From punk rockers and police officers to palm-frond peddlers, Andrea Goto and Michelle Karner invite perfect strangers to air out Savannah’s social issues. Photos by Angela Hopper.
Spend five minutes perusing social media and you will likely come to one of two conclusions. One: nothing compares to a running dachshund dressed as a teddy bear. And two: old-fashioned human decency has gone the way of the VCR. Assuming the two are not related, we’re particularly concerned with the latter.
We want to believe that most people are predisposed to kindness. That we seek to do the right thing most of the time. And that we appreciate a funny dog video more than a public flogging. Most of all, we want to believe this about the people in our community. And yet …
For every one person publically thanking our teachers, police officers and politicians, there seem to be 20 more throwing venom-tipped darts in 140 words or less. But where are the suggestions for change? Where is the understanding? Where’s the humanity?
Rather than poll the public on Facebook, we’re engaging in a face-to-face social experiment. We’re spending a few hours on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Wright Square, inviting passersby to share a bench—and a few ideas to change the city for the better.
Meet our guests
Anthony McDaniel and Rebekah Beumel, who have been dating for more than two years, are first-time visitors from Orlando, Florida.
Angela Mosely is a native Savannahian and substitute teacher. She has a 16-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son.
Alex Holloway, and his girlfriend, Christine Bishop, are both Savannah natives. Alex belongs to the punk rock band Ramba Ral and tends a parking booth on River Street. Christine is an artist.
James Pringle came to Savannah by way of Virginia “many years ago.” He’s a regular in Wright Square, where he sells his palm roses.
Thomas Sullivan has been a Savannahian all his life. The former furniture store owner operates Sullivan Rental Properties. He’s married and has two daughters.
Unsure of how this whole experiment will go down, we choose our first victims carefully. Anthony McDaniel and Rebekah Beumel are snuggled up on a nearby bench, with the look of open curiosity that only tourists have.
Savannah Magazine: What are your first impressions of our city?
Anthony: I do like that you can drink down here. That’s a really cool feature of the city.
SM: We get that a lot. But you get used to it, then go to another city and forget. That’s not so good. What do you do back home?
Anthony: I’m a deputy sheriff.
SM: Uh-oh (laughter).
Rebekah: It’s okay, he’s really cool.
SM: What have y’all been up to today? Any strange encounters?
Rebekah: Everyone has been really nice. But compared to Florida, pretty much everyone is nice. We aren’t known for friendliness.
SM: Well, we have our issues. Crime is something we’ve been talking a lot about lately.
Rebekah: Is it bad here?
Anthony: To be honest with you, we saw a kid breaking into a car our first night here. He looked in the car and put a dud key into the door, and when he saw me, he took off. But there were police everywhere, so we just walked to the next block, told a cop, and he radioed it in.
Rebekah: He’s always aware, and I’m just oblivious.
SM: So you’re always safe, and he’s always in danger? (Laughter)
Anthony: Exactly! But I have to say that it feels like a safe city to me. One thing you all do have a good control over is panhandling.
Rebekah: In Orlando, people get in your face. You can’t go anywhere.
Anthony: We’re almost expected to give money, but here we haven’t been asked for money once.
We think this might be our chance to ask for money, but we don’t want to tarnish their impression of Savannah.
About two minutes and one brisk rejection later, we catch the attention of Angela Mosley, who’s on her way to pick up her parents from a restaurant, but—true to her Savannah roots—doesn’t mind a polite stop to chat with complete strangers.
Savannah Magazine: As you’re a teacher here in Savannah, what are your thoughts about our schools?
Angela: The curriculum is awesome. The students? I’ll say … challenging. They’re sociable. But they’re a good group of children. I enjoy working with them.
SM: Growing up, what schools did you attend?
Angela: I went to Gadsden Elementary first, Juliette Low, Myers, Johnson for two years, and I graduated from Windsor Forest.
SM: How do the schools compare today?
Angela: The teachers have a lot to deal with now because it takes a long time to get the children settled. When we were going to school, we didn’t have all that. Whatever the teachers said, that’s what we did. The teachers need to communicate with the parents, and the parents need to become more involved. I love it, though.
SM: What do you love about it?
Angela: I love working with the small ones. The middle school ones are trying to find themselves and the high school ones already know everything.
SM: What keeps you in this area?
