toke, few others would have had reason to muck around down this overgrown field that abuts the Port and runs along the terminus of the historic Savannah-Ogeechee Canal.
“People curious about the margins and edges of this city will be fascinated,” mused Madson as we peered into the water, port cranes looming a few feet away. “This used to be an infrastructural no-man’s land.”
Turns out, though, others have recognized the place’s potential. For her Master’s thesis, SCAD Design for Sustainability student Caroline Ingalls conceived Boxport, a public commerce project made out of repurposed shipping containers that links Savannah’s dual identities of port city and art destination.
This brilliant idea was taken by professor Scott Boylston to the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, which has been negotiating with the Ga. Dept. of Transportation over this little strip of public right-of-way ever since.
“We got really excited about it, and we have been coming up with ways to turn into a real project,” says SDRA’s Kevin Klinkenberg, another urban planner who has advised A-Town’s complicated approval process.
“When Erin contacted us to help with logistics, I saw an opportunity to help the festival with this small installation—a tease of what could happen at this site.”
Long term, Boxport would host more than a dozen containers to serve as art studios and incubators for small businesses, growing to include a permanent outdoor music venue and other attractions that would magnetize both tourists and locals to this once-lost land.
For now, however, it’s all temporary.
Per the city permits, no permanent structures have been laid and no trace of art shall remain after next week. The pretty new park under the bridge doesn’t even have a proper name.
“That’s the only way we can do this,” shrugs Wessling. “But I’m hoping it acts as a pedestal for future projects.”
But even if no one else has the fortitude to navigate the bureaucracy for another physical project, A-Town will already leave behind more than a graded area and fun memories (until it returns next year, of course!)
The residents of Yamacraw Village and the HUE student housing complex now have a walkable greenspace to enjoy, and we can now imagine an Indian Street commercial district beyond what it was before. (Y’all, the street is screaming for a burger joint.)
It’s also an opportunity to revive discussions of reclaiming all 16 miles along the canal as a bike path—from the Savannah River to the Ogeechee!—as well as spotlight the imminent issue of rescuing the bridge’s name from its racist history. (Artist/activist Lisa D. Watson assures that Phase 2 of Span the Gap is in full effect, lobbying local representatives with a recent survey that voted overwhelmingly to swap out Talmadge for Tomochichi.)
Most importantly, the no-name park under the bridge gives hope to those who believe this community of music, art and magic can create and sustain something other than another hotel.
Take it from the place you love, Savannah outlaws: You aren’t alone.