Rarely has a city owed so much to the vision of one person than Savannah owes to General James Edward Oglethorpe. Given the mission by King George II of England to buffer Charleston’s plantations from the Spanish, this reformer had a far more sweeping vision in mind.
After befriending a local Creek tribe, Oglethorpe laid out his settlement in a deceptively simple plan that’s studied today the world over as a model of nearly perfect urban design. Many of his other progressive ideas—such as prohibiting slavery and hard liquor, to name two—soon went by the wayside. But the legacy of his original plan lives on to this day.
Savannah would comprise a series of rectangular “wards,” each built around a central square. As Savannah grew, each square took on its own characteristics. It’s this individuality that instilled Savannah’s innate individualism, so well-documented in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
The squares of Savannah’s downtown—since 1965 part of the National Landmark Historic District—are also responsible for the city’s walkability, another defining characteristic. Just as cars entering a square must yield to traffic already within, pedestrians are obliged to slow down and interact with the surrounding environment, both built and natural. You become participant and audience simultaneously, a feat made easier by the local penchant for easy conversation.
In an increasingly homogenized society, Savannah is one of the last places left where eccentricity is celebrated and even encouraged. This outspoken, often stubborn determination to make one’s own way in the world is personified by the old Georgia joke about Savannah being the capital of “the state of Chatham,” a reference to the county in which it resides. In typical contrarian fashion, Savannahians take this nickname, ostensibly a pejorative, as a compliment.
Savannah is also known for being able to show you a rowdy good time. It’s not only about the massive, world-famous St. Patrick’s Day celebration each year—though certainly that’s something everyone should experience at least once in their lives. Savannahians, like New Orleanians, will use any excuse for a party, and any excuse to drink in the full flavor of natural beauty here—whether in the heady glory of a spring day with all the flowers blooming, or the sweet release of the long-awaited autumn, brisk and bracing but not so crisp that you can’t wear shorts.
While Charleston’s outlying areas tend to complement the history and outlook of the Holy City itself, Savannah’s outskirts are more self-contained. Despite the fact that Tybee Island is largely dependent on Savannah’s economy, it has willfully kept its own fun and funky persona. More rural areas outside town, such as New Ebenezer and Midway, are reflective of a wholly different side of the state—a Georgia of country churches and tight-knit descendants of original plantation owners.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition