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City Talk: Is Savannah the “next Brooklyn”?

Vogue’s recent article “Is This Old Southern Town the Next Brooklyn?” caught the attention of plenty of Savannahians – natives, newcomers and everyone in between.

When I first read the title, I had a visceral response: “My goodness, I hope not.” Then I read the article and felt a little better about the comparison.

The glowing, gushing Vogue magazine piece by Katie Kiefner is more than 2,000 words long, about three times the length of this column.

Like so many national and international profiles of Savannah, the article sometimes hits the mark but at other times drifts into generalization and hyperbole.

The article begins with a quote from Savannah College of Art and Design President Paula Wallace, who notes the “sad-looking” downtown when the college was founded in 1977. Wallace references the famed and occasionally misinterpreted comment by Lady Astor, who in 1946 called Savannah “a beautiful lady with a dirty face.”

My favorite rejoinder to Lady Astor came from the writer Harry Hervey, a Savannah native, who said in Pageant magazine that Savannah of the mid-20th century was more aptly described as “the grande dame who carries her age with a certain forbidden charm.”

At times, the Vogue piece feels vaguely anachronistic, like when asserting that “the Hostess City appears primed to spotlight her long-awaited facelift.” In reality, the Savannah facelift has been ongoing for decades, and for such a small city, we have gotten far more time in the national and international spotlight than we could expect.

At this point, some of us are even a little tired of the spotlight.

A handful of creative professionals receive great mentions in the piece, although the writing leaves the impression that some of them have just arrived on the Savannah scene. Anissa Manzo, who owns Urban Poppy, is listed among the “recent L.A. and New York transplants,” despite the fact that she has been working hard in Savannah for many years. Manzo opened Café Mucha on Broughton Street over a decade ago.

The piece plugs an interesting variety of design-related small businesses, including Peridot, Jere’s Antiques, Alex Raskin Antiques, The Paris Market, ShopSCAD and Number Four Eleven. There is also an overview of the local art scene that praises Susan Laney’s new gallery Laney Contemporary at 1810 Mills B. Lane Blvd. I’ll have more about Laney Contemporary in an upcoming column.

Restaurants recommended by Vogue include The Wyld Dock Bar, Atlantic, Cotton & Rye and its new sister restaurant Sugo Rossa, The Grey, Back in the Day Bakery, Zunzi’s, The Collins Quarter and Sandfly BBQ. The swanky bar Artillery gets a nice mention, and so does the upcoming Savannah location of Husk, which will open eventually on Oglethorpe Avenue.

The piece also includes this quote from Mikie Heilbrun: “This is what Brooklyn was like before we were priced out!”

So which Brooklyn are we talking about here?

Are we talking about the Brooklyn of tightknit communities with longstanding traditions? The edgy, inexpensive Brooklyn that attracted artists who turned the borough into a hotbed of creativity? The stereotypically hip and increasingly gentrified Brooklyn of today?

I reacted so negatively when I first saw the Vogue article because of the fear that the piece was talking about today’s Brooklyn. Like many of you, I’m worried that some of the best traits of Savannah are being slowly erased by rising property values and increasing exclusivity.

In Brooklyn, extreme demand for housing is driving a disruptive real estate boom. According to the devastating article “Tenants Under Siege: Inside New York City’s Housing Crisis” in a recent New York Review of Books, the lack of affordable housing is leading to a “humanitarian emergency.”

In Savannah, demand for hotels and short-term vacation rentals has degraded the residential character of downtown, and historic neighborhoods farther south are in the midst of a long transition that is steadily forcing out poorer residents.

For the most part, however, Savannah still has room for the types of artists, designers and entrepreneurs profiled in Vogue. We have many other community assets – including beauty and walkability – that might attract more of them.

But we don’t need to think in terms of being the “next Brooklyn.” We just need to think about being the best possible version of Savannah, with all of its history, quirks and idiosyncrasies.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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