Monday, January 14, 2013

Savannah versus Charleston: Downtown Shopping Districts

In an earlier post about Savannah and Charleston, I wrote about shops that cater primarily to tourists, the places where you might buy a t-shirt, a cutting board with an image of a historic home, a souvenir shot glass, or a clay tablet of the South Carolina flag, except with a shrimp replacing the new moon.  (Guess which two of those my wife and I brought home.)

But there is another kind of downtown shopping that matters to tourists.  And also to the locals.  The old downtown shopping district.  What remains from the days when the department stores, hardware stores, and butchers were still downtown.

Perhaps downtown shopping districts isn’t as important to cities today as they were seventy years ago.  But they can still act as the heart of a community.  They offer a place to hold civic parades.  And they can provide tourists a sense that they’re visiting a real place, not a quirky version of Disneyland.

Both Savannah and Charleston have downtown shopping districts, although the two have different feels.

I love the public squares of Savannah.  Truly love them.  But they have a downside.  Because they require multiple stops and turns for cars to pass around them, traffic is effectively shifted to the streets that don’t touch around the squares. 

In cities across the country, as the number of cars increased and traffic began to get congested, as it inevitably did, someone in City Hall or in the local business association always argued that the city needed to help traffic move faster to help the economy.  And the streets were accordingly modified to give priority to cars.  (We actually know better these days, that a little congestion correlates well to economic vitality.  But the observers of a half-century ago didn’t have those studies from which to learn.)

And so traffic improvements apparently happened in Savannah.  The streets that don’t touch the squares are configured for fast automotive travel, not for genteel walking.  The street for which this struck me more obviously was Broughton Street, which is also the heart of the downtown shopping district.

It’s not a bad street.  There are some interesting stores along Broughton.  And it feels like the setting for a movies placed in the 1950s.  But it’s not a comfortable street for pedestrians.  The cars seem to have too much priority for walkers to feel completely comfortable.

With its more haphazard street grid origins, the downtown Charleston shopping district evolved slightly differently.  The parallel streets of King and Meeting comprise the district.  And in what may be the key factor, both have slight bends near the middle of the shopping district.

King and Meeting are both one-way, which is often considered a detriment by current thinking, but the reduced width may work for these streets.  The  sense on the street is different.  Pedestrians seem to have more impact on the street life.  The closed vistas caused by the bends seem to take away the hurry of motorists to head for the horizon.  And the slower speeds result in a better balance between vehicles and pedestrians.

Also, King and Meeting are more central to the locations where tourists are likely to lodge, increasing the foot traffic and shifting the balance  of power a little further from the automobiles.  One is more likely to encounter a queue of people awaiting a restaurant table on King Street in Charleston than on Broughton Street in Savannah.

Both shopping districts are good additions to their communities.  But Charleston gets the nod for the little differences that worked out well.  It’s not like a planner intended for Meeting and King Streets to have their small kinks, but sometimes serendipity can be the most effective planner.

By the way, none of this is meant to imply that neither Savannah nor Charleston have Targets or Walmarts.  I don’t know if either city has those big boxes.  I didn’t go looking for them, didn’t happen to spot them, and am unwilling to check online to see if they exist.  I’m content to keep my memories of those two cities unsullied by thoughts of acres of parking surrounding soulless mass merchandising.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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