I’ve compared streets (advantage Savannah), parks (advantage Savannah), tourism (a tie), downtown shopping districts (advantage Charleston), and restaurants (no opinion because I’m unqualified to judge).
And now it’s time to reach a conclusion. Often during my career, when advising clients, I’d ask myself what advice I’d want if I were the client. The question served as a reminder of the difference between what would be good for the client and what would be good for my firm. A similar test works here. If I had to pick one city in which to live, which would it be?
Based on the comparative results above, perhaps you’d expect an edge to Savannah. In fact, for three reasons that weren’t even obvious to me until I posed the question, it’s Savannah by a large margin. I’ll summarize the three key decision points:
Race relations: On my first full day in Savannah, I had lunch with a friend who is a professor at a local state college. Savannah has two state colleges, which seemed unusual for a city of Savannah’s size. So I asked my friend about the history.
He offered a simple answer, “Because you’re now in the South.” I assumed he was referring to parochial politics, so I nodded my understanding. But my nod may have been hesitant because the west coast can also be subject to less-than-enlightened politics.
My friend presumably noticed my lack of conviction, because he quickly dropped the other shoe. “One was originally a black college and the other one white.” Ahhh, he was right. I hadn’t yet grasped what it meant to be in the South.
Within my lifetime, laudable progress has been made on race relations, although much still remains to be completed. And that’s particularly true in the South. But between Savannah and Charleston, I felt more comfortable than Savannah would make the needed progress.
I chatted with several African-Americans during my days in Savannah. My sense was they were on the track to equality. There was still much to be done and many ways in which the process could and should be accelerated, but at least their feet were on the right path.
Charleston didn’t give me the same feeling. For one, many Charleston residents describe the local African-Americans as Gullahs, which represents a particular path from Africa to the Low Country via the Caribbean. They further note that the ancestors of the Charleston Gullahs arrived in the 1870s, thereby removing the possibility that “their” Gullahs had any heritage in American slavery. It’s a history that seemed both dubious and self-serving.
Furthermore, the attitude toward African-Americans seemed gratingly paternal. One Charlestonian noted that many Gullahs had been encouraged to move from servants’ quarters in Charleston mansions into public housing. He suggested that the African-Americans may have been better off when they had white property owners to look out for their best interests.
And I found it offensive that African-American women weave baskets at the entry to Charleston’s City Market, on the front steps of the Daughters of the Confederacy Museum.
There is racial progress to be made in both cities, but Savannah seems more likely to make the needed in an expedient and efficient manner.
A friend suggested that “South of Broad” by Pat Conroy might be the equivalent book for Charleston. Not even close. “South of Broad” is an over-wrought, soap opera of a book. I may have devoured it in a few days, but that’s more of a character flaw than a recommendation of literary merit.
Savannah has the better book, by far.
Circle of Life: I don’t consider downtown cemeteries to be essential components of urban life. Indeed, they probably inhibit urban walkability and vitality. (No bad joke intended.)
But the nearby presence of cemeteries gives a sense of the circle of life and offers a reminder that we’re only passing through. They remind us that we remain connected to our past. Savannah includes Colonial Cemetery on the edge of downtown and Bonaventure Cemetery, which is a short drive away but is often present in the Savannah consciousness due to “the book”.
And Savannah residents have a connection to their cemeteries, whether it’s the maudlin statue of Gracie, an innkeepers’ daughter who died at a young age, or prolific songwriter Johnny Mercer, who was born in Savannah, retained lifelong ties to the community, and was buried in Bonaventure Cemetery next to a bench listing his most successful songs.
The closest equivalent in Charleston is a story about how the Confederacy exhumed and relocated the remains of John C. Calhoun during the Civil War to prevent the Union Army from desecrating the body. (The remains were returned to Charleston after the war.) It was an interesting story, but lacked the daily presence of the Savannah cemeteries.
Ultimately, it feels like Savannah is living a continuation of its past, with both the highlights and the warts. Meanwhile, Charleston has put its past under glass, but only after some creative editing.
And so, if I had to pick one city in which to live, it’d be Savannah. There is still much to recommend Charleston. If I was a Savannah resident, I’d look for opportunities to spend weekends in Charleston. But I would expect daily life in Savannah to feel like a real life, not a bit of make-believe.
Meanwhile, I still prefer living in the North Bay to either. But there are lessons from the Low Country that can be applied to any city, including those in the North Bay.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)