In Search of the Heart of Memphis

Thursday, March 31, 2016

How Memphis Saved Me

(if this is your first time visiting my blog, I encourage you to read the first post, titled First Post - Introduction)

It might seem an exaggeration when I say that Memphis saved me. Or perhaps just a metaphor. It’s neither.

California, Newport Beach, wasn’t working for my wife and me. Since the day we moved in together back in 2012, it seemed as is evil forces had rained down upon us. We were like a couple of warriors banded together in a tight circle, fighting off anything and everything that came at us. From our little house a few blocks from the beach - spare us your tears, I know - in exactly three full years we endured two floods, a court battle over my son that went on and on for that entire three years, and the death of my mother and the disaster she left behind. 

The fallout from all this resulted in the obvious emotional and financial headaches. And, for good measure, my career was reaching a crossroads, I had a couple of stress-inspired trips to the hospital, and finally, the house we were leasing was scheduled to be torn down by the end of the fall. 

Now I’m not the kind a guy to wallow. Most of the time. I’m upbeat and positive and I like to assume the best in situations and in people. But our day to day was dark. It was dreadful in that even on good days, we lived with the sense of What Next Big Thing out of our control is going to happen today?! And all of it when the two of us had a very good household income and lived in one of the most desirable places on the planet. 

Wait a moment! you might say. All of these Big Bad Things had nothing to do whatsoever with where you lived! 

If that were true then it would be true that where one lives - place - has nothing to do with what happens in your life or your happiness. This is decidedly not true. (Note: I am borrowing again the concept of “place” from Wanda Rushing’s Memphis and The Paradox of Place) Along with career and love and health, Place can have almost everything to do with your sense of happiness.

Place determines cost of living (more on this later). 
Place is neighborhood.
Place is people - their outlook, their attitude, their friendliness, their hospitality, their “realness.”
Place is the weather, or lack thereof.
Place is family, or absence thereof. 
Place is opportunity.
Place is the food!
Place is the entertainment!
Place is natural amenities.
Place is the framework that forms your foundation.
Place is the value you place on life.

Ok we got it! Place! I promise not to say “place” too much more.

But I think it’s fairly indisputable that where one lives is important. And surrounded by the beauty that was the beach community of Newport Beach, life where we lived was not being too kind to us. 

I’ll write more later on how being in the place that is Newport Beach hurt us rather than helped us, but life seemed to hit us the hardest in the months that followed our initial discussions to move back to the South. As though God and the universe kept pushing us to leave, one thing after another told us that we needed to leave California behind, and as soon as possible. The court battles over my son, the dust of the disaster my mother’s death left behind, my health and career, our finances, all were peaking or bottoming out with nowhere to look but OUT. And that house, slated as a tear-down, seemed to be pushing us out the door.

So when we hit the road east, we left with more than just an open road before us. We left with an open life in front of us. A chance to start over. And how many people really are given a chance to start over? 

Memphis gave me that chance. And more than that, the city took me as part of its brethren. In ways that I still can’t fully describe, and in ways that I will be exploring in this blog, the city became a part of me. 

There is redemption in Memphis, as there is in me. There is growth, there is redevelopment, there is opportunity. There is a fighting back. This city has had to get up and out of the mud so many times, from fighting Yellow Fever and racism and crime and blight, to fighting to restore life to a city that was once, after the assassination of Dr. King, declared dead. 

You see, I understand all that. Because in so many ways that’s me too.

The Winchester Building Downtown, being repurposed,
renovated into a boutique hotel

I feel it when I see how Overton Square and Cooper Young turned around. I feel it with the growth of South Main. I feel it with the comeback that downtown is making. I feel it when the old, rundown and empty is being seen for the beauty that it is, and for the relevance that it can be again. 

But I also feel it when I learn more about what happened here in the 60’s and 70’s. I feel it when I see empty places where buildings used to be, stairs leading to lots that have been vacant for over forty years. I feel it when I see little signs here and there of causes that were fought, and of what was once. And, what could be again. 

What was could be again.
Walker Ave, South Memphis
(google image)

Memphis, like me, can be the comeback kid.

I believe we are in a golden age here in Memphis. I have a sense that if the city continues the way it has in just the last few years alone - supporting the creative classes, supporting the revitalization of torn neighborhoods and fighting crime - then the march toward this redemption will continue. 

And I know its not just me. I’ve talked to so many people who feel this optimism as well: native Memphians who never left, transplants, and those who left Memphis and decided to come back and give it another chance.  

