Thursday, May 5, 2011

Squares of Savannah

Savannah, Georgia, is a place I've been wanting to visit for years. Recently I spent a few days there with my friends Elsie and Michael and was not disappointed. In fact, I was charmed by what I can only call its "Europeanness:" the cobblestones, the wrought iron, the history, and especially the squares.

Savannah is famous for its historic houses, shaded streets made of brick or stone, and Spanish moss, but they all are mere decorations for the twenty-four squares that anchor the city. They started out as four squares in 1733, one for each ward, and were originally used for military exercises. As the city grew, more wards were added to the grid and a square with each one. The streets are laid out such that traffic flows counter-clockwise around each square, functioning as a traffic circle of sorts. The squares are fairly uniform in size, too, all measuring roughly 200 feet from north to south and ranging from 100-300 from east to west. They are named mostly for famous people (generals, politicians, royalty, Indian chiefs) and many have monuments or statues to these people. But that doesn't take away from the huge, shady trees and beautiful flowers and shrubbery. You can take an internet tour of all the squares HERE.

But it is the green space and its use of it that make so charming and unique and European. You can walk all the squares of Savannah or view them from one of the many city tours. Walking is best, because then you get into each square and become like a local. We saw people walking, reading, daydreaming, drawing, kids playing a game at recess, and everyone was relaxed and in synch with their city. There is nothing like this for me to walk to and sit down in Atlanta. Oh, there are parks, many of them, and some very large, but there is not a shady, peaceful square every two or three blocks. How many cities can boast that? I don't know of any but Savannah at the moment.

Everyone drives everywhere in Atlanta (adding to the traffic problem) but in Savannah, people still walk or ride bikes, making it a much more pleasant place and pace. I parked my car when I got there and did not use it again until I left the city, much like many places in Europe (Berlin, most recently). The historic district is all strictly protected and changes cannot be made without a "Permit of Appropriateness," thus ensuring against the visual litter of most cities. They can do whatever they want on the inside, but the exterior must match the neighborhood. Savannah was the first American city planned around public squares. I hope it's not the last.