Apr 25, 2008
|Searching for the Garden of Good and Evil - Friday, April 25
The book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, while not the most flattering tale of life in the South, has forever identified Savannah as the place to come if you want to see Southern Charm at it’s sultriest.
And from everywhere the visitors do come - hoping for a glimpse of that mythical world. Hoping to see ‘Bird Girl’ as she looked on the cover of the book - standing with arms outstretched in a garden of decadent neglect - where the gate stands open and the vines are too lush. Where the moss covered wall sets a trap for the weak, and baits it with birds and pale white lilies. Where resolve vanishes in the mist - and good and evil merge into one on the sweet, magnolia scented air. A garden that exists in our imaginations - if not in Savannah.
A quarter century ago Savannah was a working man’s city. It smelled like Eureka, California. I first hit town in 1984 and ten minutes later my cheap plastic sunglasses turned permanently opaque from the sulfur dioxide in the air. Pulp mills across the river pumped acid into the sky, and ships and barges turned the water of the Savannah River turgid with their passage. There were tourists then too, but they hadn’t taken over the town yet.
Today mills no longer poison the air, and the river is home to paddle-wheeled tour boats and itinerant musicians. The Cotton Exchange that once dominated the waterfront is dwarfed now by high rise hotels. And even the powerhouse seems lost in the crowd of happy tourists.
Now I’m not saying this is bad. My sunglasses (and my lungs) are much safer now. The atmosphere downtown is cheerful and mellow, and even the locals seem to blend in and enjoy it. Many are students of SCAD, Savannah College of Art and Design, and like the Flagler College students of St. Augustine, these kids are an attractive part of the scene.
Savannah, while not as old as St. Augustine, still dates back to colonial times, and one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the American Revolution was fought here. The Georgia Colony was English and Savannah owes much to it’s founder, James Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe is the man responsible for the country’s first ‘planned city’ and one of the main streets of Savannah is still named after him.
Oglethorpe laid out the design for a square mile of settlement, and while only a fraction of this was built in colonial times, later Victorian era development continued to use his design to great success. Today Savannah’s downtown is the nation’s largest single Historical District, a fact that has protected and preserved many priceless structures.
Oglethorpe’s design called for an orderly arrangement of streets that provided both private residences, and tracts set aside for public buildings and parks. The layout was designed with an eye to defense, and the settlement was divided into wards, each having 40 homes (providing 40 fighting men) and the public area necessary to support the ward. This plan resulted in a city that, even today, stands as a model of intelligent design. What is more, it made Savannah one of the most beautiful cities in the country.
Not foreseeing today’s traffic, Oglethorpe made the streets too narrow, but what lovely and inviting streets they are! Every one is lined with charter oaks, dripping Spanish moss and spreading their branches to shade the buildings and the streets. No two structures are alike and every lot has a garden, even if it’s a small one. There are flowers everywhere. Nature and man have combined here, to create a city of beauty and unique livability..
In 1864, when the ladies of Savannah heard Sherman was coming, they are said to have told their husbands, “Do whatever is necessary, but you can not let him burn this city!” Sherman was welcomed as an honored guest, and Savannah survived the ‘March to the Sea’.
We booked a tour of Savannah with the same company we toured with in St. Augustine, and along with the general tour we added tours of two historic homes, the Juliette Gordon Low (founder of the Girl Scouts) home, and the Owens-Thomas home of the same era. Both homes predate the Civil War, and both tours were fascinating.
And as far as the book analogy goes? Well - we weren’t here at ‘midnight’ and we didn’t find the ‘evil’ - but we did find gardens, and we did find good - and isn't that what we were really looking for all along?