Its a golden age here in Memphis. I hope its a golden age for me too.


Please share your thoughts on why you feel optimistic about the city. If you’re a returnee, why you returned. If you never left, why you feel hope today. And if you’re new to the city, even if by a few years, why you see a bright future here.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Memphis - Soul and City

(if this is your first time here, I encourage you to first read the First Post - Introduction)

I believe that when we move, we don’t find a city; the city finds us. 

And if it’s true that cities find us, then the city as a place, as a moment in time, as the sum of all it’s people and it’s parts, must have a soul. This could not be more true than it is here in Memphis.

“Memphis has soul,” a new friend said after I’d been here for a month. And he was right. I had yet to discover and uncover what I have as of this day, but already, after just a month, I could sense Memphis’ soul. 

Where is this soul? How does one know a city has soul? Is it in it’s history? Its ghosts? Can we see it or taste it or feel it like a warm breeze? Does it sneak up on us? 

It’s all of those, and then some. It’s in its food. It’s in its buildings, large or small, brick or lumber, shining or broken. It’s in its streets, wide or narrow, paved or un, potholes and all. It’s in its music - of course it’s in its music. 

Just sing aloud a bar of any one of a thousand songs that mention Memphis. “Help me information give me Memphis, Tennessee…” “Cleaned a lotta plates in Memphis…” “I met a, gin soaked bar-room queen in Memphis…” 
(Addicting, isn’t it? Save it for iTunes later.)

And it’s soul is in its people. Or really, for Memphis, I think, it’s in its people, it’s by it’s people, it surrounds its people, and its soul exists despite its people. Despite them, because it seems to this newcomer that there are those who have lost touch with their city’s soul, and maybe, just maybe, their own souls as well. This is true in any city, and would be true here too.

After that one month I began to feel it. Fresh from California, ready for a new chapter, the city’s soul captured me in little doses that I discovered in reflective moments. A drive down Walnut Grove in the fall, bright autumn leaves swirling all around and overhead. Stepping foot into Gus’s downtown, waiting for a table, breathing in the anticipation of that first bite of perfect fried chicken. Watching a river sunset for the first time, the sky ablaze in orange and purple, turning the three bridges into an cantilevered silhouette connecting Arkansas to Tennessee. Watching the rain fall and listening to the rumbles of a good ol’ southern storm. 

Memphis’ allure is not a shout from the rooftops kind of allure. It doesn’t announce itself with silver skyscrapers and streets of gold. Its not a blond bombshell kind of seduction. It doesn’t flutter it’s eyelashes at you like a party hostess offering a cocktail. It let’s you work around the room and get lost, after you’ve sampled the expensive hor d’oeuvres and the glitterati of other cities, and it lets you discover it in its modesty. Memphis is the pretty, demure girl by the fireplace, who is already talking to friends, smiling, who conveys intelligence and quiet confidence, but with a need for recognition. But only the right kind of recognition. She seeks a connection that looks past the emptiness of the bright lights, instead to depths and complexities that only the soulful can embrace. Memphis comes alive for you only if you’re smart enough to love her body and soul, embracing her flaws and all her scars. 

I talk to Memphians daily about these things. No, I don’t talk in metaphors and I don’t make such rhapsodic recitations face to face - I ain’t dat eloquent. But I do tell them, after they’ve asked me if I like it here, that “I love Memphis. I really fell in love with this city.” And they invariably get this look on their face. It happens all the time. They look down, they reflect for a moment, and they say “Ya, I love Memphis too. We get a bad rap, but…” And that’s where each of these conversations become very interesting. Because long-time Memphians, when expressing their love of Memphis, seem to have this air of reserve in their voices. As though they are having to make an excuse before expressing passion, having to defend the city and themselves for loving it. Quietly saying “I love it,” as though secretly wondering if anyone will overhear.  

Has Memphis been dumped on that much? And for that long? Have we been the underdog, for that long? I will learn this. Have Memphians had to make that many excuses for their city? Does our crime rate weigh on us? I will learn this too.

But this from the newcomer, like me: Memphis soul is palpable. And it finds you. It is in the food, and the music, in the store fronts that remain and the store fronts that are gone. The present is complex, and the past is filled with mistakes. But it is Memphis’ flaws and her scars that give it her soul. There is no one without the other. And it finds you.

So when I am asked, “Why did you choose Memphis?” I’ll say, and I won’t look away, “Well, it found me.”

