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Year in Review: City Life
Geekend co-founder Jake Hodesh

Recycle this!

After years of neglect on the issue, the City started 2009 auspiciously with the unveiling and rapid ramp–up of a Citywide curbside, single–stream recycling program. While consumer usage initially didn’t match the City’s sense of urgency, the user side has picked up steam and is now running at about 50 percent usage — actually a pretty competitive number, nationally speaking, which amounts to about 500 tons of recyclables a month.

Will Chatham County — which calls itself the “greenest county in Georgia” but has no household recycling program — be next in line? A year–long petition drive by Citizens for Curbside Recycling has resulted in enough signatures, the group says, to ensure that the issue will be on a countywide ballot in 2010. — Jim Morekis

Notorious B.E.R.K.O.W.

One of the most surprising news stories this year came at the end of August when former Police Chief Michael Berkow announced his resignation. He left the helm of the SCMPD in order to spend more time with his son, and pursue a job at a private security firm called Altegrity, which is headed by his former LAPD boss Bill Bratton.

Berkow was a controversial choice. He was chosen in 2005 after a long, expensive search, but within a couple weeks on the job the news broke that he was involved in a lawsuit over allegations of misconduct with the LAPD.

While those charges were later dismissed, local officials were dismayed that City Manager Michael Brown didn’t let them in on the useful information about the lawsuit.

Although his three–year tenure didn’t really affect the crime rate, Berkow did successfully incorporate a lot of new technology into the police force. In the name of “modernizing” police records, he made it much more difficult for the public, particularly the media, to access public records and incident reports.

(Ironically, he also added more detailed background screenings to the process of selecting candidates for jobs on the police force.)

Prior to his departure, he came under fire from the public for his part in instituting the summer’s jaywalking crackdown, and had been battling City and County politicians over what he felt was insufficient funding necessary to run the metro police force.

Currently, the City and County are working on vetting new candidates for the chief position. There are over 50 applicants for the job, including current Interim Chief Willie Lovett. A decision is expected sometime during the summer of 2010. — Patrick Rodgers

Tackling budget woes

With just about every major revenue stream down, including property tax, sales tax and the hotel–motel tax, no one was surprised that the City was going to be looking at a deficit after several plentiful years.

Most of 2009 was spent going through a process affectionately known as Budgeting for Outcomes, looking at the priorities of the city — public safety, health, education, etc. — and trying to figure out how to spend money to get the best possible results.

As a credit to the hard work of City staff — particularly Assistant City Manager Chris Morrill (who announced last week that he’s leaving Savannah to become the City Manager of Roanoke, Va.) and his office — the City’s budget absorbed the multi–million dollar hit without having to make significant job cuts or reductions in service.
City Council formally approved the new budget at their meeting on Dec. 17, assuring that all the essential services, which keep the city functioning relatively well, will continue through 2010. While you may have to maintain the sidewalk lawn in front of your property for another year or two, or trim an overgrown shrub without the help of a city employee, the garbage will still get picked up every week and there will still be police on patrol. — Patrick Rodgers

Jaywalkers: resident evil?

Over the summer, the death of a Swedish visitor in a marked crosswalk downtown prompted the mother of all knee–jerk reactions from the City.  Rather than crack down on drivers who ignore pedestrian rights–of–way, squads of police officers on downtown corners wrote lots of very expensive tickets to pedestrians downtown instead.

Indeed, some unfortunate “lawbreakers” reported that they were issued jaywalking tickets despite the “walk” signal beginning to flash “don’t walk” in the middle of their journey across the street.

Public outrage built, provoked not only by the City’s draconian reaction but by questions of why police weren’t similarly diligent in harassing bona fide criminals. A Facebook protest group, organized by Michael Gaster, helped vector citizen activism.

As Savannah garnered negative national attention over the issue, Chief Berkow stood down his marauding platoons of ticket–writing cops, judges began dismissing the tickets out–of–hand, and the Mayor and City Council professed ignorance of how the whole thing began.

Lesson learned? Or point made? — Jim Morekis

New festivals are born

Amidst a year that will probably be remembered for recession and unemployment, it might not seem like the best time to debut a new cultural event, but as a testament to the dedication – or general imperceptiveness – of Savannah’s creative class, the city witnessed the creation of three new festivals.

