A gracious Southern city whose picturesque boulevards are adorned with statuary of its heroes. A bustling riverfront. Ghosts of the past, whose stories seem to come alive within the walls of grand old historic homes. Tourists everywhere.
Welcome to Savannah, Ga.
It was that "tourists everywhere" part that probably tipped you off. If it weren't for that, surely I could be talking about Richmond.
After a day trip this summer to Savannah while spending a week in Hilton Head, I left feeling frustrated. At every stop along our historic trolley tour, I found myself comparing this lovely but imperfect city to our own, and my conclusion was that Richmond had it all over Savannah, which attracts nearly 7 million visitors each year. So why was this town crawling with tourists willing to shell out $25 per ticket to take an hour-and-a-half trolley tour?
How is it that one Southern city with rich history, stunning architecture, stranger-than-fiction characters, spooky cemeteries and great restaurants can become a tourist mecca while another with those same qualities becomes a quick stop off I-95 on the way to somewhere else? (According to the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, 5.75 million visitors came here last year.)
On our trolley tour that day, there was not a place or sight or piece of history that Richmond couldn't equal or outdo. All the spookiness of the so-called most haunted city in the United States? We've got Edgar Allan Poe and Hollywood Cemetery. They have their town squares; we have Monument Avenue. They have Paula Deen; we have Stella Dikos. They have their Victorian section; we have the Fan. They boast about the Owens-Thomas house, designed by architect William Jay. We have a state capitol designed by T.J. They are still capitalizing 20 years later on the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. One book! We've got, what, 11 Kay Scarpetta books?
And we can clean Savannah's clock on history, from the early settlements at Henricus to Patrick Henry to our unequalled importance during the Civil War.
So what does Savannah have that Richmond doesn't? As it turns out, three key things.
Spanish moss: Dogwoods simply can't give Richmond the Gothic spookiness that Savannah has thanks to this beautiful air plant that hangs evocatively from the Southern Live Oaks that line every boulevard.
Location: There's just no getting around the fact that Savannah benefits from being so close to beaches like Hilton Head, which is only an hour away. Living in Richmond, the mountains, beaches and D.C. may be very convenient to us, but while vacationing in the mountains, beaches or D.C., Richmond, at one-and-a-half to two hours away, isn't exactly convenient for the spontaneous side trip.
Identity: While there is nothing we can do about our location, there is something we can do about sharpening our identity as a city. Still, it seems somehow easier to shift land masses and move our city than to figure out who we are, despite the Denver-based branding efforts I discussed last month.
Touristy cities like Savannah don't seem to have that problem. It's decided to be the Southern Belle, all charm and hospitality. So if Savannah and Charleston are the Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler of cities, if Pigeon Forge, Tenn., is Dolly Parton, if Memphis is young, sexy Elvis, and Vegas is drug-addled, bloated Elvis, who exactly is Richmond?
The truth is, we are probably Robert E. Lee — fascinating, complex, steeped in history and personal conflict. But how do you sell that?
It might just be easier to be Minnie Pearl.