Monday, March 21, 2016

Memphis First Impressions

(If this is your first visit, I encourage to read my first post, titled First Post - Introduction)

If you’ve never been to Memphis, what references first pop in your head about the city? Elvis? Graceland? Beale Street? Fedex? The place where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down? 

Your references may stop there. If you give it another few seconds thought you might also think food - BBQ, fried chicken - or music - isn’t Memphis where rock ’n roll got started? - or crime - doesn’t Memphis have a high crime rate?

Before I met my wife that’s about all I knew about Memphis. Before 2011, before I fell in love with the city, I had been here once, for business, and like every frequent business traveler, I often saw a city only from the airport or from the inside of a hotel room before visiting a client. 

The summer of 2012 was the first time I spent any amount of time here. Visiting my wife’s family, I got to see East Memphis, which at the time to me looked like Any Suburb, USA. We ate at Central BBQ. Not bad! We ate Gus’s chicken. Pretty good! We visited Burke’s Books in a re-emerging Cooper Young neighborhood. Kinda cool. We toured Sun Studios. Goose bumps. I love music, I grew up listening to my dad’s Elvis records, so Sun was an experience! Very memorable!

In two blinks we passed through downtown and by the Peabody Hotel. I think I caught a glimpse of the brick facade of Autozone Park. We stayed at the River Inn in Harbor Town. Very nice. We ate at Paulette’s. We went down to South Main. I had a soul burger at Earnestine & Hazel’s and got spooked by their ghosts. Awesome! 

And we visited the Civil Rights Museum. 

There are not enough adjectives to describe the experience one has in visiting the miracle that is the Civil Rights Museum, built into the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was murdered “Early morning, April four.” 

The Civil Rights Museum

The country would be a much better place if every high school student across the country were required to visit this place, one of the most important displays of U.S. history and one of the most moving and relevant narratives of our country. 

Nuf said.   
. . .

But of all of Memphis, that was really all I experienced. On that visit and on subsequent visits I got huge doses of Poplar and Union avenues, which to me looked like Any Nondescript Suburban/Commercial Strip, USA. And when we discussed moving to the South, these were all the references I had.

Union Avenue looking east

I didn't know what I didn't know, not yet. I saw mini strip malls, fast food, banks… Nothing unique here. Nothing noteworthy. Beyond Elvis and Sun and the Civil Rights Museum, the rest of Memphis for me, at the time, lacked any real relevance. 

Now I have this thing with relevance. And a sense of place. I crave them. I grew up in Orange County, CA, a few southern California cities that were unique only because they were, well, in southern California. Beaches. Sunshine. Tacos. Disneyland. That’s it. My grandparents and my uncles and my father came from New York. Queens. Da Bronx. Why couldn’t I have grown up there? Talk about a sense of place! Talk about relevance! History! Jazz! The streets! The subways! The Village! Why couldn’t I have been a New Yorker? 

I could have moved there, years ago. I could have tried to make it there, as Sinatra says. But I stayed in so.Cal for one very good reason, and he’s now going on eighteen years old. But I digress. 

I always knew that after so many years in Orange County that I would spend my waning years elsewhere. I grew up there, but I never had the sense of fitting in. I wasn't a surfer. I didn’t much care for sand in my shorts. I liked having seasons - you know, like cold, or rain, or snow - the OC has sunshine ALL the time, almost. It’s in the 70’s or 80’s ALL the time, almost. Try putting your sweater and your nostalgia on for Thanksgiving and a turkey roasting in the oven when it’s 85 and sunny! 

The only sense of place and relevance and nostalgia I had was at Disneyland. There in that pretend place, there was always awe and adventure and life. But the rest of the OC? No, to me real life was somewhere else. Life. Seasons. Something real. Somewhere else. San Francisco to me was real. Chicago. Even Seattle. Of course Manhattan. I’d even take New Jersey. And hey, when I was in film school, Hollywood was pretty damn relevant. But for me, not the OC. 

So when my wife first proposed the idea of moving to the South, I was enthusiastic. It filled me with anxiety, yes. But it seemed right. And we were ready. Adventure. Culture. Good Food. History. Something real. The South.  

But where? With her family in East Memphis, Collierville, Oxford … should we move to Memphis? No. Memphis was a bit too close. We didn’t want family on top of us day in and day out. My wife had said she couldn’t ever see herself moving back here. I certainly couldn't see it after spending so many visits driving up and down Poplar. And, it seemed Memphians weren’t too keen on Memphis. The crime. I wouldn’t go downtown!  The economy. This city can’t even afford to fix the potholes! You’d be better off in Franklin or Nashville. Neighborhoods? Unless you want to live in Collierville, real estate values are going downhill. Things to do? There ain’t much to do here!  Yes, this is what we heard. 

