An exploration of time and place in Savannah’s burgeoning Starland District

By Joshua Peacock and Zach Dennis

Edited by Heather Henley and Josh Rayburn

From marshes to farmland to cultural arts hub, the story of Starland is one of slow, but consistent, evolution centered around local communities. Follow this journey through this special area’s past, present and future.

[The Starland Creamery, the center of the Starland District.]

The Thomas Square Streetcar Neighborhood (1733 – 1995)

In the years after Savannah’s founding in 1733, settlers began shifting south of the city’s center. They transformed forest and marshland in what is now The Thomas Square Streetcar and Metropolitan neighborhoods into farms and plantations.

Bull Street, the city’s main vein, was at the time elevated on a ridge, becoming the main route between Savannah and the Forest Rivers of what is now southside Savannah. The tract lines between the farms evolved into the primary streets of the neighborhood.

In 1888, streetcar lines A and B were extended from downtown Savannah into the area, opening it up for residential development. In the late 19th century, development in the area was slow going, with the streets hardly defined. A large portion of land south of 37th Street was a privately owned botanical garden, known as Concordia Park or Keisling-Teynac Botanical Garden. The only remaining relics of the garden are two stone gatehouses at 2600 Bull St., at the city of Savannah’s Park & Tree Department headquarters.

In the early 20th century, development of both residential and commercial buildings took off, peaking in 1920 – the same year the street cars were removed. During the period, two-story homes, apartments, and single-family buildings were added. A number of architectural styles can be found in the area, including Queen Anne, Folk Victorian, Neoclassical Revival and Craftsman.

The Starland Creamery in the 1930s. [Courtesy Georgia Historical Society]

Historically, the area around Thomas Square, one of 12 original parks and the only one still in existence, was bounded by Anderson Lane on the north, East Broad Street to the east, and Victory Drive to the south. The Metropolitan neighborhood mirrored Thomas Square, running north to south from Victory to Anderson Lane, and east to west from Bull Street to West Broad Street/Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. 

From the beginning, Thomas Square and Metropolitan had been homogeneous neighborhoods because of their proximity to downtown. Schools, fire stations, police stations, a library, grocery stores and other utilitarian business popped up to serve the growing number of residents.  During the early 20th century, Bull Street and Victory Drive were also used for auto races, like the International Grand Prize Automobile Race.

In the 1930’s, a number of dairies dotted the neighborhood, including the Starland Creamery and Annette’s Dairy, which served both downtown Savannah and the nearby residents.

After World War II, the neighborhood shifted dramatically as wealthy residents filtered out and into the suburbs of Ardsley Park and beyond. Their former houses became occupied by low-income families, and businesses left the area.


Back in the Day Bakery at 2403 Bull St., the corner of West 40th.

Welcome to Starland

The Starland District  (1995 – 2013)

The detailed redevelopment plan focused on building upon Thomas Square’s unique advantages, including cultural institutions, a mix of commercial and residential buildings, and a diverse population. In 1997, due to efforts by the redevelopment plan and the Thomas Square Neighborhood Association, the area was deemed a National Register Historic District. The new designation essentially merged Thomas Square and Metropolitan into a single neighborhood, which took the former’s name. 

Among other things, the redevelopment plan called for a new definition of zoning, which allowed for mixed-used development. The new focus was to help eliminate blight, encourage more businesses to open and cater to existing residents.

People eat on the front porch of the Starland Cafe on Oct. 18. [Will Peebles/Savananhnow.com]

In 1999, two SCAD students, John Deaderick and Greg Jacobs, had a vision for the area around the old Starland Dairy, which was in danger of being razed. They wanted to transform the old dairy, and area around it, into a new cultural and arts community. They purchased the building in 2001, eventually adding 20 more properties to their plan. The two built retails shops, offices and condos on the site. They named the area the Starland District, using the old dairy’s red star as their logo.