Angela: This is a nice area to raise children. You have crime, but every place you go, you’re gonna have crime. Atlanta is too fast, too wild for me. But you can’t find a real nice job that pays something here. I have a master’s degree in criminal justice. But the school system offers me flexibility, whereas a job in criminal justice wouldn’t give me the time to go to my son or daughter’s school and do the extracurricular activities.
SM: Why did you move to Pooler?
Angela: They say it’s cooler in Pooler! (Laughs.)
SM: But is it?
Angela: Yeah. They got a lot. They have the Tanger Outlets and all sorts of businesses out there. I love it out there.
SM: What do you see as some of Savannah’s biggest challenges?
Angela: I hope they come up with a solution for the crime rate. I just pray that they take control of that.
SM: Lots of people are talking about it, but in your experience, is crime worse now?
Angela: It’s kind of off and on. You know, it starts up, then dies down, then it’ll start up again. I don’t know what’s going on. It hasn’t affected me, thank God for that.
SM: Do you think the police force is doing what it can?
Angela: I believe they’re doing a good job, but the community needs to learn to trust them again. We need collaboration between the officers and the people of the community.
A young man with a tennis-ball-green shock of hair catches our eye. We hazard a guess that he’s a SCAD student, but we’re surprised to find that both Alex Holloway and his girlfriend, Christine Bishop, are native Savannahians—and easily swayed to stop and sit awhile.
Savannah Magazine: You’re a musician? Tell us about Savannah’s music scene.
Alex: It’s getting bigger. It used to be very small. There’s more of a metal scene. There are a lot more producers and shows. It’s still mostly just people in houses starting their own labels.
SM: Where’s your favorite place to perform?
Alex: The Jinx. But there are a lot of house shows. SCAD students rent these huge houses we can play in. If you’re underage, you can’t be in a bar and listen to music anymore. When I was growing up, there were tons of venues you could be in when you were 18; you just wouldn’t drink. They’d put an “X” on your hand. But now, I think that the old money in Savannah is worried about lawsuits.
SM: What are some of your favorite local bands?
Alex: There’s this new band—I think they’re a couple of SCAD kids—called the Anxiety Junkies. There’s Crazy Bag Lady, and they’ve got one of their production companies, Dad Joke. Those are the people I’ve been trying to talk to, but mingling has never really been my thing. I guess I’m more outspoken than the rest of my band members, unless they’re drinking. Then they’re an open book.
SM: (To Christine) And you’re an artist? Do you show your artwork in Savannah?
Christine: I have a piece in Los Angeles right now. I don’t really sell my stuff too often. I do some painting at The Crab Shack—some of their props.
SM: Alex, you must see a lot of things tending a parking booth on River Street.
Alex: A lot of people falling down. (Laughter.) I work during the day, but ever since they made it so you can buy alcohol on Sundays, I see people falling down all over the place. Mostly, I just spend my time reading and waiting for people to ask me the same question over and over.
SM: Which is?
Alex: “Is there any parking?” (Laughter.) You also see bodies getting pulled up out of the river. I’ve seen two or three working there. The most recent one I won’t ever forget. When the wind blew toward my face, it was the most putrid smell. You can’t forget that smell.
SM: That’s awful. Was it an accident or foul play?
Alex: I don’t know. But I will say that Savannah’s greatest challenge right now is crime. One of the guys I work with, his cousin got shot right on River Street. It’s very close.
SM: What do you think a solution would be?
Alex: That’s a good question. I don’t think cops are helping any. They’re going after small-time criminals instead of going after the bigger stuff. But it’s a difficult question. Maybe more cameras on the streets—with facial recognition, or where you can read someone’s body language to see if they’re up to no good. But then you might end up with something like Minority Report.
SM: So, you have a green Mohawk, or what would be a Mohawk with the right hair product. Do you feel like Savannah is a place where you can express yourself freely?
Alex: Oh, yeah. At work, I always get the question, “So, what’s up with your hair? Can’t you pick a color?” At my job, it doesn’t matter what I look like. There are a lot of other workplaces where that’s clearly not acceptable. But that’s not to say that people don’t judge me.
At that moment, James Pringle parks himself on a neighboring bench and begins to fold a palmetto frond.
Savannah Magazine: How long have you been selling palm roses down here?
James: I’ve been doing this for quite a while here. Going on 25 years. I teach on Wednesdays and Mondays. I don’t want to just leave and let this knowledge go. I pass it on like it’s been passed onto me. See, my grandmother showed me how to do this many years ago.