Ya’ll should move to Nashville! 

Ah! Nashville. Of course! Or heck, we’ll even take a look at Franklin. Yes, Nashville. Music City. Nashville. Growing. Fun. Music everywhere! Nashville’s still close enough to Memphis, close enough to Oxford for weekend visits. And within driving distance of Louisville! Of Chattanooga! Atlanta! A long weekend away from New Orleans! Charleston, SC! Savannah!

Ah yes. Nashville was perfect. 
A little Manhattan on the Cumberland. 
Nashville it would be! 

Until it wasn’t. When I would fall in love instead for the city on the bluffs. To be continued …

a few words on de-annexation, New South, Overton Park-ing

Today I’ll start with this recent de-annexation business. I want to weigh in on it, but really I've only just begun to have enough research under my belt yet to give it my two cents. However I will say this: the vote by the state legislature in favor of allowing certain cities, under vote, to in effect secede from the city of Memphis seems to be another one these jabs at our city from the state capital that I keep hearing about. And I understand that there’s the potential to lose 80-something million in tax revenues if all the targeted cities follow through on leaving, but it also seems that these cities would be doing themselves quite a disservice by choosing to leave the comfort the resources of Memphis provide and instead rely on the resources of Shelby County? 

That's my first take on it. I'll have to revisit that topic after I learn more, and there's always room to learn more.

But on a topic where I feel qualified at this point to have an opinion - this battle between the Memphis Zoo and Overton Park-ing. 

Much has been written about the city council’s hastily drafted resolution and March 1 vote - while park vs. zoo mediation and studies were in progress - to allow the zoo to use the park Greensward for overflow parking, so I’m not going to repeat what’s already been said ad nauseam. But I will say this from the perspective of someone new to Memphis and new to the South: parking on a greensward of a city park that's on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places seems backward and in glaring conflict with what Memphis claims to want to be. 

In my search to understand Memphis and all of the history-I-cannot-know-because-I-didn’t-grow-up-here, among the many books I’ve been reading, I am near finished with Memphis and The Paradox of Place, published in 2009 and written by Wanda Rushing. It is a dense, academic study of What Memphis Wants To Be (my caps for emphasis). In her book, Ms. Rushing explores what Memphis was, what it is, and where it might be going. She places Memphis within a struggle to understand its sense of self, remaining true to the Old South versus striving to be part of the New South, comparable to an Atlanta or a Charlotte.

Now it seems to me that if Memphis’ leaders are intent on putting the city in a position to compete with those cities, or to even outshine Nashville, then casting votes that look the other way in allowing an organization to encroach on an historic city treasure seems like a shot in the foot, and on the wrong side of progress. From an outsider's perspective, allowing overflow parking on a park green seems backward and makes us look like a city unable or unwilling to move forward. People and businesses looking to relocate here could look at Overton Park and the city council’s position and instead of seeing a city and a park going green like the rest of the country, will see… an historic park being used as a parking lot? 

Here’s a recent google maps image. Look at the damage already being done on the greensward. And with the city council’s ‘green’ light, how long before the zoo files motions to pave this?

Its seems ludicrous. Imagine reactions if parking were allowed on the Sheep’s Meadow in New York’s Central Park. Or parking on the rolling greens of Boston’s Common, or allowing museum parking on the lawns of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It doesn’t seem possible that a forward-thinking metropolitan city could condone, let alone approve, such an action.

And yes, I know, Memphis has the more important issues of poverty and crime and education to deal with. But the Greensward controversy serves as a very good example of what Ms. Rushing explored in her book, and is something I will be exploring as I search for the heart of Memphis. And a central question that begs many questions around what Memphis thinks it wants to be. 

What kind of city does Memphis want to be? 
Why do developers and entrepreneurs see such golden opportunities in Memphis?
What kind of city does the city council envision Memphis to be?
What does Memphis treasure for it’s future? And in it’s past?
How big a role does racism play in city politics and business? 
Is fear and regret holding Memphis back?
Where lies Memphis’ true heart?