John Deaderick displays the city map  he and Greg Jacobs used to persuade businesses and locals to invest in the Starland District in the late 1990s and early 2000s. [Joshua Peacock/savannahnow.com]

There has since been a lot of confusion about the actual boundaries of the Starland District. For Deaderick and Jacobs, boundaries were never intentional. They simply looked to form an artistic community centered around the Starland Dairy on Bull Street, between West 40th and West 41st Streets. The Starland District has organically grown to include portions of Thomas Square, Metropolitan, Ardsley Park, the Victorian District and Bingville.

John Deaderick on hardships prior to the economic collapse and how it shaped the neighborhood boundaries

This mural is painted on the side of the Starland Dairy building. [Will Peebles/Savannahnow.com]

Recent history

The last five years (2013 – 2018)

During The Great Recession, Deaderick and Jacobs’ vision was stalled. The property was sold to new owners, and for the most part Starland remained a derelict pass-through for residents and tourists.

Deaderick and Jacobs retained some of the nearly 100 properties they originally purchased. One was restored and transformed into the Starland Cafe, a centerpiece of the district that Deaderick still owns and operates. Today, he lives nearby and still owns about eight properties in the area. 

One of the neighborhood’s star businesses, the 2015 James Beard Award-nominated Back in the Day Bakery, opened its doors in 2001 when very few other businesses and shops were doing so. Owners Cheryl Day and Griff Day wanted to serve the local community instead of cater to a mostly tourist crowd downtown. Rent was cheaper, too.

People eat inside of Back In The Day Bakery on Oct. 18. [Will Peebles/Savannahnow.com]

“We always wanted to be a food landmark, so we can check that off of our list.” – Cheryl Day, Back in the Day Bakery

Ryan Graveface moved to Savannah in 2011 from his native Chicago to open Graveface Records and Curiosities, anchoring the block next to Back In The Day. In the last five years, a number of other small, locally owned businesses have opened along the Bull Street corridor. In just the last three years, more than 13 new businesses have opened doors, prompting more residential movement as well.

The neighborhood still lacks many of the utilitarian businesses that once inhabited the area. Central Animal Hospital  was one such business that followed Deaderick and Jacobs’ original vision of having a full-service community. Starland has attracted more locally owned development in recent years, due to the influx of national chains moving to Broughton Street and increasing rents. However, with the recent loss of Save-A-Lot, the area does not have its own grocery. 

Mimi Bell, owner of Bell Barber Co., cutting her client Tommy Hersch’s hair. [Brandee Miller/For SavannahNow.com]
As Savannah continues to grow and expand, the Starland District has become a mirror for the shifting demographics and infrastructure of the city.

Left nearly abandoned fiscally over the past few decades, the district has become home to a number of thriving local businesses as entrepreneurs have jumped on the rapid recent growth and found sustainable homes in the community. Much like any other neighborhood, the newcomers to Starland have helped to influence its future.

When you open the doors of Bell Barber Co., you are instantly greeted by the cheerful voice of Mimi Bell.

“Hey, how are you doing? Welcome to Bell Barber Co.”

Bell, a native of New Orleans and owner of the business, arrived in Savannah four years ago to be with her husband, who is stationed at the military base in Savannah. She opened her shop in 2017 in the growing Starland District.

While she has been cutting men’s hair for the past 10 years, when she arrived in Savannah, she found few options for work in her passion and craft.

“There was no option to work at an appointment-based barbershop,” she said. “So I worked at a walk-in shop for about a year and a half and I liked it, but I really wanted to go out on my own. When that really wasn’t working for me anymore, I decided to go out on my own. My husband said to me he wanted to stay in the service, so that’s when I decided to create my business.”

With about 40 to 50 customers a day, Bell doesn’t regret that decision.

When asked why she decided to start in the Starland District, which is seeing rapid economic changes, Bell said she loved the location because of its proximity to the Savannah College of Art and Design, and the rent prices. She knew if she could get SCAD students to come into the shop, she could get them to come back.

“My barbershop is different because we’re not an average family barber shop. We are providing masculine haircuts. I also try to provide jobs for barbers in the community,” she said.

