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City Talk: Will state officials be swayed by latest effort to rename bridge?

At last week’s Savannah City Council meeting, the mayor and aldermen passed a resolution calling on state officials to change the name of the Talmadge Memorial Bridge to The Savannah Bridge.

The agenda item was written in a straightforward bureaucratic tone, but the resolution itself contains both legalistic language and poetic flourishes.

The resolution notes the visual importance of the towering structure, which “dominates the Savannah skyline, serving as one of the most important landmarks in the City.”

The resolution argues that “the bridge’s name is not reflective of modern Georgia, and Gov. [Eugene] Talmadge had no strong connection with the City of Savannah. The bridge is a gateway from the world into Savannah, and naming the bridge after Savannah is appropriate.”

The resolution even quotes from the King James Version of the book of Ecclesiastes: “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; … A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up; … A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”

Mayor Eddie DeLoach read that Biblical passage at last week’s meeting. Former mayor Otis Johnson spoke eloquently in support of the resolution.

Critics often mischaracterize the ongoing efforts to rename the bridge. Some want to see the city’s resolution as a knee-jerk reaction to current controversies related to the ugly events in Charlottesville in August, but there have been serious discussions about renaming the bridge for many years.

At last week’s meeting, Alderman Brian Foster noted that the business community called for a new name when the current bridge was finished in 1991.

Efforts to rename the bridge came to a head in 2013, but state officials backed away from the issue. News reports at the time indicated that the local delegation to the state legislature faced intense lobbying from members of the Talmadge family.

In a 2013 op-ed in this newspaper, Stan Deaton of the Georgia Historical Society described Eugene Talmadge as “one of the most backward-looking, outspokenly racist demagogues in our history.”

After detailing a couple of Talmadge’s most problematic public statements, Deaton asked, “Does Talmadge continue to represent the values of the majority in this community in 2013? Is this the best we can do?”

Deaton suggested naming the bridge for General James Oglethorpe, the visionary founder of the Georgia colony, but there are other individuals for whom the bridge could be named, including figures of local importance like Tomochichi, Juliette Gordon Low and Johnny Mercer.

But suggestions of new honorees cloud the issue. “The Savannah Bridge” may not be the most exciting name, but it has an alluring simplicity and directness.

The city’s resolution urges the Chatham County Commission and other elected bodies to adopt similar resolutions. Perhaps additional resolutions will create more momentum for a change.

Maybe I’ve become overly cynical, but I doubt that last week’s resolution will be any more successful than previous efforts to rename the bridge.

Still, whether or not the bridge is renamed in 2018, there is no doubt that local leaders will continue to apply pressure, and state leaders will eventually agree with the diverse group of Savannah citizens and elected officials who have been arguing for many years to rename the bridge.

Drinking outside at Savannah River Landing

Among the other actions at last week’s busy meeting, members of Savannah City Council expanded the go-cup zone to Savannah River Landing, the 55-acre site at the east end of River Street.

Longtime readers know that the site was slated for large-scale mixed-use development over a decade ago, but the ambitious plans collapsed with the economy during the real estate bust, financial crisis and deep 2007-2009 recession.

The site has already benefited from large public investment, including a costly 2,100 foot expansion of the Riverwalk.

Proposals to extend the go-cup zone have proved controversial in the past, but last week’s unanimous, uncontested vote suggested that city officials and real estate developers know that the policy is good for business.

Sure, this was an easy vote because the area has no residents who could organize in opposition, but don’t be surprised if there is a renewed push to expand the go-cup zone beyond its current boundaries.

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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