How the G-8 Summit passed Savannah by
The 'Belle of Georgia' had hoped to preen - but not just for crowds of law enforcement.
In 1864, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his Union troops swept into Savannah. They'd burned Atlanta to the ground, but General Sherman, at the end of his "March to the Sea," found Savannah so beautiful that he telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln on Dec. 22, offering him the city as a Christmas present.
Now, modern hordes are sweeping through a town best known for its easy-going pace and antebellum homes. Just about everyone with a Georgia law-enforcement badge seems to have come, in a rush to protect President Bush and the seven other heads of state meeting for the G-8 Summit on nearby Sea Island. National Guard troops prowl the streets in Humvees. Helicopters hover over the moss-covered Spanish oaks. Local businesspeople, lacking proper credentials, are chased off the streets.
And the city, as a result of weeks of warnings about terrorism, protests, and curfews, is shut down tighter than a pecan shell. Of course, this is not the way local officials envisioned it. They saw it as a way to put Savannah on the map and show off some of that famous Southern hospitality.
"The event on Sea Island is a very private affair, but the opportunity from an economic-development standpoint, from a tourism standpoint, is here with the press," says Glenn Cornell, a commissioner with the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade & Tourism.
The hope was to showcase Savannah's fine restaurants with their "low country" cuisine, to show off the local art school as it makes a name for itself in the animation business, and, perhaps, interest the world in its museum displays, from "Forrest Gump's bench" to a statue from the 1999 book, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
But instead of meeting the locals, the media are meeting mainly law-enforcement officials. The exact number wandering the streets is a secret. But Bucky Burnsed, the city's public information officer for the police, calls it a "boo-koodle" - a local word for "an awful lot of 'em."
The law enforcement presence has cooled many local people on the idea of venturing outdoors. On Monday night, Theresa Lupica, manager of Bistro Savannah, scanned a mostly empty restaurant. "This is not normal," she says, serving a low-country crabcake.
The next morning, Wilfredo Chavez is getting ready for his breakfast regulars at the Soda Pop Shoppe. But as preparations for the summit have geared up, his business has slowed down, and he's not expecting the usual crowd. "Maybe this will be good for the future," he says, "but I think [residents] are all scared that something is going to happen."
In fact, the city has been beset with rumors - most of them false. Ms. Lupica heard that the local Banana Republic boarded up its store. (It didn't.) There was a rumor that three of the most sought-after terrorists had been captured here. (If that's true, it hasn't made the news.) Then there was a story that 60,000 protesters planned to shut down Savannah - something that even city officials must have believed, since they've fenced off key public buildings.
If there are any protesters here, they're taking a relaxed approach. On Tuesday morning, a protest march was scheduled. Camera crews and photographers showed up at Forsyth Park. But there was only a handful of protesters there - well outnumbered by the media. "This should not have happened," said William Pleasant, one of the organizers as he pointed to the empty lawn. "The police have been obnoxious, stopping people and harassing them."
Mr. Pleasant is quick to point out that Savannah could be a magnet for terrorism. There are liquefied natural gas facilities, chemical plants, and pipelines. But, he says, his group only wants to protest - not blow anything up.
The police, for their part, say they're just trying to avoid a recurrence of the tear gas and rioting Seattle saw when the World Trade Organization met there. "You won't be able to say we weren't prepared," says Mr. Burnsed. "If we survived Sherman, we'll survive this."