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City Talk: Talking to tourists about crime

“Do you live here?”

Tourists ask that question or similar ones routinely of locals in Savannah’s historic neighborhoods. Then come the predictable follow-up questions.

At least twice in recent months, random tourists near Chippewa Square have even asked me about the location of Forrest Gump’s bench. Some questions will never die.

One evening last week, I had just crossed Park Avenue when a couple asked me if I lived in Savannah. After determining that I am indeed a local, the woman asked, “Is it safe to walk around here at night?”

It was almost exactly 9 p.m., more than two hours after sunset. The inviting path through the center of Forsyth beckoned, but for the moment the couple seemed content to stand and talk next to the Spanish-American War monument at the park’s south end.

A sizable group was playing basketball under the lights, and there were other people scattered about the area, including a few figures on benches in the distance. There was some audible chatter from the nearby porch at The American Legion and patrons sitting at tables in front of The Sentient Bean.

A fair number of joggers and walkers were on the park’s perimeter path, and I was actually about to walk through the park when the couple stopped me, but the area still felt quiet despite the activity.

Anecdotally, I would say that it is increasingly common to see locals and tourists walk through Forsyth after dark, sometimes even past 11 p.m. when the park is officially “closed.”

Clearly, I have decided that I can safely stroll through the park after dark, when Forsyth’s stunning beauty is in full effect, but I balked at reassuring the out-of-town visitors who don’t know anything about Savannah’s quirks and perils.

As I pondered their question, I also immediately recalled any number of violent crimes that have occurred over the years in the general area, and I found myself quickly scanning the park for any signs of suspicious activity or a visible police presence.

When I mentioned that Savannah has a very high crime rate relative to much of America, the couple reacted as visitors often do. They were surprised.

I am always surprised when people are surprised about our high crime rate, but Savannah’s beauty, charm and hospitality can deceive.

I didn’t actively try to alarm the couple, but I probably gave them more information than they wanted about how much safer the neighborhood seems today than 20 years ago and about the nearby corridors that I avoid on foot, especially after dark.

So far in 2017, the number of street robberies in the jurisdiction of the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department has declined significantly compared to both 2015 and 2016, but it will take markedly more improvement to reassure many residents that some areas of the city are safe for wandering after dark. Or, in some cases, even during the day.

And, of course, the widespread fear of walking in certain areas can itself make those areas more dangerous. Forsyth Park, for example, feels much safer when it is abuzz with activity, no matter what time of day.

I’m not sure how the couple took my disjointed advice, but they didn’t follow when I headed north on Forsyth’s center path.

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Mixed data for local employment

Last Sunday’s column examined some grim employment data for September. Hurricane Irma led to a sharp increase in unemployment claims and a significant decline in payroll employment in retail sales and in leisure and hospitality in the Savannah area.

Additional data released by the Georgia Department of Labor paints a slightly brighter picture. According to the estimates released last week, the unemployment rate for the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) fell to 3.9 percent in September. That’s markedly lower than the 5.4 percent unemployment rate in September 2016.

Maybe the unemployment rate will remain low or fall even further as businesses hire for the holiday season. Alternately, the unemployment rate might go back up as residents who left the workforce because of the storm start looking for jobs again. We probably need to see several more months of data before we have a better handle on how severely Irma has impacted the local job market and the metro area economy more generally.

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City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net.

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