The Long Pause

How Savannahians came together while staying apart

Congress Street
Empty Congress Street
Photography by Parker Stewart

The idea to Kate Greene back in March, during her second week of self-isolation: She would decorate the tree in the front yard of her Baldwin Park home, and she would invite her neighbors to decorate it, too. Greene gathered the scrap materials from her large potholder loom — cut up T-shirts, mostly — and began decorating the tree that morning.

What began with one tree and a few colorful pieces of fabric quickly evolved into three trees and a communal art installation. Visitors stopped by to admire Kate’s ribbon tree, or to hang something from its branches. Festoons of lace, garlands of yarn. Soon other items appeared, embellishments that speak to the grit and humor of Savannahians, even during a time of crisis: Mardi Gras beads, old CDs, a medal from a 10K run, Christmas ornaments, and even a Dusty Rhoades figurine, suspended in mid-air, about to smash a bionic elbow into his opponent — in this case, coronavirus.

Standing before this tree, observing its adornments, left like gifts — a hand-written note from a child, an American flag, a cross fashioned from popsicle sticks and pipe cleaner — one can’t help but feel that the future is hopeful.

In Savannah, as elsewhere, the global pandemic has brought out the best — and occasionally the worst — in all of us. Quarantine, if nothing else, has been a time of reckoning, reconsideration and reflection.

Perhaps nobody knows this better than Mayor Van Johnson, sworn into office just eight weeks before the pandemic hit. “Crisis brings about opportunity,” he says. A discernible note of pride sounds in his voice as he talks about Team Savannah, the 2,400+ city workers who have kept the city fully operational during coronavirus shutdown, despite unusual circumstances and personal risk. Johnson describes them as “heroes with invisible capes.”

“I’ve had a lot of time to think,” says Johnson. In particular, he notes, “slowing down has taught me to value the everyday accomplishments of people who don’t have titles or offices.” He receives daily calls from citizens with a simple question: “How can I help?”

Across the city, residents have stepped forward to sew and distribute masks for their neighbors; strangers have volunteered to run errands for our elderly and high-risk populations; and, thanks to community donations, a tent camp has been erected to protect our city’s homeless citizens, with the goal of providing more permanent transitional housing.

“Every day, I continue to be amazed at the love and support of Savannahians, at what Martin Luther King, Jr. called ‘the beloved community,’” Johnson notes. King’s beloved community hinges on empathy and justice; it joins us together in a common cause, one that compassionately acknowledges the value of every single citizen. “What we’re seeing right now,” says Johnson, “is the heart and soul of Savannah.” The snapshot of a city at a critical moment — not the ribbons that adorn a tree, but the tree itself.

“This pandemic has forced us all to take a moment,” says Susan Adler, president and CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation, “and this is a good thing. It’s created opportunities for collaboration that may not have happened otherwise.” The HSF, along with the Savannah Music Festival, the Savannah Jazz Festival, and the Savannah Philharmonic, among other leading arts and culture organizations, have been working collaboratively and asking vital questions: What do we want the future to look like? How can we improve? What do we value most?

“We have a choice right now, as leaders and as citizens, and it’s up to us to make a good choice,” Adler says. She’s forward-looking and pragmatic. “Good will come out of this moment. Savannah has a rich history and incredible beauty. And we must preserve it, for us and for our visitors.”

Coronavirus’s full impact on Savannah is yet to be known, but the statistics are sobering. Tourism typically represents $3 billion in visitor spending per year, and the city’s economy relies on these dollars. Joseph Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, has never witnessed such a devastating impact in his 35-year career in the hospitality and tourism industry. Hotels that usually book at 90 percent occupancy rates have seen numbers plummet to the single digits.

However, Marinelli himself is optimistic. “We’re a beautiful city and a welcoming community with terrific weather — most of the time — and an environment in which people can prosper,” he says. “We have a ‘moment in time’ here to attract visitors, home and business owners, and investors in a way we never had before.”

Slowly but surely, Savannah is emerging from its long pause. The horse-drawn carriages circle the squares once again. Music wafts through City Market. The tourists are returning. Parks are filling with joggers and picnickers, kids and dogs in tow. As Savannahians consider what this moment has meant for them and what the future might hold, the ribbon tree in Baldwin Park continues to root us to the present, and to our need for human connection, even from a distance.

“The ribbon tree brought me joy, and it brought others joy. No larger cosmic meaning,” Greene says. She plans to leave her communal installation in place until after the threat of the pandemic crisis passes. But for now, the branches of the tree sag delightfully under the weight of ribbons and relics, small tokens offering solace in uncertain times.

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