Farmers, both black and white, came from the surrounding countryside to ship their wares off by rail. But more than a transit hub, West Broad was a cultural nexus for Savannah’s black and Jewish com- munities. In his book Sites and Sounds of Savannah Jazz, local jazz historian Julius “Boo” Hornstein remarked, “West Broad Street simply dominated the social, commercial and intellectual life of Savannah’s African-American community. I remember the lights lining the street and the bustling nightlife…To me, West Broad Street was my Casablanca and Harlem all rolled into one.” Jazz clubs shared the street with banks and groceries, filling stations and walk-up apartments.
Hornstein describes his early childhood years spent helping his parents care for soldiers departing Union Station to fight in the Second World War; his mother was a Red Cross volunteer and his father a local air raid marshall. That same conflict would enrich the musical scene on West Broad, as dozens of drafted musicians polished their musical skills and learned to read written music in military bands overseas. Later, Hornstein worked as a stock boy at Feldman’s Pawn Shop on West Broad, where he says guns, knives and other valuables were displayed twenty-four hours a day in the window, without any concern that passersby might shatter the glass and steal them. “Sixty-four years later, I can still think of the lights and the mystery of the street, the great big star on the Star Theatre and just the beautiful ambience,” he says. “The street itself was friendly, it was wide, it was safe and it was exciting.” The old West Broad Street was a cultural center for Savannah’s Jews as well as African- Americans—people like Hornstein’s second-generation immigrant parents, who operated a market at the corner of Hall and Jefferson Streets. Blacks and whites mixed to some extent, an experience young Hornstein remembers from trips with his mother’s employee, Theron Spencer, to see the boisterous baptismal parades staged by the International House of Prayer for All People. Founder Bishop “Daddy” Grace rode down the street wearing a brightly colored suit, as his disciples doused throngs of followers with fire hoses, spraying salvation and jubilation on one and all. The openness and acceptance spilled over into the jazz clubs. “West Broad Street was friendly and certainly, race was not an issue,” Hornstein recalls. “If you could play good music, it didn’t matter where you played and who you played with. What mattered was that you could play your instrument well and play good jazz.”
The phenomenon known as urban renewal hanged everything. In the 1950s and 60s, the federal government launched a massive campaign to eliminate blight, and offered millions of dollars to cities like Savannah to help usher in change that was deemed positive. According to Savannah Development and Renewal Authority (SDRA) Executive Director Lise Sundrla, the Urban Renewal Administration surveyed some of the poorer neighborhoods on and around the West Broad Street/MLK corridor and discovered that a large percentage of folks there were living in crumbling homes without plumbing on dirt streets. The feds swooped in, pockets bulging with cash, and bought dozens of homes. The results of their efforts are the huge “superblock” Kayton and Frazier Homes public housing complexes on the west side of MLK. Another result is the huge I-16 flyover that dumps thousands of vehicles onto Montgomery Street at Liberty Street every year. In one fell swoop, the flyover construction wiped nine acres of homes and businesses from the MLK corridor, and cut like a hot knife through Savannah’s historic grid pattern. Now, streets like Jones, Taylor and Charlton are bisected. “We’ve lost hundreds of business and homes, all for what they thought was progress,” Sundrla laments. “What we realize today is that even though those were well-intentioned acts, they in fact were turning their back on the history and heritage of our community and the vibrant corridor that MLK and Montgomery Street had already been.”
Now, SDRA is spearheading the effort to turn MLK around. The agency, created by the state in 1992 and funded by local government, has already authored a major success story on Broughton Street. SDRA is now entering the second decade of a carefully-crafted scheme to bring Broughton’s westside cousin back into vogue. SDRA’s plan calls for the restoration of “circular mobility”—a fancy phrase that essentially describes the ability of pedestrians and drivers to easily get where they need to go, but more than that, to create places where they want to go in the first place. Staffers have visited virtually every business along the corridor to sell them on the idea of moving buildings up to the sidewalk to restore the same pedestrian-friendly facades that exist elsewhere in the historic district. Power lines will be buried so the tree canopy can grow back. Eventually, a streetcar will run up and down the street, connecting with the Visitors Information Center and River Street. SDRA administers various government-sponsored loans that encourage businesses to locate on MLK and to restore their buildings to a historic appearance. “Let’s instead look at what creates a healthy, vibrant community and knit back the fabric of that com- munity,” Sundrla intones.
SDRA estimates there are 160 vacant lots along the MLK corridor, close to half of them owned by churches. So it makes sense for the plan to engage local churches in turning the street around. Reverend John Foster at Saint Philip AME Church wants to be part of the revolution. Built in 1911, the church’s sanctuary has seen many changes on the surrounding street. Kayton-Frazier Homes is in its backyard, and slightly mismatched bricks in the church’s façade give mute testimony to the powerful hurricanes it has weathered on more than one occasion. This time Reverend Foster is confident St. Phillip can do more than survive; he’s planning an SDRA-designed, 7,000-square-foot, $2.3 million dollar expansion that will serve as a community center for the surrounding neighborhood. Inside, Foster plans to create a place where residents of the nearby public housing projects can get job training, finish their GEDs and brush up on their computer skills. It’s a natural fit for the veteran of two decades of college computer science instruction. “Doggonit, if we’re not serving Kayton and Frazier Homes, then who will serve them?” he asks. “I think one of the worst things you can do to groups of individuals is to take away all their hope, like putting people in public housing and not giving them any opportunity to better themselves. We’re going to give them programs and opportunities to create hope where there was none before.” Already, thirty kids benefit from the church’s weekday after school program, and close to eighty percent of them walk in from Kayton-Frazier Homes.
