Paris has its Avenue des Champs-Élysées designed by Haussmann. Berlin’s Kürfurstendamm and London’s Piccadilly are easily recognized. Walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City, on the Mall that was part of the L’Enfant Plan for Washington, DC or on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles is always an adventure. Closer to home are the back streets of St. Augustine, the T Roads designed by Stewart Dawson in Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head and fond memories of shaded oyster shell streets laid out so casually in 1825 follow me as I stroll down Calhoun Street in Bluffton.
Be that as it may, there is nothing like remembering the streets of Savannah, Georgia where I was born and raised.
In what now seems centuries ago, but was really only that energized age of the 1940s, elementary school children in Savannah, like children everywhere, had private jokes they shared with each other, but never with ‘grownups’. Some were naughty. They were the best. There were whispers about the Father of our country, the very first president of the United States of America and how he ‘slept everywhere,’ all those towns, all those historic houses proclaiming, ‘George Washington Slept Here.’ We weren’t exactly sure what went on, but we giggled about it as if we knew. After all, we were in the 7th grade.
We smirked about the girls whose boat overturned at Tybee Island and they had to cling to a buoy all night. In Savannah, we pronounced ‘buoy’ like ‘boy’ as the English do and like Life Buoy, that antiseptic smelling soap. It was an early, certainly enthusiastic, play on words. And when we learned about Boston, Massachusetts with its twisty streets that ran every which way, well, it hit our funny bone.
‘They paved the cow paths’ we crowed.
You see, we were total snobs about streets. Ours were straight, orderly, planned before the first shovel hit the fertile dirt of this lovely city set high above the river which shared its name.
Every school child was taught at least the basics of Savannah history. To begin with, the first settlers came to town on the ship Anne, sometimes spelled without the ‘e’. We children told anyone who would listen that the city’s name came about when a little girl coincidentally named Anna fell overboard and they all yelled ‘Save Anna’.
Wasn’t true, but we hoped someone was dumb enough to believe it.
Actually, the city was more than happenstance. In the 1700s, King George II of England was anxious to protect his colonies in the Carolinas and Virginia against ambitious Spaniards in the South and the French coming in from the West. Think Louisiana. He was sympathetic to James Edward Oglethorpe’s proposal to developed a new colony that would act as a buffer from these potential land grabbers.
Born in 1696, the 10th and last child of Sir Theophilus and Lady Eleanor Oglethorpe, James was elected a Member of Parliament in 1722 where he became aware of the horrible conditions in England’s prison system. A friend of James, Robert Castell, an architect, died in a debtor’s prison of smallpox. His death had a profound effect on the young philanthropic James who determined to obtain the release of prisoners using them and their talents to become the first residents of his new colony.
James met up with Colonel William Bull of Charleston and with the help of surveyor Noble Jones chose a site on a high bluff overlooking a wide river less than 20 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. They would use Castell’s plan and lay out the city with squares, east and west divided into four lots for churches and stores, north and south cut into twenty lots.
The streets would alternate being wide and narrow, the central one which they named Bull Street would separate the east side of the city from the west side with appropriate numbering, odd numbers on the south side of the street, even on the north. Beginning at Bull Street and moving outward with long blocks, the first would be given addresses in the tens, the second block 100 to 199, the third block 200 to 299 and so on as in 314 EAST Jones Street or 314 WEST Jones Street.
Beautifully simple. Castell’s design worked.
As school children we didn’t pay attention as to how the numbering came about. We only knew that if you had the address, it was easy to find the house.
Our main shopping street where we had department stores and ten-cent stores, drug stores and movie theaters, restaurants and even a small hotel was Broughton Street.
On the corner of Bull and Broughton Streets, considered the center of the city, was where the main bus routes had stops that were also transfer stations for buses that went out into Garden City and Port Wentworth, small but active communities northwest of Savannah. There were also electric streetcars which ran north and south, one line on Barnard Street, the other down Habersham Street. Since there were no monuments in the squares on those streets, streetcars went straight through, as did fire engines and ambulances and me at age 15 without a driver’s license one night on a dare driving the family 1935 two-door four-on-the-floor black with yellow spoke wheels Chevrolet.
These days, if squares don’t have monuments, there are gazebos with all sorts of fancy landscaping. Couples come from miles away to be married under majestic oaks that have survived for so many years in this historic urban setting.
During WWII on Halloween, Broughton Street was closed to traffic from Drayton Street to Whitaker Street. As soon as dark set in, it became a noisy carnival, people in costume zigzagging down the street in Conga lines, penny firecrackers exploding, leaving behind a confetti of red tissue, cigarette smoke smudging the chilly night air. Uniforms of all services from Fort Stewart, Glynco where they had the blimps down in Brunswick, Hunter Army Airfield, Parris Island, all these revelers looking for a bit of foolery in wartime mingled with merchant mariners, hardhat workers from the shipyard and Union Camp, the paper mill we called the Bag Plant and which greeted visitors to our beautiful city with a truly stinky stink. Thanks to governmental regulations, the smell is gone, not missed.
There were no one-way streets. At least, not for a long while.
Daddy’s watchmaking and jewelry store was on Drayton Street, opposite the Marine Hospital. Drayton, with Price, Lincoln, Whitaker and Jefferson was a narrow street running north and south across the length of Savannah. Before WWII and the sudden increase in population, there was no problem with parking on any of Savannah’s streets, including the narrow ones. There simply weren’t that many cars. Narrow though it was, customers parked in front of Daddy’s store or across the street, depending on which direction they were heading. Henry, who had a wooden pushcart, came twice a week calling out he had okra, he had corn, he had butter beans and stopped at the curb while Mama came out of the store and looked over his fresh vegetables. As big and klutzy as it was, no one ever ran into Henry’s push cart. We were not happy when the city decided to make these narrow streets one-way. Simply couldn’t figure out the reason. It took a long while to adjust.
Castell’s plan called for lanes, a narrow alleyway behind buildings, a utilitarian space where trash and garbage could be handled, where carriage houses for horses and servants would be located. Lanes were incorporated into the city’s design for years, even after automobiles supplanted carriages, until land became pricey and lanes considered wasted space, until suburbia reared its head and developers took a page from the cityscape of Boston and we had wiggle waggle roads, no sidewalks, no lanes and we were introduced to the modern concept of cul-de-sacs with garages in the front of the house.
In these days of gated communities with imaginative street design, trying to find an address without a GPS is, to say the least, an adventure.
One thing for sure, in Savannah, head east and you’ll find a creek, a river or the mother of them all, the Atlantic Ocean.