Despite being one of the newest businesses in an area adjusting to gentrification, Bell says her shop employs locals who spend their money in the neighborhood. “A lot of Starland District businesses benefit from one another,” she said. “Once the taco place next door opened [Bull Street Taco], we started to receive more clients.”

Customer Thomas Usher was born and raised in Savannah and knows the Starland District well.

“This whole area used to be on the little rundown side. With the Starland District coming up, it brought more people to the area. They cleaned up the buildings and it’s much nicer. The new businesses are bringing more foot traffic. This helps the property value go up, as well,” he said.

“I’ve been going to Bell Barber Co. since it first opened. Mimi is usually my consistent barber, but since she’s opened her second shop, she’s busier.”

Tommy Hersch, an 11-year resident of Savannah, has been getting haircuts from Bell even before she opened the shop on Bull Street. Hersch, a member of the U.S. Air Force, met Bell’s husband, who convinced him to let Mimi cut his hair. Hersch said he trusted her skills and could rely on her as his barber.

Apprentice Holly Harrod has been a member of the Bell Barber Co. staff for about a year now. Coming from Arkansas, Harrod moved to the Savannah area four years ago and met Bell about three years ago, while at a different barbershop. Harrod was a client of Bell at the time and loved the way she cut hair. Bell convinced Harrod to give it a try and the rest was history. Servicing about 10 to 12 customers a day, Harrod enjoys the relaxed, conversational atmosphere the barbershop has to offer.

“When you step into Bell Barber Co., nothing about your background matters. Everyone is friendly. You get to meet new people and connect with your clients,” said Harrod.

Harrod enjoys working in a barbershop that differs from the rest. The safe environment to be able to voice your opinions is what sets them apart, she says. Bell Barber Co. doesn’t offer children’s haircuts, which allows their customers to feel more comfortable in conversations.

At this rate, Bell Barber Co. won’t be stopping any time soon. The staff is happy to service their clients with men’s traditional haircuts, shaving and grooming experiences that maintain old-school quality.

“I don’t see the Starland District going anywhere. I believe it’s just going to keep growing and growing,” said Usher.

As Two Tides Brewing Co. nears its one-year anniversary in its Starland District location, it has become a place for relaxing gatherings of some of the newer residents in the area.

“Two Tides brings a social environment to the neighborhood,” said resident Kristina Scruby. “The area itself is becoming more popular, as if downtown is being stretched.”

Taylor Schultz pours a beer at Two Tides Brewing on October 17, 2018 [Will Peebles/Savannahnow.com]

Two Tides is one of the newest additions to the area. Liz Massey, owner and marketing director of Two Tides, said the brewery is one of the thriving businesses that has made a positive impact for the community within the Starland District. The district’s median age is 27 years old, according to the U.S. Census, making a brewery a good fit for the area.

Massey started running the business with a mission to connect with the community immediately. She ran door-to-door letting residents know about the new brewery and looking for opportunities to be involved in the community.

Massey said she is looking to provide service to the area, which is being redeveloped. She doesn’t want to add damage to the area or its environment. Unlike the Savannah police precinct on Bull Street, which was built after the demolition of houses, or many new businesses and services being added in the Starland District, Two Tides was built in a renovated historic home on West 41st Street.

Patrick Lavigne and David Bradley, residents who live on 38th Street, say the brewery provides a vibrant environment and positive impact to the community around them.

“What does Two Tides bring to the community? They want to sell beer,” Lavigne says, smiling.

“They support two types of communities; the walking community and the mixed residential areas,” Bradley added.

However, some of the longtime businessmen of the area see the difference, not just for Two Tides, but also many of the new places.

Bryan Hall, barber at Boyz II Men barbershop, said businesses such as Two Tides and other newly established ones in the district are only good for those who gain profit out of it. He says these businesses are not an asset to the community. “They may provide jobs for nearby residents, but that’s it,” Hall said.

