For my wife Anne’s 50th birthday last weekend (her birthday was actually the 17th), I took her and some visiting friends on a “Ghost Tour” of Savannah. The gentleman at right is our guide, the 6’7″ Chris Soucy – actor, playwright and ghost hunter (usually with paper and pen rather than katana).
You may have heard of these tours … basically night-time walking tours of an area with spooky stories thrown in for spice. Many cities have them – New Orleans, Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco – but only Savannah GA has the distinction of being the “Most Haunted” city in America. We even have a plaque confirming this status from some national parapsychology association (for which we paid TWO steak dinners and THREE cocktail parties, I’ll have you know).
See, Savannah has (like many cities) grown according to a plan. However, unlike many towns, Savannah’s growth has been very, very slow, and the plan (while followed as closely as possible) has seen nearly 300 years of change in its execution. This adherence to what today is called “good planning” has led directly to the presence of so very many unquiet spirits in my home town.
When General James Oglethorpe designed this town, he had a very orderly plan … eight squares, each forming the center of a semi-independent ward. The squares, linked by a grid of cross streets, were to provide market and meeting space for the residents who lived in townhouses. Directly to the south, a large park was set aside to be used for gardens where each ward would grow the fruits and vegetables they needed for their own kitchens. Very orderly, very sensible, and like most “planned” communities, it work in fine fashion … until it stopped working.
So it was with Savannah. In Colonial days, the squares represented a thriving community. But people die, even in a thriving community. And in our culture, death means burial. For the black slaves in Savannah, burial meant being hauled “into the woods” south of the town, and buried. Later, during one of the periodic Cholera and Yellow Fever epidemics that used to plague Savannah, the spike in the funeral business outstripped the capacity of the local entrepreneurs, and whites, too, received only informal burial – frequently in shallow mass graves.
But eventually (sometime in the mid-1800s), Public Sanitation was invented and installed. Plumbing meant a dramatic drop in the frequency, if not the severity, of these epidemics. And the population began to grow steadily.
More people needed more room, naturally. New streets and new homes were built … usually on the “high ground” – where natural topography reduced the chance of flooding (always a danger in Savannah). The square pattern was abandoned as impractical (the available land consisting of long islands and ridges), but the city continued to follow the grid pattern established in the colonial core with its avenues and streets.
Unfortunately, the places where growth had to occur – these high, dry ridges south of Oglethorpe’s colony – were also those places that had, a few generations earlier, been most attractive for the disposal of deceased slaves and poor relations.
Unaware, or unimpressed, Savannah built and grew over the bones of her dead. And, legend has it, while the dead may not have much, what they have, they prefer to keep to themselves. That plot of soil, that shading tree, that quiet spot that represents their entire domain on Earth. Disinterred, or only subsumed, the dead of Savannah who for whatever reasons did not make it into the crypts and graves of Colonial Cemetery or Bonaventure, are today our foundations and our roadbeds and our playgrounds. Unlike a catacomb beneath a European city, where the dead lie in hallowed ground, many of the dead of Savannah’s past lie in harrowed ground, beneath our houses and stores and streets.
This, our tour guide Chris informed us, was one of reasons Savannah has earned its “most haunted” distinction. Perhaps not the only one (given the colorful past of the city), but certainly one that makes the Savannah a productive vicinity for the avid ghost-watcher.
As a community planner, I have considered this situation with some wry amusement and frustration. The problem with planned communities is that the design – while practical, logical or even brilliant, at the time it is created – never outlives its creator. Unforeseen and ever-changing economies and technologies (plumbing, cars, communal hives, jumpbooths, what-have-you) can change the definition of what constitutes a “good” city. Planned cities invariably become outmoded in design. It is difficult to expand or adapt the original pattern without ruining the original purpose and function of the design, and the new technologies may make even the core premise invalid.
Without exception, every “planned community” I have seen – Savannah, DC, Columbia, Greenbelt and Reston to name some familiar examples – has worked excellently when first created, and today fails miserably to perform the basic natural functions of cities because it could not (or would not) accommodate growth into its matrix and design. Such cities, if they are to survive, must take drastic steps – massive programs like retrofitting subways, vast re-designs of communities and streets. Sometimes, though, the effort is too great or the problem too large.
Thus, Greenbelt’s “commercial center” is a slum of underutilized shops; and DC’s circles, despite the Metro, are a nightmare of gridlock (arc-lock?); and Savannah, my own dear little town, is haunted by the unquiet spirits of its dishonored dead. And this is not “sometimes” or “maybe”, I have come to realize this is the fate of all planned cities – abandonment of the plan, or unintended consequences of the plan, or the utter failure of the plan.
While it has been the goal of planners to design strategically – crafting grand designs for the City of Tomorrow – I maintain that this is a mistake. Cities must be allowed to grow organically, guided in the short term according to the best standards available at the moment. The goal should be to “do what seems good now”. Sacrificing any least element of an immediately beneficial urban project in the name of long-term benefits will (and has) turn out badly in the long run.
Planning professionals (indeed, all community leadership) should strive for tactical functionality, working to meet the present need with the best of the current technologies, rather than seeking after grand strategies that will ultimately result in a city full of unquiet ghosts.