The palm will last for a long time. A rose will last for three or four days and you have to throw it away. But the palm will last forever.
SM: Do you always sell your roses in Wright Square?
James: This is the only square I come to. I don’t come to no other square and I don’t go down to that river. I’ve been coming to this square come 10 years. I’m retired and I have a pension. I just do this for gas money. I see a lot of things in this square.
This used to be the hanging square. Yeah, they used to hang ’em left and right. They hanged a lady over there and she was seven months pregnant. And her son is looking for her right now. And they’d bring slaves from the river through here. See, I can see spirits, too.
SM: Do you come here every afternoon?
James: I come late today because I had to sing at a funeral. See, I sing, too. Yeah, I sing. (Demonstrates:) “Oh, Savannah, the little city by the sea.” (To passersby:) “Hello, ladies! Come on over and look at James’s work.” (Sings, ad-libbing:) “Oh, trees and flowers, growing everywhere. Why, you come here March 17, Lord everything green. Oh, St. Patrick, doing his thing.”
(Stops singing.) Yep, my name is James Pringle, like the potato chip. But I don’t own the potato chip; that’s my daddy’s name, and I got to live with it.
SM: How much do you sell the palm roses for?
James: Just a little donation. That’s the way I sleep—I just try to do the right thing. My grandmother always told me that if I do the right thing, good things will come to me.
But see, I ain’t never had no father in my life. See, my father left me, my sister and my mother when we was very young, and went to take care of another family. And many days I cried.
(Singing:) “Oh, my flower. Oh, my flower.”
SM: How late do you stay here?
James: Some days I’m maybe here until 8 or 9. I might stay longer and rap with people for a while if they want to rap with me.
Thomas Sullivan approaches us with his Welsh corgi, Schroeder. They’re killing time while Thomas waits to pick up his wife from Levy Jewelers, where she works. He seems happy to chat while Schroeder barks maniacally at the carriage horses passing by.
Savannah Magazine: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
Thomas: Ardsley Park area. My wife and I live in Wilmington Park. We moved there about 12 years ago. It’s nice and quiet out there.
SM: You never left Savannah?
Thomas: No. I started to move to Winston-Salem, but I just couldn’t find the palm trees. (Laughter.)
SM: From your perspective, how has Savannah changed for the better over the years?
Thomas: We have a lot of nice restaurants downtown, which is great. The downtown has changed the most. It used to be boarded up—River Street used to be boarded up, too. The Telfair Museums have done a lot and the Savannah Philharmonic as well; I go to a lot of their events.
SM: What still needs improvement?
Thomas: They’re closing a lot of the neighborhoods downtown, and they’re moving them to the Southside. That’s where the crime starts. They tore down Fred Wessels, and they’re putting Section 8 housing on the Southside. But they have to find a place for people to live.
SM: What is Savannah’s biggest challenge right now?
Thomas: The government. It’s got to change. All they want to do is kiss babies and give out liquor licenses. They’re not doing anything about the communities where the crime is. They’re just talking about it.
SM: Will you stay in Savannah?
Thomas: Yes, I have a lot of roots here. (Turns to James) What is your name?
James: My name is James Pringle.
Thomas: You were married to a Watts.
James: That’s right! Emma Watts.
Thomas: She’s from Savannah. I used to be the furniture man.
James: Yeah, I remember you! You owned that furniture store. My lady tell me about you.
Thomas: I knew the whole Watts family.
James: She had a stroke. She’s at St. Joseph. I didn’t know a stroke could mess your body up so bad.
Thomas: I still see a lot of her family.
James: And you speak at a lot of funerals, don’t you?
Thomas: Yes, and I spoke at Elizabeth’s—your mother-in-law’s. I spoke at her funeral over there off Waters Avenue.
James: That’s right! I remember you.
Thomas: Savannah is small. You lived on 37th and Reynolds.
James: You got that right. That was many years ago. Yes, sir.
Thomas: Yes, sir.
James: You holler at me when you see me again, and come hang out with me and drink a little tea, and I’ll sing you a song.
Thomas: Alright, I will. That sounds good.
Seeing this small-town connection unfold, we realize that the next time we find ourselves asking, “Where’s the humanity?” we need to look around. We need to invite humanity in and listen to its story. We may not always find the answers we seek, but we’re likely to find something unexpected, and—if the square is sunny and the bench is warm—those unexpected findings might include redemption and delight.