Tom Barton: Don’t over-react on STVR issues

As a full-time resident of downtown Savannah since last November, I appreciate the concerns of my fellow downtownies who get royally steamed when they are awakened in the middle of the night by drunks outside their bedroom windows and are demanding that Savannah City Council protect their constitutional rights to uninterrupted ZZZs and protection from swarms of giggly bachelorettes who descend on the city every weekend like plagues of locusts in silk sashes. I’ve been there.

 

But in my case, the annoying noisemakers were long-term tenants who were renting next door, not visitors who were staying in one of the many short-term vacation rental properties in my neck of the city. Indeed, it has been my experience that the STVR operators and their short-term tenants have been quiet and respectful of their neighbors. We don’t see much of them, as they didn’t come to this fishbowl to visit Jethro and the Clampetts, although I hate it that they make it harder to find parking on the street-sweeper nights of Friday and Saturday, costing me $50 in tickets so far. While STVRs are being portrayed as a curse by those who are pushing for more regulations and limits, my own street-level view is not as harsh and is more forgiving. The city shouldn’t over-react.

As a traveler, I have used STVRs myself. I loved the experience of staying in a real neighborhood as opposed to cold, pricey hotels. I respected my surroundings and did not get drunk or urinate on the rose bushes. I behaved, because I wanted to come back, as bad guests are blackballed on AirBnB. Besides, my momma didn’t raise a barn animal.

But perhaps my greatest appreciation for STVRs and their guests is how they contribute to greater public safety.

In my mind, as a downtown resident for eight months, the greatest threat to me and my quality of life is crime. I’ll take another STVR down the street in a New York minute if it means more peaceful, law-abiding citizens. The last thing my neighborhood needs is more thieves, drug dealers or people shooting guns.

I know that the requests for city permission to operate STVRs are signs of the times. Another one popped up across the street last month. But that didn’t bother me as much as another sign of the time — yellow police tape, like the kind that went up last September when 54-year-old Kevin Reid, a downtown art gallery owner, was shot and killed when he and his wife Kari Graham-Reid were jumped on East Waldburg Street. Kevin Reid’s last living act, was to push Kari out of harm’s way. I can only hope I could be as brave as this noble Aussie, should my wife and I find ourselves in similarly dire circumstances. East Waldburg Street is just around the corner.

Downtown needs more homeowners like the Reids. The anti-STVR crowd has a valid point when it argues for more home owners and fewer landlords who function like hotel operators.

I’d like to see more homeownership downtown as well. Frankly, I’d also like free beer from my kitchen faucet and unlimited free pizza deliveries from Screamin’ Mimi’s. But it’s not going to happen because of supply and demand. There’s plenty of beer and pizza, but downtown real estate in Savannah is sold by the square centimeter. Only buyers with wallets like the Sultan of Brunei’s can qualify for a mortgage loan.

After public safety, I’m troubled by the loss of authenticity caused by ongoing gentrification and hipsterfication. Downtown really is a special place. And it’s the people who have lived here who have made it that way. The homeowner with the longest tenure on my block is my neighbor, a widow who said she has lived there about 40 years. She favors big hats, dresses up for church every Sunday over on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and rides with her Bible on her dashboard. She and her late husband raised six kids. Each did something with their lives, she says proudly. She used to know every child and every child’s momma in the neighborhood and said one young malcontent named Ricky Jivens once put a bullet through her window. She said he didn’t scare her. But people like my neighbor are hard-pressed to keep their old houses. I see fewer people like her and more people with purple mohawks zipping around on skateboards.

I agree that drunken pea-brains are a pestilence. But I’m not convinced that the best approach is limiting property rights. That’s akin to using a hammer to kill a gnat. It’s a good thing I didn’t have a hammer when my neighbors were having a loud boozy discussion at 4 a.m. Or the inner redneck in me might have been encouraged to do some hammering next door.

However I did have a new garden hose that I had hooked up to the spigot out back. I purchased it so my wife could water her plants more easily. The ladies appreciate romantic gestures.

Maybe I could turn the hose on them. That’ll fix them. Fortunately, we solved this problem in the same way that most experienced adults in the South do when angered by noisy drunks — by opening our back door and yelling at them across the fence to shut the you-know-what up, and then talking to them rationally after they sobered up.

Guess what? It worked. They apologized. Peace and quiet again rules the neighborhood, interrupted only by an occasional gunshot.

 

Tom Barton is the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News. tom.barton@savannahnow.com

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