IF SOMEONE had told me a couple of years ago that I would hop out of bed on a perfectly gorgeous Saturday morning to spend several hours inside talking about traffic roundabouts, I'd have snorted chai latte out of my nose.
But there I was last weekend taking the steps of the Civic Center two at time, eager as a bunny set loose in a salad to attend the Neighborhood Leadership Training workshop hosted by the City of Savannah. And I didn’t even know about the snacks.
Representing my ‘hood as Vice-President of the Lee Olin Heights Neighborhood Association, I figured this would be where I learned what the hell it is that the second-in-command of a neighborhood association actually does. I envisioned team-building exercises and Lesley Knope-level binders.
I was also kind of hoping for an official badge, or possibly just one of those nifty armbands that hall monitors wear.
After perusing a lovely buffet of breakfast sandwiches, I slid in next to interim LOHNA president David Tanner, a 30-something new dad who lives down the street from me and has a contagious enthusiasm for community engagement. Our neighborly association has been laying low for a while, and it is David who recently reminded me of my official duties.
It’s part of my job to report on such matters, but I didn’t personally enter the deeper realms of civic nerdery until a couple of years ago, when some out-of-town developers erected some questionably zoned and undeniably hideous Towers of Terror near my house.
It was then that I realized that complaining loudly isn’t a super effective tool for change—unless you’re doing it in front of the people who can help.
The City had structured the workshop on that very idea: Delegates from every department, from the police to sanitation to traffic engineering to Crimestoppers to the catch-all 311 network, presented themselves on their day off—in business casual, no less—for a no-holds-barred Q&A sesh.
“This is the way work gets done,” rallied Mayor Pro Tem Van Johnson from the podium. “Information is power!”
He echoed the prevailing political battle cry that Savannah is “the most wonderful city in the world,” adding the caveat, “we have drama and issues like any other.”
Oh yes, Savannah has its own special kind of drama. Not every municipality is lucky enough to have its police chief put away for racketeering or have its poverty rate hover stubbornly at 28 percent, after all.
And come on, it isn’t everywhere that legal consultants give themselves 1000 percent raises with taxpayer money. Y’all know I have boundless love for this city and its people, but Spongebob’s Bikini Bottom utopia it is not. (It is, however, the only location for the Census 2015 Test in the Eastern U.S. Have you filled out yours yet?)
I expected hot topics, but as staff steeled themselves for an onslaught, it became evident that the spiciest things happening here were the chicken biscuits. (Of the 60 or so attendees, David and I were the only ones who didn’t qualify for AARP membership.)
To listen to the softballs lobbed to the line of city employees, you’d think our most pressing problems are illegal tire dumping and precarious tree limbs.
We learned about the complex process of how to remove an abandoned car from a public street. Someone demanded to know whether ice cream trucks could be banned.
Lulled by the cordiality and free carbs, I forwent my question on why we can’t sue the shit out of greedy developers and instead asked about the new traffic calming structures near Habersham Village.
Maybe being a good neighborhood leader means knowing when not to make a scene.
Sweating your neighborhood’s small stuff may seem like micromanagement, a form of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. But there’s something to be said for discussing on-the-ground solutions for your personal, particular section of Savannah instead of having another hopeless conversation about the systemic apathy and buck-passing that seem to prevent the Big Problems from ever reaching resolution.
These smaller concerns might be less sexy, but they’re just as valid as daytime drive-by bullet showers and failing schools, especially if there’s a creepy ice cream van broken down in front of your house.
And because these tiny, manageable issues were brought to the attention of the City via organized groups, they’re the ones that will get addressed.
“The neighborhoods that have a structured voice are the ones that get things done,” explained Ashley Helmholdt of Neighborhood Services. “We’re here to help train and build civic engagement skills, but you guys have all the power.”
But are we taking full advantage of that empowerment potential? Of more than 100 recognized neighborhoods in Savannah, only 22 showed up at Saturday’s training, including Tatumville, Baldwin Park and Sylvan Terrace. Notably absent were reps from the otherwise active associations in Ardsley Park, Kensington Park and Gordonston.
Totally forgivable, because Saturday.
Perhaps if the leadership training had been held on a different day with less attractive weather, it would have been better attended. Maybe some people have given up on the official channels or just plain given up.
Yet some of y’all are creating bigger solutions by dissolving the boundaries: After months of bullets flying around the streets, citizens of Gordonston are aligning with Victory Heights, Sunset Park and other nearby neighborhoods as the Eastside Alliance to share crime statistics and mount a demand for a police precinct (the closest one is currently on Whitemarsh Island.)
Reaching out with a geographic and socioeconomic antenna, Emergent Savannah seeks to affect political change by bringing the city’s disenfranchised—and habitual non-voters—into the fold.
Hell, maybe a few more of you will challenge the status quo by running for city council.
The rest of us don’t need no stinkin’ badges to lead. We just have to show up for our neighbors, complain to the right people and not be too proud to sweat the small stuff.