JANUARY 2, 2008
BY ROBIN WRIGHT GUNN
With the arrival of 2008, the Daffin Park Centennial celebration, a
year-long agenda of community events, historical lectures and
fireworks, is officially a memory.
A commemorative booklet published by the City of Savannah features an
essay outlining Daffin Park's chronology and its varied uses over the
yearsautomobile races, temporary airfield, baseball and football
field, and as the site of two Bicentennial celebration events in
1933, one of which was attended by President Franklin Roosevelt. The
role of the park in Savannah's racial civil rights history is
extensively documented, including landmark attempts to integrate the
basketball area and the public pool.
Before closing the Daffin Park history book, at least one overlooked
chapter begs for a little investigation. That chapter is titled "The
People's Park: Ground Zero for Savannah's Counter Culture."
In the late '60s and early '70s I was in elementary school, too young
to be a hippie and too sequestered in the suburbs to know any hippies
personally, or so I thought. When my Uncle Eric gave me as Christmas
presents my first two record albums, Donovan's Greatest Hits and
Simon & Garfunkel's Wednesday Morning 3 AM, I took them at face
value, singing along obliviously to "Mellow Yellow."
I'm told that the impact of San Francisco's 1967 Summer of Love
didn't reach Savannah until two or three years later, while I was
still a member of my mom's Brownie Troop.
Sometime during that era I recall several instances of riding in the
back seat of the car, Mom at the wheel, as we rolled past the corner
of Victory Drive and Bee Road, the location of Daffin Park, a
somewhat neglected section of the unremarkably landscaped public
facility. At some point in this period, less than a decade after
Daffin Park was center stage for two racial desegregation lawsuits,
this corner of Daffin became known as "The People's Park," the
unofficial gathering place for Savannah's hippies.
Savannah's beatnik gathering place was likely named for the original
People's Park in Berkeley, Calif., site of a 1969 confrontation
between 30,000 counter culture folks "armed with peace signs and
daisies" and 2,000 members of the California National Guard,
according to the American Friends Service Committee website.
My recollections of Savannah's People's Park are probably colored
with images of hippies in other places, as seen in news footage and
movies. My "station wagon" memories of Bee Road and Victory Drive
feature dozens of young people, maybe several hundred, sitting on
cars or on the ground.
They looked different from the well-coiffed, dressed-up teens in the
upper grades at my K-12 school. There were beards on the hippie boys,
and blue jeans on boys and girls alike.
One day, as we passed by, I thought I saw the older sister of a
classmate among the milling crowd, but my mother assured me I was mistaken.
In the past several weeks I've inquired of several of my friends,
native Savannahians of a certain age, if they ever hung out at
People's Park. Despite the hordes of people gathering there daily,
I've yet to talk to anyone who was a regular.
Several claim to be too young, estimating that the park was at its
heyday in 1970 or '71. One neighbor recalls her lone visit to
People's Park, sneaking out with her best friend from St. Vincent's,
just to see it.
Another Savannahian went to the gathering only once, to check out a
"Free Lieutenant Calley" rally. A few people claim to have left town
by then, either for college or due to the draft board.
A family acquaintance, an iconoclastic professor at Armstrong during
that period, told me that during the 1970's he made a decision to
stay away from the drug culture prevalent on campus and beyond. By
then he was already married and had children to consider.
Avoiding People's Park was part of that decision.
The drug culture of People's Park was harder core than Savannah had
ever experienced, according to one of my "only visited once" sources.
Pot was everywhere, and heroin was easy to find. Perhaps it's that
hardcore reputation that has made it difficult to find people willing
to talk about this slice of local history.
In the next few weeks I'm heading to the public library to wade
through microfiche copies of the Savannah Morning News for articles
about the Lieutenant Calley demonstration. Now that Savannah's 1970's
hippies have children and grandchildren, some of them hippies
themselves, I'm hoping to find one or two People's Park alumni
willing to share their recollections of this chapter in our history.
If Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil can spawn a minor tourist
industry, why can't a random gathering of hippies?
Email Robin at firstname.lastname@example.org