Once upon a time, the South lost its share of the pop culture cutting edge. It was overshadowed by the hip West Coast and the elite Northeast (DC to Boston) corridor. For a host of reasons, cities like New Orleans, Birmingham, Savannah, and Charleston became more synonymous with backwards thinking, poverty, and a lack of sophistication, than the grandeur they all claimed and owned at their height.
Atlanta is an outlier, as it has evolved more independently of its surrounding peers, thanks largely to numerous global headquarters (like Delta, Coca-Cola, the CDC, etc.) ringing the city.
I grew up with that latter sense — that all of the South, including much of North Florida through the Carolinas and into Tennessee, was more depressed than it was celebrated. Stories you read never painted a picture of revolution, but one of stagnation. My family is also a liberal one, which is not a trait commonly used by Southerners to self-identify.
Thus, my distrust of the South, and in many moments, preference for more classically cosmopolitan New York and San Francisco as chosen dream destinations. It’s why I’ve visited those places more than cities much closer to home.
This past weekend, I attended a friend’s wedding in Savannah, visiting the city for only the second time, the first being when I was about 14. It is the latest in a series of trips and experiences that have me more curious about the new South, which I qualify thanks to a clear sea-change in the demographics of these cities.
Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) stands out as a clear agent behind the new energy that runs the city’s establishments and populates its sidewalks. The wedding couple chose the city because they both love it, and it’s where Chip received a masters degree in architecture (at SCAD).
I stayed with the man of honor and a couple other guests at a vacation rental apartment on Broughton Street, the “high street” of Savannah. We were two floors above a Banana Republic, across the street from a Gap and J.Crew, and blocks away from kate spade and a completely unexpected Marc by Marc Jacobs outpost.
Along this ten block stretch, few if any storefronts were empty, and only a few housed non-retail businesses. I found a gym (Fitness on Broughton) for a Friday evening workout, and ate at the attached Kayak Kafe. All felt vibrant and approachable.
I realized later that none of the street had been gobbled up by cheesy tourist shops with souvenirs emblazoned with “Savannah” this or that, in contrast to other historic, destination cities reliant on tourism and hospitality for revenue. New Orleans and St. Augustine are key offenders of this.
Walking south toward SCAD, which was the only mode of travel I used for three days (!), revealed even more hip shops, eateries, and coffee houses, interspersed organically with preserved historic streets and homes, all under the cover of Savannah’s famous tree canopy.
I couldn’t get over how majestic it all was, and how harmoniously people, space, and commerce all seemed to work together.
If you’ve ever been to the city, you’ll recall the many public squares that break up its gridded street network. Main North-South one way pairs allow traffic to flow in and out, but these squares have been preserved beautifully, and remain open for the public to enjoy. On the hot, humid days I experienced, they were a welcome respite.
The main park, however, is Forsyth Park, a sort of Grand Central Park and City Park (of New Orleans) hybrid. It is long and rectangular, and lined by residential neighborhoods, grand homes, and hotels. In its center, it houses a cafe, a fountain, and several open fields for sports.
Throughout, I was joined on the sidewalks and walkways of Savannah by residents my parents’ age, students, and visitors, of all colors and types. It was refreshing to see so much foot traffic. So few destinations, especially outside major urban centers, allow that kind of scale, packing in old with new and serving multiple needs.
Some highlights from my Savannah experience were Gryphon Tea, shopSCAD, and Prospector Co.
Gryphon Tea: run by SCAD students and housed in a 1926 Scottish Rite building, Gryphon serves traditional tea service as well as lunch and brunch, under a interior design cloak of wood panels, stained glass, and mirrored book shelving.
The food was excellent, and the tea a perfect way to slow down during a harried best man.
shopSCAD: what sounds like a glorified gift shop turns out to be a curated, high-quality boutique showcasing the best of what current and former arts students have created. That includes: original signed art pieces, accessories, jewelry, paper goods and stationery, and more.
I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Prospector Co.: Probably one of the best-edited shops I have seen in a while. “Edit” because of the notable lack of visual overload in this Broughton Street storefront, which is stocked with gifts, accessories, but most centrally to the appeal, men’s grooming items.
Prospector makes wares like body wash, shave oil, and facial scrub, all locally, all with pure, raw ingredients. I have already used the Gleaners and it feels great. I also purchased a pair of German nail clippers that snap with heavy teutonic precision.
I created a map of cool spots to check out if you find yourself in the city soon. We didn’t eat out much due to all the wedding activities, but Zunzi’s baked chicken conquistador sandwich was great for a hearty, hot lunch.
I know I missed a bunch of fantastic-looking eateries, so a follow-up trip is 100% on my agenda.
See more pics below.