Massey is continuing to earn the trust of the community that she has yet to reach, even to those who are not consumers of beer. She said Two Tides will remain dominantly supported by its community, while trying to avoid the reputation of bringing about gentrification instead of economic development.

When you hit the corner of Bull Street, you are welcomed by a bright green sign that says Brighter Day Natural Foods. Upon entering the marketplace, your nose is hit with the smell of their fresh avocado sandwiches and you can almost taste the fresh fruits they have just by looking at them.

Kendria Houser, an alumna of SCAD, said Brighter Day has been a marketplace where she can find everything she needs.

“When I first attended SCAD, there were other students who shopped there. I finally decided to check it out myself and I’ve never stopped coming,” she said, adding that throughout her college days, Brighter Day was a lifesaver as the variety of fresh fruits, teas and deli sandwiches kept her coming back. She said they have better options and more of a variety than a Kroger or Whole Foods would, and as an athlete, she must be mindful of what she puts in her body.

“I love the fact that eating healthy doesn’t mean your food will taste nasty; there are plenty of healthy foods out there that taste fantastic,” she said.

Brighter Day Natural Foods is an independently owned natural foods market in historic downtown Savannah and the Starland District area. Janie and Peter Brodhead came to Savannah in 1978 with a dream that became reality — providing the community with the healthiest and best products.

When the Brodheads arrived in Savannah in 1978, they were advised against starting a business in the Starland District area. “We are the pioneers of this natural foods kick here in Savannah,” Janie Brodhead said. “Back then there were very few businesses, only a bank. The area looked dangerous, but it was affordable. The bank advised us not to start a business in the area.”

With about 300 customers per day on average, and about 160,000 customers per year, Brighter Day is proving they are here to stay. When first getting their business off the ground, the Brodheads made the conscious decision to live in their business for a while, since they couldn’t afford both. Brighter Day was surrounded only by a bank and the Starland Dairy. Janie Brodhead recalled not much being around when she first arrived in the Starland District area, but after a while it started to attract more people.

Janie Brodhead in front of Brighter Day Natural Foods Market on Bull Street in the Starland District. [Brandee Miller/For SavannahNow.com]
“The park helped the area with its appeal, as well as other businesses coming like The Sentient Bean,” she said.

Currently, Brighter Day doesn’t seem to be harshly affected by the gentrification of the Starland District. “We would never leave. It’s the best spot in the city. We made a decision to stay here and not expand,” Janie Brodhead said.

Gentrification

Gentrification, the huge elephant in the room regarding the Starland District, is the process of renovating deteriorated urban neighborhoods by means of the influx of more affluent residents. When it comes to developers and investors, this is a signal of unmet demand.

Developers believe if they can get to that area before the next person does, they will make a profit. As for renters, they must deal with the chance of their rent rising substantially or having to move out.

Homeowners also are affected by this. The value of their homes may be going up, but with that comes higher property taxes. They also will have to get used to dealing with more people and businesses moving in the area.

Gentrification doesn’t just affect a certain group of people; it affects the whole Starland District area. For some businesses, the Starland District has been their home from the beginning. Brighter Day is one on that list.

As growth emerges around them, Brighter Day makes sure they are involved in the community, such as displaying at health fairs and working with mental health groups. They want to bring awareness and educate people on the best natural food products.

“Five years from now, I hope to be still surviving in the same place and continuing to serve the community,” Janie Brodhead said.

They’ve been in business for 41 years now, and it doesn’t look like they’re stopping any time soon.

John Deaderick on how they focused on building the neighborhood when developing the Starland District

Lisa Doyle works behind the counter at her shop, Gypsy World, in the Starland District on Oct. 17. [Will Peebles/Savannahnow.com]
Brandee Miller and Malik Giles, seniors at Savannah State University, contributed to this section.

Present Day Starland

Present day (2018)

Starland has become the center of attention in Savannah recently with a planned development exciting some residents and troubling others.

