By Mia Holmes
THE Savannah Music Festival (SMF) will host a panel discussion on the Impacts of Urban Renewal and Gentrification on April 5. Among the three panelists will be Jerome B. Meadows, a nationally renowned artist who concentrates on the design and fabrication of large-scale public art projects throughout the United States. Meadows considers it an honor to be a part of the panel alongside acclaimed violinist Regina Carter and former mayor Otis Johnson. He also shared his thoughts on urban renewal and gentrification.
Meadows is originally from New York City, but he moved to Savannah in 1997. At the time, he was commissioned to create what was known at the time as the Yamacraw Public Park Park Leadership of Savannah. Each year, the organization convened to come up with a project that would benefit them. They realized that First Bryan Baptist Church is the oldest Black baptist church in the United States. There was a green space in front of the church and the organization wanted to create a memorial for the church. They also wanted to honor the legacy of the African American community and the native Yamacraw.
Meadows has an installation at the Enmarket Arena, which was installed last November.
“I didn’t have to compete for that. I was invited to take on that project. And similar to Yamacraw, the objective was to commemorate the traditional African American communities in that part of West Savannah,” Meadows said. “The piece is pretty major; there are five pieces of sculpture. Five of them are in relation to the names of five of those communities, as a circle of cast concrete figures that are referred to as the Goodwill Ambassadors. The objective was to acknowledge the fact that the arena has nothing to do with West Savannah but instead sits in that neighborhood. So the idea was to acknowledge that and commemorate that and the sculptures, the concrete figures, and stylized bronze trees all attest to those neighborhoods.”
Meadows said that this opportunity to speak on this panel means a lot on numerous levels. For starters, Meadows is a huge fan of Regina Carter and holds it as an honor that he will hear her perform and sit on the same panel as her. Meadows said that the public art projects he’s done all relate to African Americans working towards acknowledging their existence and how it's worthy of being sustained.
“So it’s easy for them to bring in new people, developers and tenants, and condo buyers. They say well, don’t worry about it, there was nothing really here of any value before you came. And by creating these public art projects, speaking to the value of these communities, it’s harder for them to do that,” Meadows said. “And that’s speaking about the ones who would be more like adversaries. The objective is to speak to people who have a conscience and just out of ignorance, don’t know. But once they do know, they would then be speaking on behalf of these communities. And so create this choir to speak a musical term. And this choir is then more bodies, more voices engaged in pushing back against this idea that whoever was there, or whoever is there is not worthy of the kind of respect that they should be.”
Meadows thinks the panel discussion will do a lot for Savannah’s community. He credits the Savannah Music Festival because this level of social connection and social engagement has not been done before. Executive Director Gene Dobbs Bradford realizes that music is about entertainment, but also about addressing civic and social issues.
When asked about his thoughts on urban renewal and gentrification, Meadows said it is a threat that needs to be pushed back against. Unfortunately, the first line of defense for developers is to try to minimize managing. Yamacraw Village is being threatened with demolition. The buildings are uninhabitable, and Meadows thinks that quality of life is being downgraded to push people out of their homes.
The work that Meadows does is about African American culture. His sculptures remember the past but also encourage learning from it. In relation to urban renewal and gentrification, Meadows feels that it is something that we as a community should come together to fight against, and the first step is the Savannah Music Festival hosting a panel on the subject.
Meadows sees big changes after the panel discussion.
“I would hope that, on one hand, we bring more people into the fire, people who are not aware, but realize that this is an egregious thing that communities have wiped out. And by virtue of their humanity, they want to join that choir. The other is developers beware. Because we've now got an army of people who are going to recognize what you might be attempting to do, and will push back against us. And then I like the fact that you know, is culture that we're using as a weapon now weaponizing culture. More often than not, it gets caught up in the roundtable,” Meadows said.
Culture will be brought into the upcoming conversation. It will break the vicious cycle and present a new way of going about changes.
The panel discussion on the impacts of urban renewal and gentrification will take place Wednesday, April 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the Trustees Theater, 216 Broughton St., right after Regina Carter's performance. Carter will appear on the panel alongside Meadows and former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson. To learn more about the Savannah Music Festival, visit savannahmusicfestival.org.