It's cold in the shadows where a small group of smokers mill about beneath a neon-lit sign.
The sign almost looks like it will extinguish, hushed by the silence that creeps down Bull Street during this midnight hour. A calm chill nips at the Starland District. As one of the smokers turns inside - returning to the thrilling hum of the bass at The Wormhole - he tosses his cigarette. It catches the wind and tumbles across the sidewalk into the street.
For a moment, when the bar's door opens, the party inside audibly spills onto the street and through the Spanish moss lazily hanging like Rip Van Winkle's long bristles. Then the door shuts. The street goes still. The hum of the bass charges on inside.
It's this latter image that has incited backlash from neighbors and residents here, who complain about the loud, intrusive bass. The revelation came last month that the local dive bar and music venue was locked in a noise dispute with the city and area residents as it approached its fifth anniversary one month away.
"Unfortunately, I don't think that it's actually really to the magnitude that it's said it is by our opposition," said The Wormhole bar manager Jeff Neugebauer. "I backed off on some of the bass but I think they're just being silent till the court case."
Residents have complained about the hum of Monday through Saturday shows at the eclectically grunge venue that over the years has attracted big bands such as Saliva and Band of Horses.
But the story of The Wormhole is not one of sound or indiscretion. It is the story of the Starland District, an area that struggles to define itself, at once both a landscape perpetually dilapidated and revitalized. It is sporadically re-imagined, razed and rebuilt, like several misplaced and ill-conceived tattoos.
"It has a lot of potential. If you look at the last four or five years, this area has changed a lot," Neugebauer said. "A lot of people were pretty decently afraid just to walk around, but I mean, now you see lots of activity."
The area is less expensive, albeit "rough around a few edges," per the About page on The Wormhole website, than other downtown locations, where spaces can cost upward of $10,000 a month to rent. It's a uniform struggle to pull business to the area, though since The Wormhole opened in 2009, there have been several major efforts and newcomers.
The First Friday Art March has brought a much-needed crowd of music lovers and art enthusiasts to Graveface Records & Curiosities, Back in the Day Bakery and Art Rise Savannah, formerly known as Desotorow Gallery. And The Wormhole's 300-person capacity hosts shows of varying genres every night except Sundays. All of it past 37th Street, a world removed from downtown.
"That's really the main issue. Mainly, bars are more successful in Savannah because they're in the central area of bar-hopping, which is really popular," Neugebauer said. "The Wormhole is more of a destination. You have to make it a point to come here."
Not for a lack of trying, but Amy Stafford, The Wormhole's proprietor, and Neugebauer have continually worked to comply with city noise ordinances, though progress is slow.
"The best thing is to be optimistic," Neugebauer said. "We want to also show that we're helping as much as possible and of course, you know, by the fundraisers we're trying to do, it definitely shows that we can't afford to build out."
For the dive bar that has catered to a niche area of locals and townies for five years, it's in need of support from those who enjoy it most - its patrons - and doesn't seek to be anything obtrusive, but rather a haven.
"It is just a free and open space for expression and for art in a way that doesn't push in on anybody else or violate anyone else's freedom or space," said Adam Bathe, producer and comedian behind The Wormhole's fifth anniversary party set for Feb. 22. "The only thing that has come up in that form is sound, and I think Amy and Jeff and The Wormhole have done a great job trying to handle this and they really want to see that work so we don't offend anyone in any way."
Aside from the national bands who've packed the venue over the years, local bands come throughout the week and every Wednesday for open mic night. It's where many groups get their starts locally, including full multi-track recording capabilities for bands and live-streaming services for any performing act.
"It's been a great place for us to hone new material and meet people who are dedicated to original music. I look at it as our CBGB," said Garrett Deming of Broken Glow, who headlined the First Friday Art March after-party in November. "Community is very important to us as a band, and Jeff and Amy have fashioned an atmosphere that celebrates collaboration rather than competition."
To many others, it's more than a venue and late-night grub-hub.
"This place just draws you in because of all the new talent, the people you've never seen before, and we're all sharing this wonderful new experience all at the same time as it grows and progresses," Bathe said. "As more people see a place like Savannah, and then they see a place like The Wormhole that shows good promise for a lasting impression in a neighborhood like this, I think people can't help but flock to it."
Beyond the music and perpetual struggles to pacify neighbors and develop Savannah beyond downtown, The Wormhole maintains its stake as a vital vascular member here, no matter how loud it beats.