Some places in a city develop legacies that grow much larger than their boundaries and built environment. These legacies are almost always because of their connection to humanity. For example, River Street in Savannah has a lot of events that gather people–4th of July Fireworks, tall ships, Oktoberfest–but one, St. Patrick’s Day, is legendary. The millions of people who have experienced that annual “party” all have stories about it that they share over and over, and those stories get more and more exaggerated every time they are told. Eventually, there are more people that can repeat stories about River Street on St. Patrick’s Day than have actually attended!
Legendary urban places don’t have to be as large in size or population to be legendary though. Small places where people gather to share in something memorable, over a long period of time, can make the best legends. An example of this in Savannah is Crawford Square. The concrete paved basketball court there seems out of place compared to the other Savannah landscaped squares. The crowds that gather there to play some of the more intense playground basketball in the South, but you will very seldom hear someone cursing, even after a hard foul. That court was installed by the City of Savannah in 1947 as a prize for the boys of the “Old Fort” neighborhood after they won the City playground championship. Since then it has been the home court for some of Savannah’s most legendary athletes, and led to numerous championship basketball teams for Savannah. But the two greatest legends become so by being great coaches and political leaders.
Joe Murray Rivers and James Holmes met on the playgrounds of Crawford Square when they were boys, and became fast friends. They played on teams together, under legendary coach Walter Simmons, and eventually became a part of the Frank Callen Boys Club together. James and Joe Murray coached together later on, working with neighborhood boys for several generations and winning too many trophies to count. James is still known as “Coach” to this day. He and Joe Murray also opened the first African American owned store on Broughton Street together, and during the Civil Rights struggle became politically active. Like W. W. Law, one of their mentors, they learned how to work within the political system to speak out about equality, and achieve many of their goals. I had the pleasure to serve with Joe Murray Rivers on my first term as a County Commissioner, and learned how to organize and run City-wide campaigns from him. I also got to serve alongside Coach Holmes for eight years when he succeeded Joe Murray on the Commission. Both men are living City Legends.
Crawford Square’s legacy, as a place for boys to play basketball and learn about how to work together to achieve higher goals, is greatly enhanced by its connection to the lives of Joe Murray, James, and the thousands of young people that have come their to play or watch. It is because of this that a modest little square on the eastern edge of Savannah’s National Landmark Historic District still has a simple concrete paved basketball court. I know this because it is the last place I ever played a game of basketball, eleven years ago when my son Kerry defeated me 21-5. When we got home Janice took one look at me and said “you’re purple”!!! Even I knew that my hoops days were done, and a family legend was born.
One of the greatest things about cities are legends, and legendary places. As designers, we are trying to continue the work of our legendary predecessors, Bob Gunn and Eric Meyerhoff, who created both River Street as we know it today, and City Market. We hope can make more of these kind of places for future legends!