Natchez can learn from other’s history
If Savannah, Ga., could offer Natchez a piece of advice, I bet it would be this — beware of those who want to give away your greatest resource.
Last week, I visited what is arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the country. Visited by 5.5 million visitors each year, Savannah is filled with attractions ranging from the birthplace of Girl Scouts founder Julliete Gordon Low to the oldest standing railroad roundhouse in the country. The city is also home to the Savannah School of Art and Design, one of the country’s premiere private design colleges that has preserved many of the city’s large unused buildings and has transformed the city with its hip crowd of college students. Anthropologie, J. Crew and Panera Bread Company have recently opened stores in downtown.
Savannah parks are the heartbeat of the city. Everywhere you walk in the historic part of Savannah there are small squares of varying sizes filled with brick paths and park benches shaded by Spanish moss draped live oaks.
It was this way from the beginning, thanks to James Oglethorpe, a founder of the Georgia colony who created a masterplan in 1733 that divided the town up into wards, each with a central park or square. Oglethorpe started with six wards and six parks. More than 250 years later, his plan has expanded to 24 wards.
Today, the parks are treasured by residents and tourists, but it wasn’t always that way.
In the 1950s, three parks seen more as a nuisance than an asset were destroyed to make way for progress. City leaders began to chip away at the historic squares to make way for a highway and other urban renewal projects. In 1953, Ellis Square, one of the four original squares, was replaced with a parking structure.
Ellis had previously functioned as one of the city’s major market areas. In addition to being a market for general goods, it was also the location of slave auctions before Gen. Sherman’s March to the Sea.
The parking garage destroyed the area and disrupted the urban fabric of the city. Property values languished and tourists avoided the neighborhood. The move by the city was a mistake in the eyes of residents, who organized to make sure other parks in Savannah didn’t suffer a similar fate.
In 2010, the city demolished the parking structure and replaced it with a new park built on top of an underground garage. The park is now a site for popular concerts and events. A new hotel and businesses have since invested in the area. Property values rose and tourists once again flock to Ellis Square.
What does this have to do with Natchez? In recent years, city leaders have discussed the possibility of selling or giving away one of Natchez’s greatest resources — its bluff. Like the squares in Savannah, the Mississippi River bluff is the one thing makes our community unique.
In 2007, the city sold part of the bluff to condominium developers, whose plans were eventually rejected by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Now the city is developing plans to turnover a strip of land for a new farmers’ market, state extension service office and demonstration gardens.
Given Savannah’s experience with Ellis Square, does it make sense for Natchez to give away one of the community’s most valuable pieces of land? Instead of giving away the bluff, why don’t we use it to enhance the city and surrounding neighborhoods?
Are we ready to risk making the same mistake Savannah made?
Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.