Our recent trip to Nashville started me thinking about how some cities are evolving in reaction to the aspirations of citizens for progress and success, while other cities seem content to embellish their strengths and resist change. Because cities outlast generations of people and leaders, aspirational change can be cyclical, but as cities get older their culture seems to change less and less.
New York City has always been a place where ambitious people sought to prove themselves and make their fortunes. “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere,” goes the Sinatra song. This has been true for every generation since the Dutch first landed, which is why Manhattan epitomizes an aspirational American city. As often as we travel there, something new and provocative is always being created.
Nashville is the place where musicians go to try and get their big break, and that spirit seems to have become a part of the city’s culture. Although not as provocative and urbane as New York, a spirit of openness embracing growth and change is apparent on the evolving skyline. The investment in tourism, conventions, commerce, and urban living seems to be paying dividends without doing damage to their culture and history. Lots of young people are migrating here to risk getting ahead.
By contrast, Savannah remains focused on the past and privilege than on forging a bold new future, although our vicious poverty rate is increasing and many citizens have lost hope. Aspiring young people and students are no longer able to afford to live in the downtown Historic District.
I remember being invited to a cocktail party at a beautifully restored mid-century modern house about 20 years ago. An elegant older woman walked up to me and said, “You’re that architect aren’t you?” I wasn’t sure how to answer the question, but she continued, “I just want you to know that everything good about Savannah has already happened.” I was too rattled to answer her. Some time later I saw her again and politely reminded her that, “All of the things you love about Savannah were brand new once.”
With the arrival of SCAD, Savannah has seen an influx of aspiring young creatives, and this has changed the city for the better, in my view. Unfortunately, it has not yet changed the culture from complacent to aspirational. Our city continues to become more beautiful, while many of our most creative people flee to aspirational cities rather than wait for progress here.
At GMShay we would like to think that we are making more Savannah, and that creations like the new Cultural Arts Center will help our local young people embrace creative aspirations, too. Unfortunately, the loudest voices in our community are still what Jane Jacobs called “the squelchers”—people who are against any new ideas or change. There seems to be a fine line between preservation and protectionism—save the buildings, but keep new people and ideas out of the downtown Historic District.
Keep an eye on the Thomas Square and Starland neighborhoods to see if the aspirational folks are able to alter the pattern there. Maybe these can become models for other Savannah neighborhoods, too.
Perhaps it is not too late for Savannah to become an aspirational city, where people come to see if they can “make it” here!