My search continues…

A Word on Writing, and How This Blog Will Work

The beauty of a blog is that one doesn’t necessarily have to do anything “in order.” That is, the writer is not obligated to tell a story in any particular order. We are allowed to make our own rules. Well, in truth, novelists and poets and dramatists are allowed to break rules as well, but with a blog the writer can make up a structure as he or she goes along. Yes I can make it up as I go as long as I keep ya'll interested. And I love that! I have roughly five or six unfinished, somewhat-historical novels stored in my electronic files. And, like many novelists, I become schizophrenic when I sit down to work on any one of the novels, wracking my brain over structure and character arcs and tone and phrasing and plotting and historical references and …. Arrrrgh! It can be maddening. 

Rare is the day or the hour when I feel in that groove where everything works and the words flow from my fingertips like Mozart on the keyboard. Most writers are like this. On the outside we look calm and cerebral; inside we are a wreck with matter bouncing around in our heads.

Blogs however are (relatively) easy. I can practice stream of consciousness writing like Jack Kerouac. But I won’t go that far… down the road. (see what I did there?)

So for the first “real” post after my first post I’ve decided to jump in with what will be many observations on the current state of Memphis in my Search for the Heart of our city. And to give you the reader an idea as to how I will structure this blog and this search, I will be jumping back and forth between my observations of city affairs and my story. 

So here goes... 

Friday, March 18, 2016

First Post - A Memphis Dedication

This is a blog dedicated to people who are new to Memphis. Who have returned to Memphis. Who have been renewed by Memphis. Who love Memphis. Who have a personal kinship with Memphis. To people who will argue all day and night with those who would oppose or reject or cut down or shame or otherwise sling mud onto the Bluff City, this is your forum. 

Join me on this journey and let’s see if we can together discover the heart of Memphis, for the first time or the second time around.

Friday, March 18, 2016

For me, Memphis is personal. Because it saved me.

I suppose any one Memphian can say that for them the city is personal. For many, their feelings for Memphis are truly personal. What else could they be but personal?

But if you are brand new to a city, how can your feelings for the city become so personal, and how can they happen so quickly? How can one fall in love with a city as quickly as I have? As of this writing I have been in Memphis one hundred and fifty-five days. 134 days if you count only my actual residency (I’ll explain that much later). That’s just over a third of a year. 

So how did I fall in love with the city so quickly? Because Memphis saved me. 

I moved to Memphis a broken person. And Memphis healed me. I moved to Memphis with a lost soul. And here in Memphis I found it again. I moved to Memphis having lost my purpose. And here I found a purpose that I may have been born to pursue.  

Before I tell my story I should point out a few things:
I am not a Millennial right out of college.
I just turned fifty. That’s Five Zero.
I am white.
I moved here from Newport Beach, California. 
I was born and raised in southern California.
I have spent a great deal of time the last 15-25 years in New York City.

I love New York. My father and uncles and grandparents are from the Bronx and Queens. My blood, it seems, is from New York. In fact, for much of my life I imagined my life as though I lived in The City. So why Memphis? Of all places. New York, Newport Beach, why the hell did I move to Memphis?! 

I’ve heard this many times: “Its either a job or a spouse.” 

In my case it’s a spouse. My wife is a Memphian. God bless her. From East Memphis eleven years ago she left the city and moved to, you guessed it, Newport Beach, CA, which is of course where we miraculously met. (Cue the violins. Or better yet, Elvis’ Mystery Train) And after those 11 years - for her she had had enough of the perpetual sunshine and warm air (heads) - she longed for The South. She missed her family, the people, the culture, the food, the friendliness, the seasons. She missed it all. And it wasn’t too hard for her to convince me to move east.

Still, why Memphis? Why not… why not Nashville? 

Err err err err err…. Did I just hear a needle scratching into the grooves of a record? Yep! 

I’ll keep this short and tell you that we almost moved to Nashville. For all the reasons you can imagine, we almost moved to Nashville. Almost. 

But we didn’t. And thank God!

So now you know. I came to Memphis for my wife, I’m around fifty, white, and I arrived here broken. Broken for reasons I may or may not divulge, I’ll figure that out later. But here I am. And I am so proud that I am. 

But know this: This blog is more than just what’s fun about Memphis. It’s more than Memphis in May and Overton Square and Elvis and Gus’s Fried Chicken and the Civil Rights Museum. For me also about Blight. About the poor. About ignorance and unspoken prejudice. About what Memphis wants to be, what it can and can’t be, what it refuses to be, where it’s headed and where it’s heart is. 

Officially I’m not a historian or a social scholar. Nor am I an expert on civil rights or new urbanism. But I am an observer, and a new Memphian. And it’s personal. 

So how did Memphis save me? Why is it so personal? If you join me on this discovery, you’ll see why. You might even feel the same things as I. I’ll bet that you do.