Friday, March 22, 2013

Savannah versus Charleston: Reaching a Conclusion

Over the past few months, I’ve offered comparative assessments of Savannah and Charleston, both of which my wife and I visited late last summer.  As I noted when I began the series, the Low Country locals regularly compare the two cities, so why shouldn’t visitors do the same?

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.

Literature: Savannah strongly identifies with the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”.  The volume is generally known around town simply as “the book”.  I’m sure few Savannah residents live lives comparable to those described in the book.  But the book depicts some of the duality of living in a town in which the past remains hovering in the next room.  It paints a picture of Savannah in which many can find elements of truth.

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 (


  1. On the subject of cemeteries, I rather like when they are clearly placed within a city such that they are not difficult to find. Not necessarily downtown, but close enough that one could walk there. My husband and I are likely strange people in our habits, but one of the first places we go when we visit a city is the cemetery - they tend to give a sense of the place in a way that nothing else seems to. In short, I appreciate the cities that don't hide their cemeteries.

    1. Taylor, I agree with you. Having cemeteries in the urban core can get in way, but having them adjoining the urban core can provide a sense of place.

  2. Hi, I found your blog via Vibrant Bay Area - all good stuff! Charleston's definitely more higher-end than Savannah. Most of everyday-Charleston occurs in West Ashley (west of Ashley River) and Mount Pleasant (east of Cooper River). If I were picking between Savannah and Charleston as a place to live in the future, I'd go with Savannah - downtown's on a bluff over the Savannah River, while Charleston already floods during high-tide/heavy rainstorms, NOT boding well for sea-level rise. ; )

    1. Scott, thanks for commenting. My wife and I didn't have the opportunity to visit either West Ashley or Mount Pleasant. And yeah, we knew that meant we were seeing the Disneyland aspects of Charleston.

      Your comments about weather are good. Also, Hurricane Hugo hammered Charleston in a way that no hurricane will ever likely touch Savannah. One more reason to pick Savannah.

  3. I'm an African American with roots in the SC Lowcountry, and I find this...interesting, particularly the part about race relations that I found to be extremely biased and one-sided (and not to mention ironic in light of the Paula Deen fiasco in Savannah and at a time when SC Sen. Tim Scott from Charleston, who's quite popular in his city and statewide, is on track to be the first elected Black senator from the South since Reconstruction). So you say you spoke to African Americans in Savannah and Whites in Charleston, but did you speak to any African Americans in Charleston and any Whites in Savannah? Did you take the time to learn the perspectives of Black Charlestonians from...Black Charlestonians? If not, why? Why would you extend that courtesy to Black Savannahians but not Black Charlestonians and then come to the hasty (and I'd add, ill-informed) conclusions that race relations are markedly more advanced in Savannah than Charleston? That "gratingly paternal" attitude you found in Charleston is, unfortunately, not exclusive to the city and is a mindset you'll occasionally encounter in the South as a whole, particularly in rural areas and smaller urban areas (again, refer to the Paula Deen fiasco last year in Savannah). As far as the basket-weavers, it appears as though you're implying that they are ignorant of the historic significance of their location in the historic district, which I find rather appalling. However, it's actually a rather shrewd move, to sell their wares in front of the City Market, which is a very high-traffic area, where tourists with money to spend come to purchase authentic Charleston trinkets and the fact of the matter is that they make REALLY good money doing so. Furthermore, I find it extremely hard to believe that White Charlestonians, on the whole, think that the Gullah were post-Civil War immigrants to Charleston; that doesn't even jibe with Charleston's well-known history as an epicenter of the slave trade and it's pretty apparent that you came across one uninformed individual. I'd say that overall, you made a major error in using limited experiences in only the tourist-oriented historic districts of both cities (and the majority of people live elsewhere in both cities) to draw conclusions as to what life is like in those cities on a day-to-day basis.

    As to which one is preferable to live in, if you're only considering the historic districts, that's one thing since, as I said, most people don't live there. However, in my opinion Charleston is definitely more livable as it is larger (metro population is twice as large as Savannah's), has a larger and faster growing economy, more job opportunities, and more to do and see overall.