Charleston, Savannah comparisons

The following facts and figures for the Charleston and Savannah areas are from the 2010 U.S. Census and 2011 Army Corps of Engineers Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center.

Population: Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester: 664,607; Bryan, Chatham and Effingham: 347,611

Median household income: Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester: $52,034; Bryan, Chatham and Effingham: $56,524

Square miles: Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester: 2,592; Bryan, Chatham and Effingham: 1,362

Total port trade in tons: Charleston: 17,916,618; Savannah: 35,459,297

It's perhaps no surprise that cities that historically have shared the same families, feared the same natural disasters and fought the same enemies would be spoken of as sisters.

That once was the case with Charleston and Savannah, but things have changed.

No one seems to know why they are not referred to as sisters anymore. Nor can they put a finger on the last time they heard them spoken of that way.

To be sure, the two cities, scarcely 100 miles apart, have never had identical interests. A glaring example, that perhaps stretches back to the days of King Cotton, is each one's desire to have its port be the preferred one.

But surely there must be more to it than that.

Historic ties

The two cities have co-existed for nearly 300 years, Hugh Golson, a Savannah historian and educator said. It was with South Carolina's help that Savannah and Georgia got their start. That's why major streets in downtown Savannah are named for South Carolinians.

Johnson Square is named for S.C. Gov. Robert Johnson. Col. William Bull, South Carolina lieutenant governor, acting governor, and a trained surveyor, helped Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, Georgia's founder, to lay out the Savannah plan and Bull Street is named for him.

Oglethorpe already had the now-famous model with its green squares, but when it came to putting it in place, Bull provided significant assistance.

"The St. Julians and Bryans and others mostly sent teams of trained slaves," Golson said. "They were sawyers and carpenters sent to make cabins and gates. This was during the 17 years when Savannah could not have slaves.

"They were quite helpful, but it wasn't all charity. It was to Carolina's advantage to put some English folk between them and hostile Spain (in Florida). That was where the threats to Charleston were coming from.

"Of course, Charleston was the older sister giving advice and expertise," he said. "Sometimes it scolded. I think we still look to each other for advice and counsel."

Appeal, preservation

There has long been different opinions among diverse groups as to which city is more visually appealing, Golson said.

"The subject would make for an interesting contest."

Both cities have suffered losses of valuable features, Golson said. Savannah lost almost 50 percent of its downtown area to automobile traffic and Charleston suffered a major fire and regular bombardment during the Civil War.

Evan Thompson, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, said Savannah has lost a lot more buildings to fires than Charleston, but he compares the cities in other terms.

"One is not more attractive than the other. They are more interesting as a contrast," Thompson said.

"Charleston is very much a low-lying city, whereas Savannah sits up on a bluff, and its position is much more inland. Charleston looks more out onto the ocean. Savannah was laid out on very neat grids with the squares at regular intervals as open green parks. The entire city reads as an open grid."

Charleston's earliest walled city was a grid, but later streets followed the terrain more and were laid out at different angles, Thompson said. Savannah's streets are wider with service alleys behind major thoroughfares.

"Charleston planned for protection because it was not naturally protected as Savannah was," he said.

It's more challenging to see the impact of historic preservation in Savannah because the city is so spread out.

"One important thing to note is that the Savannah College of Art and Design has been a been a major catalyst for preservation in Savannah and has taken a creative approach to adaptive use of old buildings," Thompson said.

SCAD is a decentralized school that has put its imprint around the town. One example is the railway building art gallery. The college's Museum of Art is in an 1856 Greek Revival structure that once was home to the Central of Georgia Railway headquarters.

Tourism

"Savannah has done well in tourism across the recent recessions," Golson said. "People keep coming back with new and innovative start-up ideas," such as the town's pedal bars, in which six to eight people sit at a rolling bar, complete with a designated driver.

The tourism industry is always looking to see how it can be more unique and developing more niche tours.

"The Davenport House (a museum operated by the Historic Savannah Foundation) does sunrise tours. You might catch a tour before you go to work."

Some things, such as the book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" have had rejection and acceptance, said Walter J. Fraser, who wrote "Charleston! Charleston! The History of a Southern City," and is currently writing "Savannah in the New South."

"I don't think the old Savannahians like that book at all," he said of John Berendt's novel. "They just refer to it as 'the book.' But the Realtors really embraced it because it brought in a large number of people who began to rehabilitate properties."

Thompson said people who come to Charleston are drawn here simply because they want to see the beautiful city.

After "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and "Forrest Gump," that was not the case for Savannah.

"Savannah had this whole persona as a mysterious city of odd people sort of wandering the streets. Either they came looking for it (that image of Savannah) and not finding it or the city had to make an effort to show the city was more than that."

Thompson applauds Savannah's decision to stop considering whether to host cruise ships. He said the controversy surrounding Charleston's cruise industry is partly responsible for Savannah's decision.

"They don't want to be completely consumed by it," Thompson said.

Most livable

As a hometown, Thompson said, Charleston offers its residents more amenities.

"The compactness of the city makes it so much more accessible. They can bike and walk relatively short distances. Broughton Street (Savannah's answer to King Street) is coming along. Both cities have busy markets."

Resident attitudes

"I think each wants to stand out by themselves," Fraser said. "There is a ditty about Savannah. When you meet someone in Savannah, allegedly they say, 'Well, nice to know you. What do you drink?' In Charleston, they probably say: 'Who are your people?' "

As for Charleston being thought of as the 'Holy City' and Savannah the 'party town,' " Golson responded:

"Holy City? I thought that was Savannah," he said. People who make Savannah out to be a party town focus on one small part of the population, he said.

"That is not the general theme of Savannah. It got that reputation because of a few books."

Charleston has always been its older sister, giving advice. But long after Savannah's founding, when it got a sizeable German community, it copied its organization from Charleston's German Friendly Society. It was the same with the Hibernians.

When Savannah became alarmed about losing all of its old buildings, it looked to Charleston, Golson said.

"Historic Savannah grew out of Historic Charleston. Charleston always seemed to be our model.

"We even followed Charleston's mistake," Golson added. "We planted Chinaberry trees."

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.