A decade before the Civil War in America, one of Europe’s leading landscape architects retired from his job overseeing royal gardens in Germany and crossed the Atlantic to visit his daughter who had married into a leading Savannah family.

Upon disembarking in the Hostess City, William Bishoff took up a new project at the behest of the town elders: transforming 20 acres of land then at Savannah’s southernmost fringe into its first park.

The undertaking, inspired by urban design projects then fashionable in Paris and London, became Forsyth Park, named after a former Georgia governor and U.S. secretary of state. The park’s luxuriant tree canopy, fountain, paths and flowers quickly won national renown for “their modesty, simplicity and unique conservation of the native forest pine,” according to historian Charles C. Jones Jr.

Some 130 years later, Forsyth, like Georgia itself, has changed utterly. A space originally designed for white citizens has turned into a unique refuge for all Savannahians. Among the birdwatchers, nappers, basketball players and chitchatters, Forsyth epitomizes the city itself: diverse, bohemian, dynamic and hospitable.

Now, the park is at another crossroads. A group of longtime residents, led by members of the private Trustees’ Garden Club, has commissioned a new master plan to preserve the park’s flora and fauna, build new facilities to improve its basic services. They hope the city will adopt their blueprint aimed at protecting a cherished legacy for future generations.

At first, the club worked quietly on the project dubbed Friends of Forsyth, spending approximately $100,000 to map the park trees and conduct a topographical survey — basic data the city was lacking. Last fall, the Friends of Forsyth solicited public opinion about the park, and hired a Virginia-based landscape firm to draft a new vision.

Friends of Forsyth

The first renderings, however, have spurred an animated and sometimes rancorous debate, with conversations about parking and playgrounds as synonyms for community values and identity. Some residents are thrilled that a group has taken initiative to manage a precious asset when city government is, more often than not, mired in gridlock. Others mistrust the Trustees’ Garden Club’s goal of restoring the historic integrity of the park. They worry that such efforts would re-brand Forsyth with an eye on tourist dollars and minimize Black voices and neighborhood community concerns.  

Eleanor Rhangos, who grew up on East Hall Street just a few hundred feet from Forsyth and whose roots in Savannah stretch back generations, says she and the other members of the Trustees’ Garden Club have received 2,300 responses to their survey about community preferences at the park. She and her team have no hidden agenda, she says. “No one is looking out for Forsyth, and that’s a problem. The trees need saving. The lighting needs replacing. We want it to remain a jewel for the city for generations to come,” she said.

Ryan Madson, president of the Victorian Neighborhood Association, which includes Forsyth, says residents whom he represents worry about how the plan could endanger the park’s core identity as a diverse neighborhood space. “I see a bias towards overplanning and aesthetics, not people. Savannah is not bougie like Boston or Paris, and these plans feel like they belong there, not here,” he said.   

Public space from the beginning

In the 1850s Savannah was among the vanguard of American cities testing an innovative idea: building leisure parks where people of means could relax around nature. Forsyth, in fact, is older than Central Park in New York City, yet for so long only white citizens could enjoy Savannah’s crown jewel.

By the Jim Crow era, the city’s downtown squares and parks were largely abandoned, as White families moved to suburbs, and city spending priorities shifted. Forsyth became synonymous with drugs and crime. 

But as Civil Rights legends like W.W. Law worked to roll back the written and unwritten laws of segregation here, Forsyth’s shady spaces became a component in the dream for equality, according to Alderwoman Linda Wilder-Bryan. “You could walk through the park if you were someone who looked like me, but you were not allowed to stop and smell the roses,” she recalled. “Now, this is the people’s park.”

By the 21st century, as Savannah prospered, so did Forsyth — as has its identity as the community’s true public square. (Full disclosure: My husband and I bought our house on Park Ave because we valued the diversity at the park, as much as its natural beauty.)

Forsyth is the kind of civic space highlighted in a report published last month by the Knight Foundation examining how communities can achieve greater equality, cohesion and development through their use of green areas.

