River Street — is it really a street?

Recently on Facebook, a friend of mine asked about places to eat breakfast downtown. A mutual friend suggested Huey’s, but then added the qualification that Huey’s is on River Street so might not be considered “downtown.”

How did this happen to River Street?

For a couple centuries it was the key street for Savannah commerce, it marks the northern edge of the city, the buildings are among Savannah’s oldest and most historically significant. But since Savannah began to promote itself as a tourist destination, River Street has slowly transformed in the minds of natives, newcomers, and visitors. Most of the time, when we say the words “River Street,” we’re not talking about the street at all, but about some broader vision of a tourist destination that has separated itself in many minds from the rest of downtown.

About a decade ago, several civic moves reinforced the separation.

For the big St. Patrick’s Day celebration, River Street was gated and those who wanted to drink outside had to purchase wristbands. Both of those policies have been changed (more on that in an upcoming post), but the idea was clear: River Street is not like the rest of downtown. And take a look a this glowing article from the Savannah Morning News about the shift to one-way traffic in 2002 . When I moved here in 1995, there was two-way traffic on River Street AND on-street parking. In my first few years, I regularly drove down there with friends for dinner, and we had pretty good luck finding parking on the street. We could approach River Street from any of the ramps and turn left or right as needed. But the shift to one-way with no parking changed all that — I immediately noticed that other locals and I were going down there less. River Street businesses, so fixated on the tourist market, didn’t seem to notice. Obviously, the switch to one-way traffic was especially damaging to the west end of River Street, since the only point of vehicular entry is way down at MLK.

At night, River Street still takes on a local flavor, at least in some pockets. A few restaurants have dedicated local patrons, and bars like Chuck’s and Live Wire are overwhelmingly patronized by local repeat customers. But for many, River Street seems almost off-limits. And I’ve spoken with lots of tourists over the years who were actually disenchanted with River Street, which was the first place that they were told to go, only to be re-enchanted by the city once they started walking the squares.

For what it’s worth, it seems like those in charge of promoting business along River Street are doing a pretty good job — they are playing to the needs of the businesses that rely on steady tourist traffic.

Is there a way to reintegrate River Street more effectively with the rest of downtown? I think the Bohemian Hotel has pointed us in some interesting directions. Its rooftop bar has been a big favorite of locals — even though those locals don’t usually set foot on River Street itself, they get to enjoy the expansive views. Why haven’t other hotels taken similar advantage of their rooftops? Pedestrian access is key too. Until a pedestrian was killed trying to cross at Bay and Jefferson streets, the city balked at having a crosswalk at that intersection, even though it was one of the key points for foot traffic to flow from City Market to River Street. With Ellis Square now open and the World War II Memorial on River Street, there’s a north-south line of cultural activity from River Street, across Bay, to Ellis and Telfair squares, all the way to the current civic center site. We could also look again at the changes to the traffic patterns that discouraged local visitors.

My favorite time to go to River Street is on weekday evenings. Sometimes massive cargo ships slip magically by. The river itself is soothing, and the eye can’t help but wander to the horizon or to the bridge. It’s a magnificent scene. Every time I’m there, I tell myself that I should come down more often.

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