In May, the Savannah Urban Arts Festival debuted with five days of events celebrating local and regional artists, including screenings, dance performances and guest appearances from community arts organizer Bill Strickland, hip hop historian Jeff Chang, and live music from Savannahians–turned–Atlantans Anthony David and Brittany Bosco, among others. During the final day, the upstart tried to join forces with eco–mainstay GreenFest, and while their attempt at diversification didn’t go unnoticed, it probably best succeeded in proving that environmentalists prefer acoustic guitar over booming beats.

In November, Savannah was treated to two more festivals that rode the coattails of the Savannah Film Festival, but highlighted an entirely different side of the city’s culture.

First came Geekend, a three–day jamboree of tech, design and social media “geeks” who had the hostess city Twittering their thumbs off. The opening night talk by infectiously personable graphic designer Aaron Draplin set the tone for the occasionally self–deprecating but always stimulating series of events. Drawing a crowd of over 500 early adopters from across the country, and hosting the only pro conference to feature an inflatable, bouncy Velcro wall, Geekend was definitely a success.

With less fanfare than usual for its more established multi–day events, SCAD snuck in its new program, the DeFINE Arts Festival, a few days later with a week’s worth of performances and panels celebrating art. While everyone was recovering from several days of Film Fest afterparties or wandering through the Telfair’s annual Art Fair, SCAD hosted events ranging from guest speakers like Art in America editor Richard Vine to the sensory overload of Nick Cave’s Soundsuit performance. There was also live music from several notable SCAD alum bands like Unsolved Mysteries in the sorely under–utilized River Club. — Patrick Rodgers

Monumental changes

‘Twas the season for major developments in public artwork during the last few months of this year.
In October, “Les Chasseurs–Volontaires de Saint–Domingue”, who had been a few soldiers short of a platoon for nearly two years, finally got some reinforcements atop the Franklin Square monument.

Celebration over the completion of the project honoring the Haitian soldiers who fought during the Revolutionary War was cut short, however, when less than a month after completion there was outcry over the faces of the last two figures. Instead of looking like the 20–something–year–olds who fought in the Revolution, the final two statues were reported to have the faces of Daniel Fils–Aime, chairman of the Haitian American Historical Society, and Rudolph Moise, one of the monument’s major donors.

The sculptor, James Mastin, admitted the pair had been models for the sculptures, but said it was their facial features, not their financial contributions, that influenced his decision.

In November, Savannah native and songwriting legend Johnny Mercer received his 100th birthday present, capping off a year’s worth of ubiquitous centennial celebrations, in the form of a new statue that stands on the western edge of Ellis Square.

The statue, sculpted by local artist Susie Chisholm, is based on an iconic photo of Mercer from the 1930s in New York City, leaning against a fire hydrant while reading a paper.

One of the great success stories this year is the restoration of the Fort in Forsyth Park. Originally completed in 1915 for Georgia National Guard training, the building had been sitting dilapidated on the eastern side of the park for decades. The renovation cost $4.7 million and when the building re–opens it will include a visitor’s center, restrooms and a cafe run by the nearby Mansion on Forsyth.

To close out the year, the City unveiled the newly restored Winged Lion statue that stands in front of the old Cotton Exchange on Bay Street. The statue was destroyed earlier this year by a drunk driver who failed to turn onto Bay from Drayton early one morning and wound up destroying a section of wrought iron fence and the iconic terra cotta beast after going airborne over the curve.

Much like the Six Million Dollar Man, we had the technology to rebuild the creature better and stronger. After an eight-month restoration, the new statue returned to its old perch in December. Made of concrete, it’s considerably more resilient. However, there’s no word on whether it was crash tested first. — Patrick Rodgers 

Hello, goodbye

In 2009 we bid farewell to a slew of longstanding businesses, many of them casualties of the recession, including:

Backus Cadillac-Pontiac... Mom & Nikki’s... Bistro Savannah... Downtown Athletic Club... Vanilla Day Spa... Metro Coffeehouse... Great Dane... Barbara Jean’s... Tanners... Dimensions Art Gallery.

But we also said a hopeful “Wassup?” to some new members of the city’s business community, including:
The Bohemian... AVIA... T-Rex Mex... Bar Food... Starship... Papilotte... Seed... El?... and Crystal Beer Parlor (again!).