Touted as a “live, work, play” community, Foram Group’s $40 million Starland Village development between 37th and 39th streets consists of two five-story apartment complexes with more than 90 apartments, a four-story office building with a rooftop restaurant, and a 900-person capacity event venue inside a former church. In addition to retail space and artist studios, the developer is also proposing to build an automated parking garage with a public rooftop park.

Some concerns about traffic and parking were shared by Savannah Alderman At-Large Post 2 Brian Foster, who said the project is probably the most dramatic thing the city will do on that side of the Historic District. The changes would set a precedent for the future development of the city, but the city has yet to create a master plan or updated zoning ordinance, he added in a March 29 article for SavannahNow.com.

In two separate letters to the editor on March 29, one resident called the project “an innovative combination of retail/restaurant space, co-working community, artists’ studios, events venue and residential living units; all grounded in the unique culture and artistic vibe of the neighborhood.”

People wait to walk across Bull Street near its intersection with West 41st Street on Oct. 17. [Will Peebles/Savannahnow.com]
Meanwhile, another resident wrote, “There are still concerns about scale, noise, parking, congestion and preservation of the tree canopy which are all part of the quality of life of the residents that have not been addressed sufficiently.” That resident added, “We are not against progress. We simply need to make sure that whatever is decided will truly be for the benefit of all and not of a few.”

In July, a Chatham County Superior Judge dismissed a lawsuit opponents of the Starland Village development filed against the city in an attempt to stop the project. With the order, the judge rejected claims by the three plaintiffs that they would suffer irreparable harm by the project, noting that neither of them owned adjoining property to the city-owned property at 2115 Bull St.

The group had claims in the April court petition that zoning amendments approved by the city council constituted illegal “spot zoning” and were unconstitutional due to some “vague” terms used in the zoning ordinance, while raising concerns about potential noise, traffic, parking and the project’s incompatibility with the neighborhood.

Starland’s First Friday, a monthly event started by Deaderick and Jacobs, has grown to include a variety of arts and community-based attractions. Sulfur Studios, an art co-op in the vein of Starland’s original vision, now anchors the monthly event with Graveface, Starlandia, Two-Tides Brewing, Gypsy World, House of Strut, and a number of other galleries and businesses joining in.

Most recently, the last section of undeveloped area within the block of the old Starland Dairy (Creamery) was being used to host events. The dilapidated, roofless space, which is expected to be completely renovated by the current owners, hosted live music and other social events. However, events were shut down recently due to a lack of permits and safety issues.

Cassette tapes, records and stuffed wildlife are displayed at Graveface Records on October 17. [Will Peebles/Savannahnow.com]
In the past 20 years, the Starland District has seen a dramatic change in culture, business development and residential demographics. What once was an area for low-income families to find a place to live has shifted into a cultural district, with small boutiques and cafes taking over former residences and neighborhood owners renovating their houses to rent out to young professionals. The process of gentrification is a concern for residents like Taylor.

“I don’t think it really helps if it pushes people out of their home,” Taylor said. “They’re creating these new things and renovating houses, but what does it benefit if the people suffer from it?”

Taylor is originally a native of Miami. He moved to Savannah to be close to a significant other who lives in the city.

“In the time that I’ve been here,” Taylor said. “I’ve noticed that change and I don’t know if it’s good for the people who live here, if it’s hurting them more than helping them, and people need to be helped.”

Taylor considers the residents who cannot afford the rent increase after the renovations in the district. “It’s not being used to benefit the people here. How are they going to afford pay for it? Are they helping to give these people jobs as well? I don’t think they are.”

Gentrification is a sensitive topic in places that are being gentrified. The process of gentrification is renovation and the improvement of a district to middle-class standard. In the Starland District, where the area is under seemingly constant renovation, some of the residents voice their concerns about the process.

Elizabeth Peal exits the library and Taylor rises up in expectation for his significant other. Peal is a native of Savannah.

“Savannah is who I am,” Peal said. “I’ve pretty much lived in every part of this city. I’ve lived here my whole life.”

