Where is the next Baltimore? Baltimore’s median household income is $41,000 a year, Savannah’s $34,888. The key number, though—and the real number around which this entire discussion It was only a matter of time should revolve—is the poverty rate. before Savannah exploded. Baltimore’s poverty rate is 23.8 percent. In the more than three Savannah’s poverty rate is 26 percent. decades I have called this It’s a stubbornly intractable number that city home, Savannah has has remained virtually unchanged through been a combustible mix of povthe decades and through the generations. erty, crime, and hopelessUnchanged despite Savannah’s transness, uncomfortably formation from Jim Crow segregation to a juxtaposed against majority-black City government… despite rich history, friendly people, venerable instituour growing tourism industry… despite our tions and pockets of old-money affluence. The two Savannahs have mostly gone unreconciled. new status as a magnet for ambitious and artistic young people. – The Washington Post It’s a daunting enigma which, unless solved, has the potential to make a mockery OK, I LIED. That is indeed a quote from the Washington Post’s Michael A. Fletcher. of all our best-laid plans for success. The truth is that no matter how many But I replaced his word “Baltimore” with hipsters and tourists and big-thinking, “Savannah.” deep-pocketed entrepreneurs come here to Read it again and see how interchangeopen breweries and retail stores and start able the sentiments, and the cities, are. burlesque troupes and go on ghost tours, Fletcher wrote that piece on April 28, as with Baltimore all it would take is one as parts of Baltimore burned following match to set it ablaze and send all those the death of Freddie Gray at the hands folks packing the very next day. of police officers, six of whom were subseThe kindling is already here, ready to quently charged with murder You’ve probably read a number of insight- light. It very nearly caught on fire last summer with the police shooting of Charles ful pieces like Fletcher’s in response to the unrest in Baltimore. One of the best was an Smith under much less egregious circuminterview with David Simon, creator of The stances than Freddie Gray. Nonviolent protest and civil disobedience Wire, a show shot in and about Baltimore a are obviously much more preferable to and decade ago, though you wouldn’t know it. The phrase “eerily prescient” doesn’t even effective than rioting. But sometimes for real begin to describe the timely accuracy of The change to occur, people need to see there are two ways you can go with it: the hard way or Wire’s portrayal of an urban area in steep the even harder way. decline due to drugs, corruption, systemic Throughout U.S. history—from the vioracism, and the hollowing out of its econlent struggles between labor unions and milomy by corporatization and globalization. itary and security forces in the ‘20s and ‘30s And by the numbers, Baltimore is very that led to the New Deal, to the riots that similar to Savannah. seared U.S. cities in the ‘60s—nonviolent Baltimore, like Savannah, is a proud old protest has never happened in a vacuum. seaport city, essentially Southern but with The specter of violence is often the hauntits own unique identity. Baltimore, like Savannah, is a tourist cen- ing backdrop to orderly change. Sometimes, as with Baltimore last week, ter with a revitalized downtown ringed with the specter becomes real and everyone is left areas of deep economic despair. to wonder why more wasn’t done to heed Baltimore, like Savannah, is majority the all-too-obvious warning signals. African American—63 percent in BaltiWe still have a chance to heed the warnmore’s case, in Savannah’s 55 percent. Baltimore, like Savannah, has a history of ing signals in Savannah. There’s no way to avoid the issue of racpolice corruption. Baltimore’s unemployment rate is 8.4 per- ism, nor should one want to avoid it. But as with most generational problems, it’s more cent, Savannah’s 6.9 percent. complicated than it seems.
by Jim Morekis
Baltimore’s tragedy happened under an African American mayor, an African American police chief, and a predominantly African American police force. (Indeed, three of the six cops charged with the murder of Freddie Gray are black, and you could make the case that the increased militarization of police since 9/11 and the court-sanctioned decay of constitutional rights over the last two decades are as much to blame for the riots as racism.) Racism and poverty are the two intertwined root causes of America’s urban unrest. You can’t discuss one without discussing the other. But you can address racism and still suffer from poverty and wealth disparity. Perhaps by directly addressing poverty we can most immediately alleviate the economic disparity that leads to racial discord. A great jumping-off point for that discussion would be Savannah’s tourism industry—how it sometimes seems to encourage minimum wage jobs that perpetuate the cycle of poverty... how it sometimes seems to encourage a two-tiered Savannah, one for visitors and one for everyone else... how its shiny veneer all too easily covers up the portions of the community in greatest need, and in the greatest volatility. I’ve been asked to moderate a panel discussion this Monday evening, May 11, sponsored by the group Emergent Savannah. Beginning at 7 p.m. at The Sentient Bean, the title of the discussion is “Hostess City/ Captive Community: Tourism in Savannah.” The panel is scheduled to feature special guests Joe Marinelli, President of Visit Savannah; Daniel G. Carey, President & CEO of The Historic Savannah Foundation; Ellis Garvin, author of A Guide to Our Two Savannahs, and Chris Miller, entrepreneur and first director of The Creative Coast. We will candidly discuss the uncomfortable questions about Savannah’s tourism industry in a civil and exploring atmosphere —certainly not in an attempt to persecute our vital tourism industry, but rather to ask what its proper place is in the community and cultural fabric. I hope you can join us this Monday night. It promises to at least be one small step toward heeding Baltimore’s warning. cs
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