Ever a Savannah on the Savannah?

A scientific colleague and I recently exchanged correspondence about our experiences in Savannah, where the AMS Severe Local Storms Conference was held last fall, and where I was able to get out and do some fun photography during off-time. What a neat and lively little colonial era city that is, one with well-preserved architecture, plenty of green space, safe walking environment, a prospering riverfront area and proximity to some great beaches. I hope it stays out of the core of a major hurricane!

For purely selfish reasons (i.e., access to observable supercells) I wish the Great Plains states had little cities like that – with plenty of parks and squares, compact but uncrowded spaces and ease of movement, shops and markets close enough to not need a car to get to them from most given dwellings. [Full disclosure: I live in the country but within 4 miles of downtown, almost as “close-in” as my inner-city proximity to downtown Dallas as a kid, and much closer than suburban commuters in big cities.]

Unfortunately, our (plains states) cities are too recent, too young, in that the era of built-to-last architecture and thoughtful urban planning had passed (in favor of the automobile era) by the time all but small core areas were built. I like the automobile as a means of movement; but I also miss riding DART buses and trains, and the White Rock Lake bike trail.

There are islands of livableness in some of the bigger cities, like Dallas, Kansas City, Denver or even OKC, and a few of them even have been reinvigorated magnificently out of their former states of slum and blight (parts of the cores of Dallas and Denver). But you still have to go through the sprawling morass of suburban sameness and current or future slums to access them.

I go back to one such pleasant enclave within Dallas often — ironically, the very same 1910s/20s era neighborhood in which I grew up, an area now deeply gentrified and much safer and cleaner than when I was a kid. In the 1970s and 80s, parts of the neighborhood began to look and feel like a slum, sirens wailing much of the night, occasional gunshots heard, broken beer bottles littering sidewalks, unmistakable gang activity, exchanges of small and partly filled plastic bags for money on street corners. Able-bodied, aimless and shirtless men who should have been working instead hung out idly in the middle of weekdays on porches of what used to be grand old two-story Colonial style houses, paint peeling and support beams sagging. Yet enough of the 1950s era businesses, stores and restaurants remained to keep alive a thread of sanity and safety, and police patrols were heavy enough to keep the situation from getting hopelessly out of control (as in parts of L.A. and Detroit).

Now the area is an island of tranquility amidst a loud, busy urban cauldron. You still can walk from any house in that neighborhood to almost any kind of shop, restaurant, market and your choice of 5 different bus lines in 20 minutes or less. But it’s expensive to live there now…little old tudors and bungalows that were rat and roach infested and on the verge of being condemned when I was a kid (including one duplex I lived in for 8 years) now are going for $300K or more, and that’s in a weakened housing market in a low-cost, non-coastal city. It shows that people have a deep desire to live in such a setting, if it’s safe to do so. Now and there, it is…for the right price.

My old neighborhood, and others like it in cities that have revitalized sections around the country, went through this cycle:

    1. Build on virgin land just outside downtown sometime late 1800s/early 1900s, parks and small commerce abound

    2. Young families move in, WW2 happens, returning vets have and raise kids

    3. Kids move away, residents grow old while radial sprawl away from the area sucks out educated talent and economic vitality

    4. Houses fall into disrepair as the old folks gradually die off…low-renters (we were in that category) proliferate, crime/drugs/rats/roaches common

    5. Yuppies moved in, renovated and formed neighborhood associations while the city (under great pressure from the associations) made an effort to clean up the crime

    6. Gentrified, expensive area that again is a pleasant place to live if you could afford it

    7. National economy goes into toilet (today)…effect uncertain

I was raised during the end of item 3 through most of 4, and went off to college right at the start of 5. So it has been great to see 5-6 going on. What’s next in stage 7?

Of all the smaller to mid-sized Plains cities I’ve visited, Rapid City seems closest to being able to maintain or regain such a way of being. Too bad it’s at such a cold latitude. Lawrence seems to be trying too. That they’re both college towns probably isn’t a coincidence. Boulder has done a lot of things right planning-wise, but that town is a sociopolitical insane asylum, an over-regulated nanny-fiefdom in many respects, and hopelessly expensive. [How ironic it is that such a pompously leftist and “socially conscious” place conveniently erects a financial Berlin Wall to keep out the poor, in the form of exorbitant housing costs. “Help the poor, but not next door!”] Surely those asphyxiating side effects don’t have to be the inevitable result of good city planning and foresight, do they?

Ft. Worth and Tulsa are trying to invert decayed residential areas now, but is it too little too late? Kansas City wants to be more livable, but is irreparably split through the middle at the intersection of two states and 5 counties…too many stinkin’ jurisdictions with their own agendas. OKC, Wichita, San Angelo, Lincoln, Bismarck, Midland-Odessa, Lubbock, Amarillo, Omaha…they don’t seem to give a flip yet (all talk, too little obvious action).

Norman, on the margins of a mid-sized city at just over 100,000, has lots of potential. Its cost of living is quite low, public schools adequate (albeit too easy on the kids academically), its people better educated than in most of Oklahoma, along with being generally friendly and helpful. However, 23 years after my first such complaint call to the traffic department as a college freshman, it has no more synchronized signal lights now than then (about five, on one stretch of one street). Despite the fact that any city can control growth patterns (through zoning), Norman resoundingly has failed to do so smartly. By smartly, I mean using a simple concept called foresight: supporting infrastructure planned and put in place before development, instead of during and after. There is no effective and citywide mass transit, nor interconnected greenbelt/walkway system. Norman still thinks “bike friendly” means you slap up a bunch of Bike Route signs on dangerous, narrow, shoulderless roads with blind hills and without bike lanes, tout the resulting “100 miles of bicycle paths” in C-of-C literature, and the problem is solved. Suuuuuure!

Savannah is a great town. I’d like to spend some more time down there on future sojourns. The mid-size cities I named in the last two paragraphs could learn a great deal about livableness from its example. It’s just much too far from the Plains and the dryline! If only I could just erase most of urban Norman (except the OU area) and plop that Georgia town down in its place…Savannah on the (Okie) savannah!


One Response to “Ever a Savannah on the Savannah?”

  1. tornado on May 21st, 2009 1:05 am

    Chuck Doswell originally intended to post the following as a comment here, but didn’t have a WordPress login. Instead he made it an entry on his own BLOG:


    Chuck’s big-city experiences strongly parallel mine except that they were in an older and somewhat safer era — perhaps #2 on my list above. Even Chicago once had it good on the “livableness” level, whatever machine-politics may have been going on down at city hall.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.