The multimillion-dollar study of urban parks across the United States shows case studies of how thoughtful planning for public space can “build resident trust, spur social activity, support economic and workforce development and catalyze neighborhood change.”

The historic fountain draws hordes of tourists and wedding parties, local Gullah Geechee artists and musicians. The playgrounds — donated by the Rotary Club — are a hub for neighborhood children without their own backyards. The hawks that nest in the live oaks feel as welcome as the philosophers who chat on park benches each morning, the evening dog walkers and the pickup soccer teams and salsa dancers on the weekend. The unplanned open spaces create cohesion precisely because there is room for all.

Still, city resources aren’t deep enough to care for trees and facilities intended for Savannah’s growing population. Yet unlike other venerable metropolitan parks, Forsyth doesn’t have a private or nonprofit booster club to support its upkeep or its potential impact on community development.

The women leading the masterplan effort say once the document is approved by the city council, hopefully this fall, they would like to see a permanent conservancy organization, modeled on the Central Park Conservancy, for Forsyth.

Good intentions meet mistrust

For now, the gap between the Trustees’ Garden Club’s good intentions and implementation is wide.

Some Savannahians say the club has made key missteps in what should be a straightforward political issue, given how much pride and passion exists for Forsyth.

The organizers assumed too much good will and underestimated the mistrust about a message delivered by a private club of 50 women. Because the Trustees’ Garden Club website doesn’t list the members, it’s unclear to outsiders who they actually represent.

At least one person approached by the women during their fundraising appeals last year says that advice to increase diversity within their leadership ranks was ignored.

When the group published the first drafts of the masterplan last month, reactions were swift and loud, in part because of the perceived lack of racial diversity and inclusion in the process.

According to the published survey results, 71% of the 2300 people who completed the survey identified as white. Blacks make up 53.9% of Savannah’s population, and whites account for 35.5%.

Respondents, however, hail from diverse age groups, with 49% of people identifying as between 24-45 years old, 31% from 46-64 and 11% as over 65.

Meanwhile, 45% of respondents come from the two downtown Savannah zip codes in closest proximity of Forsyth. Residents who live in south Savannah represent another 10%, while those who indicated they didn’t reside in any city zip code, comprise another 12%.

What do survey respondents want improved or added in Forsyth Park?
Public Art35%
Drinking Fountain28%
Bike Lane28%
Dog Park24%
Picnic Areas23%
Game Tables, like Chess22%

Because the city has no hard data on who uses Forsyth Park, the average foot traffic or demographics, it’s unclear how these survey results reflect the demographics of most frequent current park-goers.

Still, among respondents there are some clear preferences and trends. The majority of respondents value Forsyth’s tree canopy, the shade, the plants and its green spaces, as well as the park’s openness, spaciousness and freedom. The most repeated worry expressed by respondents was concern about overdevelopment as well as interest in improving safety and maintenance.

While the survey breaks down the zip codes of respondents, the results as published online de-aggregate answers from an address, making it impossible to tell which preferences and opinions reflect what community – or the point of view of outsiders.

That opacity alarms the Victorian and Thomas Square neighborhood associations, who feel that the opinions of the residents whom they represent should have more weight than others.

One of the top complaints both neighborhood associations have made is that the Friends of Forsyth have not included them in planning at the outset, despite their deep ties in the community and their lobbying experience at city council on issues such as traffic, safety, business development and recreation.

“Our residents, property owners and businesses live around the park, use the park and are affected by the park the most. We know better than most what Forsyth needs and what it represents,” said Madsen.

Meb Ryan, a co-chair of the Trustees’ Garden Club, says that she and her team have reached out to over 600 community leaders and spent weekends at traditional Black churches trying to increase diversity among survey respondents. She says they are committed to working with neighborhood groups as the process continues.

Virtual meetings open the process

In April, the group got a taste of what more Savannahians felt when they embarked on a month of virtual public meetings hosted by each member of the city council.

District 3 Alderwoman Linda Wilder-Bryan

Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan spent weeks seeking participation for the April 26 meeting for her constituents in District 3, which includes historic Black neighborhoods in East Savannah.