In the midst of this decaying district, a cadre of visionary young developers have spotted an opportunity to make new profit and create an exciting future for this historic corridor.
A few blocks north, tucked just on the other side of the I-16 on-ramp, developer John Deaderick and his partner Greg Jacobs of Urban Realty Group are about midway through their own towering achievement on the MLK corridor. Centered on the thick concrete walls of the former railroad switching station on Selma and Berrien Streets, the Frogtown Condominiums rise proudly from the surrounding trees. Deaderick describes the style of the 39-unit development as “unabashedly contemporary, but still fitting the norm for how downtown Savannah was built. It’s not just taking a historic style and watering it down with contemporary details, but actually creating a new version that works within the con- text of downtown.” The condos feature molded concrete ceilings, big modern windows and rooftop terraces with breathtaking views of down- town Savannah and the Talmadge Bridge. When asked why he and Jacobs chose MLK as the location for their latest and most ambitious project, Deaderick—already well-known in Savannah for his and Jacobs’ visionary Starland development—answers candidly: “It came down to price first and foremost. We realized if we were going to build, it would have to be something on the lower end of what downtown real estate costs, the land prices have just gotten so exorbitant that this made sense. We could build something first rate that was still connected to down- town and in the landmark historic district, but at a price where people could afford to buy it.” Deaderick and Jacobs claim they’ve had no trouble attracting buyers—mostly
SCAD students for whom “price is no object.” The units are priced between $250,000 and $500,000 and are aimed at people who will make Savannah their primary residence. Deaderick believes this strategy will mean more customers for the restaurants, bars and other businesses coming to the revitalized MLK corridor. When pressed concerning whether he had second thoughts about building next to a freeway on-ramp, Deaderick brushes off the question, pointing out that the thick windows and surrounding tree canopy block out most of the noise. Besides, he adds, the city and state are probably going to tear down the flyover anyway. SDRA’s Sundrla confirms the possibility. There are already four to five other I-16 access points, including the Gwinnett Street and Louisville Road exits. Furthermore, tearing down the old eyesore would open up nine acres to development. “When you look at the fact that the city is planning on investing in a brand new arena and government center just to the west of MLK, then you suddenly realize that this becomes an important connector street that helps to get folks into Savannah and also through our NHL district and into the neighborhoods,” she adds. Just up the street, Alex Grikitis, president of the Grikitis Group, jumped at the opportunity to purchase what he describes as his favorite building in the entire historic district—a row of Victorian storefronts at the corner of Martin Luther King and West Charlton Sreet. Inside, he plans to open three restaurants—one a mid-price eatery relocating from elsewhere downtown, the second a continental fine dining establishment and the third an outdoor grill. “Five years ago when I started working in Savannah, I told my dad to buy some properties over here with me and he said, ‘you’re crazy—that area’s never going to turn around,’ and now it’s the new boom,” Grikitis explains. “I think it’s going to revitalize and become one of the nicest streets in Savannah again. It’s that little hidden gem in Savannah that people don’t realize.”
West Savannah stalwart Richard Shinhoster has recognized the potential of the MLK corridor for decades. He operated a record store on West Broad near the intersection with Gaston Street through- out the 1970s—a store he was forced to close when the development of the Southside and the opening of Oglethorpe Mall drew away his customers. “There was an abandonment of this area,” he laments. “There was definitely a decline.” But rather than sell out and follow the business, Shinhoster stubbornly hung on to his little piece of Savannah history, and recently opened a new business at the same location. The Diaspora Marketplace brings people from all over the world to browse Shinhoster’s eclectic collection of African art, carvings and masks—a trend he hopes will expand to include the rest of the corridor south of Gaston Street. “It’s just been phenomenal in terms of the growth north of Gaston Street,” he exclaims. “What we’re looking to see happen next is growth south of Gaston and Gwinnett Streets. I always believed there would be a renaissance in this area. When that happened we wanted to a part of it, so we held on until that happened.”
Shinhoster has added his voice to the chorus of those calling for the removal of the big I-16 flyover that has blocked access to nine acres of developable land on MLK. His support means more than most, since the overpass bears the name of his brother, the late civil rights leader Earl Shinhoster, who was killed in an auto accident in 2000. Since Richard Shinhoster is also the longtime president of the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), he has been looked to speak for the neighborhood’s black community as well as the businessmen and developers clamoring for the flyover’s demise. “I think [Earl] would be in agreement,” Shinhoster says. “That flyover has been a source of division on this corridor, and it needs to come down to join this corridor together.”
Rarely does any project—development or renew- al—engage and unite as many disparate groups behind a single cause. And in the racially-charged South, a street like West Broad/Martin Luther King could just as easily divide Savannahians as bring them together. Yet, in this long-neglected corridor, young white developers have joined forces with long-time black community leaders and government planners to chart a new course that will, hopefully, carry all of them toward a brighter future.