Peal reflects on the change on the district for the people in the community.

“I think that if in the end people are suffering, it’s not good. If people are losing homes, it’s not good. The people matter more,” she said.

Old Savannah City Mission. [Malik Giles/For savannahnow.com]
Economic development and gentrification may be happening in the city of Savannah, especially in the Starland District, but the Old Savannah City Mission remains strongly held to its location.

The shelter at the Old Savannah City Mission holds 93 beds at the Bull Street location, which is located directly across from a liquor store. The majority of the people who sleep in those beds come from all over the city, not just the growing neighborhood that surrounds the building.

Connell J. Stiles, director of development and retail sales at Old Savannah City Mission, has helped bring an establishment to the city that accommodates the homeless and those who are always in need.

Stiles and her staff — Reginald Lee, director of programs; Rick Shackelford, data manager; Larry Futch, store manager; and Gregory Young, head chef of the kitchen — all work to maintain hospitality and service at the mission.

“The Old Savannah City Mission is a gospel rescue mission, emphasis on the gospel,” said Shackelford.

Stiles seeks to make sure the mission is serving as many of the homeless in Savannah as possible.

“We have a mission to proclaim the gospel, feed the hungry, sheltering the homeless, rehabilitating the addict and restoring the ex-offender. Our primary goal is to see that no one in Savannah goes hungry. It’s an unreachable goal in reality because there are homeless people in Savannah who are unaware or don’t even know that we exist,” said Stiles.

Old Savannah is an all-male shelter, but the kitchen serves to men, women and children.

“We feed three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast is for people who stay overnight. Lunch and dinner is for the public,” said Young.

Last year, the mission served 89,889 meals to those in need.

Old Savannah City Mission was established in this location in 1997. With new development happening in the Starland District, the organization seems like “the old folk on the dock.”

“We do a residential program called the Urban Training Institute, which consists of two programs called Fresh Start and Clean Start,” added Lee.

The program is open to generally anyone who is looking to make a recovery. “We have had teachers, preachers, engineers and even architects in our program. It’s open to anyone that needs help,” said Stiles.

The mission is funded through donations, including proceeds from the Old Savannah City Mission Thrift Store next door.

“Our income comes from people, the local community, businesses and churches,” Stiles said.

When Stiles discusses the future of Old Savannah City Mission amid the development in the Starland District, she says, “Old Savannah City Mission is a rock; we ain’t going nowhere!”

House of Strut owner/operator Erica Cobb Jarman on the importance of First Fridays for the district

(Some context on this page was provided by Savannah Morning News reporter Eric Curl.)

Bria Banks and Malik Giles, seniors at Savannah State University, also contributed to this page.

The Future

Gentrification has entered the national lexicon as a pejorative definition of the transformation of urban areas from derelict to middle-class and high income. It's signaled typically by the departure of an area's current residents as the cost of living rises, and a shift from local development to more influence from outside development.

A number of Starland's locally owned businesses have simply repurposed old or vacant buildings for new use. Two Tides Brewing and House of Strut transformed old houses into a brewery/bar and vintage clothing store, respectively. The Vault created a vibrant Asian-fusion restaurant from an old bank. 

The Atlantic resurrected an old gas station, transforming it into a brand new neighborhood eatery. Foxy Loxy Cafe reimagined an old two-story row house into one of the city’s most popular coffee shops. Most recently, Lone Wolf Lounge renovated an old house into a pub that has quickly become the toast of the neighborhood. The new businesses join stalwarts like The Wormhole Bar, Say Hey's & Mary, Tricks BBQ, and Boyz II Men Barbershop.

Current residents and business owners are divided about the future of the area. Some think a mix between repurposing and building new would be good for the area, while others think any outside development and new construction sets a dangerous precedent.

Regardless of its future direction, the initial concept of the Starland District has taken hold. The area has become a focus point for events and an arts and culture hub for locals.

Savannah Second District Alderman Bill Durrence on the debate about whether to repurpose old houses in the district or build new structures.