Speaking to 30 people on the Zoom call that evening, she praised the women spearheading the project. She also reminded participants that opportunities to weigh in on civic matters at the inception of a project were rare.

“These ladies got together to do something. This is a gift, a gift for all of us, and we want as many people as possible to get together to enjoy it,” Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan said. “I want people of color, gay people and straight people, rich people and poor people to have a say. This is a park for everybody.” 

The 70-minute meeting started with Trustees’ Garden Club leaders introducing the lead design firm, Nelson Byrd Woltz, explaining the rationale of the two draft plans, along with Savannah-based Ethos Preservation, which specializes in historic preservation. 

The designers showed slides of how Forsyth has changed over the last 100 years. They said the vision for a new plan incorporates the attributes most desired among survey respondents, all while working toward the goal set forth by the Trustees’ Garden Club to restore the historic integrity of Forsyth’s north side, the area encompassed by Biskoff’s original landscape design.

They spoke about restoring historic sight lines by replacing the band shell roof and removing the playground and splash fountain from their current location, and replacing them with picnic areas and seating.

They cautioned that since the park’s spectacular oaks were all planted around the same time, they would decay around the same time. Planning how to care for and replace those trees would be included in the masterplan. They expounded on the technological solutions necessary to protect Forsyth’s tree roots from the contemporary concrete pathways. 

They discussed adding storm water-fed plantings to mitigate the flooding during heavy rainstorms. 

They also touched on the prickly subject of parking.

Yet for all the common areas of consensus expressed in the survey results, the final 10 minutes allotted for questions and comments reflected a lack of buy-in for several draft design choices.

What should go where

One thread of contention is the notion of transplanting all popular recreational assets from the area around the dummy forts to the corner of Park Avenue and Whitaker Street. 

Carmen Evans, said it was “disappointing” to see children removed from the geographic heart of Forsyth to the perimeter. Some participants questioned the safety aspects of children playing at that hectic intersection. 

Charlotte Barrows, the landscape designer, said clustering those recreational facilities, what she called “structures of contemporary use” at the southern corner, along with the basketball and tennis courts would increase historic integrity.

Another controversial issue: One of the draft plan’s designs that remove some of the open green space at the southern edge of the park to create more parking, while preserving the green areas within the northern side of the park.

Randy Tate, who listened in on the Monday meeting, asked what percentage of new hardscape was added in the draft designs, as opposed to the amount in the park now.

Jennifer West wanted to know whether ongoing maintenance costs that the city would have to bear was a consideration in the design plans so far.

The organizers didn’t answer those questions, saying the plans were still in draft form.

They reminded participants that each of the choices would be a tradeoff for something else.

“Everything is under debate right now,” said Barrows. “What we need to do is solicit your feedback on that. What we want to hear is what’s more important for the city, keeping the open green spaces or trading off for some of the amenities listed in the survey.”

The Victorian and Thomas Square neighborhood associations say they want the masterplan to include a city-approved change to the traffic around Forsyth, ideally by dropping Whitaker and Drayton streets to one lane for vehicular traffic, and converting the second lane to a designated bike path and perhaps some car parking. 

That would be a solution desired by local residents fed up with cars speeding on those thoroughfares, while freeing up more green space in the masterplan for the southern end of the park. 

Friends of Forsyth say they will work with the neighborhood groups on this issue through the summer.

Toward the end of the meeting, Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan intervened, as tempers heated among participants.

Democracy, she noted, was messy, and sometimes loud. She asked the organizers to be more attentive to the community mood. Yet she also counseled patience and understanding to the local residents.

“I want you to participate and not be passive, not get on Facebook and just complain,” she said. “We are not going to get everything right, but they are trying to.”

Public comments about the two draft plans are going to be collected by Friends of Forsyth through April 30. Then, the designers will revise their draft plans and the group says they will continue close discussions and collaborations by neighborhood associations through the summer.

More public meetings will be planned in August, with the hope of sending a masterplan to city council by the fall.