When he designed Savannah’s urban grid 260-plus years ago, General Oglethorpe knew that our common spaces would define us. Now a new generation of visionaries is taking that plan one step further. Native Zach Powers explores the city’s newest—and oldest—trend. » Photography by Beau KesterThe building on the corner of Congress and Montgomery languished for more than a decade. Warped plywood the color of wet ash covered every window. I could only imagine the rot on the inside, the dust that clung thick to every surface. Whenever I walked past, I cringed, but not at the decay. My disgust was a little more pragmatic than that. I resented the circumstances that allowed such a prime piece of real estate to waste away. When the chain link fence went up around the building last summer, I rejoiced. No, I probably won’t be shopping at the new Anthropologie on a regular basis, but I celebrate every time I see progress in Savannah. What I value more than a new shop for myself is the growth and diversification of our community. I want my city to thrive.
A Ghost TownWhen my family moved away from Savannah in 1991, I can only remember there being two establishments on Broughton Street: Levy Jewelers at one end and Welsh Pawn Shop at the other. A couple more might have lived and died in between over the years, but I’ll never know. Back then, nobody went to Broughton. There was no reason. Out of the entire Historic District, the only spot that ever warranted a visit was River Street. As a kid, I probably didn’t know that “downtown” meant anything more than the strip between Factors Walk and the river. There are several well-worn theories concerning Savannah’s stagnation and its subsequent revitalization. I’ll offer my own summary: it involved politicians and prominent residents who thought preserving the past meant preventing progress. The collapse of this regime coincided with Forrest Gump, The Book, and the rise of the Savannah College of Art and Design. That was 20 years ago, and the perfect storm of tourism and increased downtown residency allowed restaurants and boutiques to move in and, to my pleasant surprise, succeed.
Lovely But LonelyJump ahead to 2009. My teenage self wouldn’t recognize downtown Savannah. I’ve got an apartment in the heart of it all, around the corner from the current Gallery Espresso and just a short walk to dozens of restaurants and bars. The city bustles, sidewalks full of tourists, Forsyth Park dotted with sunbathers. Frisbees and footballs sail overhead. Every square plays host to its own microcosmic community. It seems ideal. But I’ve spent several years applying for jobs in other cities, looking for a way out. As much as the city has grown, I find it a hard place to be a writer. More specifically, in 2009, I’m the only writer I know. I crave a community of the literarily like-minded, the kind I’ve seen in places like Atlanta and Boston and Chicago. Not to mention New York. With each day and every ignored job application, I feel myself more isolated. More frustrated. While the city flourishes physically, local culture—from writing to music to theater—is still an abandoned storefront.
The GatheringIn 2010, I take matters into my own hands. Along with Christopher Berinato and Brian Dean, I launch the literary arts nonprofit Seersucker Live. Our goal is to establish a literary scene in Savannah, to fill cultural storefronts that had long been abandoned. And Seersucker isn’t alone. Around the same time that we’re getting started, JinHi Soucy Rand raises the curtain on Muse Arts Warehouse, a nonprofit blackbox theater on Lousiville Road, and Kayne Lanahan kicks off the Savannah Stopover Festival, bringing more indie bands to Savannah in a weekend than performed here over several years prior. Savannah’s culture erupts from paucity to glut almost overnight. Welcome to 2014. Seersucker, Muse and Stopover have connected artists with an eager audience. They helped create a community where before there had been only individuals. As these innovations become household names, I can’t help but wonder: What’s next for Savannah? Where do we grow from here? My quest for answers takes me away from downtown, to meet the people who see possibilities in unusual places.
Old Men, New ConceptCohen’s Retreat is hard to miss from Skidaway Road. The main structure reminds me of a small-town train station, its two-story entranceway flanked on either side by long, low wings. Set back from the roadway, it possesses an air of detachment from everything going on around it. When I was a kid, attending Hancock Day School’s former campus right across Skidaway, aging men would idle away afternoons on the row of benches up against the fence, facing the street. The men were the residents of Cohen’s Old Men’s Retreat, a cast of quirky characters I only ever knew by their waved greetings. That was the scene for five decades, but then Cohen’s closed its doors, and those benches sat empty for years. Every time I drove by and saw the overgrown lawn and darkened windows, I wished I had the time and inspiration necessary to reclaim the space. While the building may have been physically empty, I knew it teemed with potential. Enter Colleen Smith and Karen Langston, the founders of the new Cohen’s Retreat. They purchased the facility—the main building plus sixteen cottages and a few additional structures—two years ago, and began the process of turning it from an abandoned asylum into a creative collective. “We had seen similar settings in other, bigger cities,” says Smith, “but Savannah has so much untapped talent. We knew it was possible to bring this kind of setting.” Smith and Langston, both products of Savannah, used to visit the men who lived at Cohen’s. They share with me fond memories of the place and the people. I’m struck right away by the warmth of these women, and it truly shines as they reminisce. Their personal history allows them to see their new development as a continuation of the Retreat’s legacy. Smith can’t help but grin as she talks about her work. “This building is phenomenal. We didn’t dream we’d get the chance to be here.” I enter through the tall columns on the front porch into a cozy lobby. I’d expected something more “in progress,” but the renovations to the main building are nearly complete, and the south wing, a gallery space, has already hosted two shows. A banquet table dominates another room. The back wall is finished in wood left over from the renovation, arranged in random mosaic. Small candles rest atop the pieces of wood that jut out. Subtle touches like this abound, revealing the meticulous care with which the project has been undertaken.
If You Build ItThe space, however, is only half the work. Without someone to use it, Cohen’s would just be a big, pretty building. But creative types are already flocking to the retreat from all over the city. A couple of working craftspeople live in the cottages out back. Two designers, as well as Smith and Langston’s own business, Savannah Plush, have offices upstairs. The next gallery exhibition, featuring several area artists, is already being installed. Soon, the north wing—newly opened up into a single large room—will host lectures, classes, workshops, and more. Smith says, “We just wanted to provide a setting where the most accomplished artist can come in and go away with something, but so can someone who has never even picked up a paintbrush.” Both founders downplay their desire to engineer a community, saying instead that they want Cohen’s to grow into a living place. By welcoming creative people into their shared space, they intend to encourage its natural evolution. By the end of January, a public café will open in the main building, operated by Form’s Brian Torres. A restaurant and artists’ retreat will follow. They’ve even fixed up the shuffleboard court out back. “We wanted to open it up to all the possibilities,” Smith says. “It’s too cool to keep to yourself. We have to share this.” While the facility looks nearly finished to me, I’m told work remains to be done. Langston shows me a map that features a new patio space, vegetable and herb gardens, and a fountain to be installed out front. Many of the fully-renovated cottages are still available for rent. A few landscaping projects remain to spruce up the grounds. Even without the finishing touches, Cohen’s is already a success, and I’m excited to see how it grows over the next few years. It demonstrates that, with a little vision and a big effort, the same kind of community that developed downtown can be cultivated on Skidaway, connecting the corridor from Five Points to Sandfly. It also models a new type of space for Savannah: a shared hub where creative people can gather to innovate, socialize and live. Cohen’s is no longer a forgotten building on the side of the road; it’s the center of a new Savannah community.
“We wanted to open it up to all the possibilities,” Smith says. “It’s too cool to keep to yourself. We have to share this.”