Written by by Brenna Moloney
On a sunny afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving, I take a short walk from my apartment on the East Side of Saginaw. I'm headed to the Savoy Bar and Grille on Franklin Street for the annual Thanksgiving dinner, which is served free of charge to anyone who needs or wants it. The air is unseasonably warm; the sky is a saturated bright blue and the brick Italianate buildings of downtown stand out warm against it. The red neon of the iconic Savoy sign is friendly and bright.
Downtown Saginaw, on the East side of the Saginaw River, where the Savoy is located, has seen a tremendous amount of disinvestment and demolition over the past 20 years. Many of the city’s largest, most historically significant commercial buildings are here, including the Bearinger Building, the former Bancroft Hotel, the Temple Theater, and the Armory Building. In addition, the area is home to many smaller, 19th century Italianate commercial buildings. This building type is a common sight in most Midwest towns and while they may not be significant in themselves, in concert they give Saginaw its distinctive character and texture.
At the Savoy, there isn't a free parking spot and people are milling at the doorway when I arrive. I've come to meet my friend Levante Carrington, a fellow preservationist and one of my Saginaw heroes who has saved several of Saginaw's residential gems from the wrecking ball. The inside of the Savoy is packed with people - most are sitting at tables visiting as they tuck in to their stuffing and turkey and pumpkin pie, while a few others dash from table to table bringing glasses of lemonade or water to the diners. I recognize two of the volunteer waiters behind the counter serving pie; they are historic district commissioners, Kevin Rooker and Bill Ostash. In a moment Bill comes over with two plates of food and Levante and I dig in while the three of us catch up on the local preservation news. All around us is the cheerful clatter of dishes and silverware and laughter.
Many of the people sharing their Thanksgiving dinner with me at the Savoy this year may be poor, or pressed for time, or many perhaps are just lonely and want to be with other people. The restaurant is packed from 11am-3pm, as it has been every year for the past five years. To me, the people here are a representative cross-section of a shrinking city’s population. They are mostly working class folks but integrated in every other sense: race, orientation, and belief.
I read a lot of blog posts, articles and commentary about shrinking, right-sizing and post-industrial cities, all in the hopes of gleaning some meaning from the conditions I see in Saginaw. In most of these articles, whether they're about Cleveland, Detroit, or Indianapolis, there is an inevitable reference to having to make “tough decisions” in the face of population loss and decline. This, of course, begs two questions: who will make those tough decisions and who will have to live with them?
Though it is surrounded by disinvestment and decline, the Savoy has managed to not only hold on but also become a destination. With events like the free Thanksgiving dinner and their community involvement, owners Steve West and Jim Atwood, have made the Savoy a beacon for the surrounding neighborhoods and business district. The Savoy draws people to the area, and though it is not in one of the areas targeted for right-sizing, it can be an anchor for re-growth at the city’s core and can keep an area stable. My hope is that city leaders and decision makers will look to the Savoy, and similar businesses, to help them build a successful model for neighborhood revitalization rather than apply out-moded or inappropriate development models to commercial districts and the surrounding neighborhoods. Encouraging the types of places that draw people in, let them gather, and give them a sense of connection to the broader community are what shrinking cities like Saginaw need. I’m thankful that a few of those places still exist.
Brenna Moloney is a preservation specialist for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network in Saginaw and Lansing, Michigan. Read her earlier posts on right-sizing.
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