In Search of the Heart of Memphis

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Who Is Memphis Anyway?


More St. Louis than Nashville. More Nashville than St. Louis. More New Orleans than Nashville. More Delta Blues than Arkansas or Kentucky. A little bit of Mississippi, a little country and a little city, as much Midwest as the South. 

I’ve been trying to figure it out. I’ve been considering everything from the music to the food to the style of dress, have been taking in city attitudes and prejudices and politics, have driven or walked along the avenues from South Main to Midtown and all the way out to Collierville. 

One thing is for certain, the term “Mid-South” is most definitely appropriate. Get in your car and drive a little over three hours in any direction and you can end up in any one of seven states, seven, not including Tennessee, from Alabama to Illinois. Tack on another 2-3 hours beyond that and you can add another six or eight states to the mix. That’s up to sixteen states, including the TN, within less than a day’s drive. That’s exactly one-third of the lower 48. Not many cities, if any, can make that claim.



It’s no wonder then why Memphis is a natural as the transportation hub of the country, and why Mr. Smith moved his little air freight business here in 1973. 

With so many states surrounding us, I get the sense that Memphis is a perfect melting pot of the towns, cities and regions that are within our reach. Who Memphis is is a mix of a little bit of everything right here over the bluffs.

Let’s start with the food. The food! Now I had to do a little extra research for this, but here goes. 

The fried catfish I love so much comes from Mississippi, most of it from Humphreys County, down near Vicksburg. 

Shrimp 'n Grits out of Deep South Magazine

The shrimp and grits I crave every now and then is borrowed from the Gulf Coast. The grits from descendants of African slaves as a traditional breakfast food, the addition of shrimp from North Carolina (look it up), picked up by Charleston and city by city all the way down to Nah’lins (New Orleans, my poor pronunciation).

The fried chicken originated, according to my research, from African slaves in Scotland who were introduced by the Scottish to the methods of deep frying chicken in fat. African slaves brought their methods here to the South, added spices, and there you have it.  

BBQ, our Memphis-style, pork rib and/or shoulder, slow cooked for hours, sweet tomato-based-sauced BBQ, originates with inexpensive cuts of meat, cultivated again by Southern African-Americans as a means to feed their families on the cheap.

I’ll stop there with the food. But do you notice a theme? Most of the traditional Southern fare we white folks love so much comes from our African-American friends. I realize many of you know this fact, but I had an ah-ha moment over it a few years ago, and the irony has stuck with me now that I live here.

How about Memphis music? We are The Home of the Blues and The Birthplace of Rock ’n Roll. And we can’t forget the 60’s soul music out of Stax Records. But where did it all come from? 

Images of America, old Beale Street

I’ll keep it short, but our blues was birthed from good ol’ Delta Blues from Mississippi that spread in all directions, and was taken to the halls and clubs along Beale Street, the old Beale Street, owned by African-Americans and long before the King assassination and urban-removal

Rock ’n roll comes from all over the South, a combination of African-American blues, jazz and soul, thrown in to a mix of country music and old country swing. Its earliest incarnations actually could be heard in the late 40’s and early 50’s, but we all know where it really took off. Two guys, Phillips and his little studio called Sun, Presley and his hips, mixin’ it all up into what to me is still definitively Memphis. 

Booker T. and the MG's crossing in front of Stax

And of course the soul music of Stax Records, born here in Memphis in the old movie theater converted into recording studio, where Booker T. and his MG’s and Pickett and Otis and Hayes made vinyl history.

The same African-American-roots theme emerges from our music as with our food. 

And it all makes sense. Let’s take a quick look at Memphis’ industrial and demographic roots. What drew people here way way back in the day? The cotton trade and slavery of course. When the Memphis and Charleston Railroad was completed in 1857 it established the only west to east rail line from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean, and Memphis became the means to ship cotton from Southern plantations all over the South, to the Atlantic and on to England. Memphis boomed.



And then after the Civil War, yellow fever. Not just one outbreak, but several. Enough to take tens of thousands of lives or to drive thousands of people away from the city. And who fled? Mostly the upper classes who could afford to leave, leaving behind a rag tag group of some Irish, German, and a majority of, you guessed it, African-Americans. 

Into the late 1800’s those poor whites and blacks who were left rebuilt the local economy on the continued need for cotton, and later for lumber. With a rebuilding economy, and with the yellow fever long gone, elite white men returned to reclaim the city.

I don’t have to tell you about the years of conflict that ensued. 

Fast forward to today, and me sitting in on one of those big business breakfasts east of the 240. One of the speakers is starting off his speech by apologizing for the scruff in a week-old beard, telling everyone that he promised his college-age daughter he wouldn’t shave so long as her college basketball team continued to win. Now, I typically sport a 4- 5-day old beard, and as I looked around the room I realized that I was the only man among almost two hundred, besides the speaker, who had whiskers below his chin. (This wasn’t the image I had when moving to Memphis. St. Louis or Indianapolis maybe, but not rockin' ’n rollin’ Memphis.) 

And then something else happened. As I continued to look over the crowd of clean-shaven faces, bow ties and navy suits of the same shades and colors, I started to notice a distinct lack of color. Out of the close to two hundred mostly men sitting and listening to the speaker, I am sure I could count less than ten African-Americans. These were influential business leaders in a city more than half minority, and only about 5% of Memphis’ black population was represented.

And then it hit me. The pattern emerged. Picture clean-shaven white men talking bottom lines versus the hot oil and jive in Gus’s kitchen. Bow ties and tight-lipped suits juxtaposed with the swivel of Elvis’ hips. 

Who is Memphis? Memphis in the last hundred and fifty years is textured by the black culture of the Mississippi Delta mixed with the age-old influences of white men and the cotton trade. It’s still here. Call it the Mississippi River Mix. There may no longer be cotton traders up and down from St. Louis to New Orleans, but history is a powerful thing. The foundations of cities form the character of cities, by generations upon generations passing down industry, food, stories, attitudes and perceptions. And those old Memphis influences from up and down the river are still mixed in the mud. 

We’re not a country music town like Nashville. We have little cultural influences here from Arkansas, as best as I can see anyway. Our Tennessee bourbon may be a derivative of Kentucky bourbon, but Memphis is a Mississippi River town. The railroads may travel west-east carrying goods but the culture, the DNA, the grit(s) and grind and soul, who Memphis is, is still delta influenced.

And it’s still in conflict. 

Of course not even close to the degree it once was, but it’s still there. It’s there in the 1% of the city’s total for business receipts by Africa-American-owned businesses. One percent! In a city where the population is more than 50% black. It’s there, as reported in the Commercial Appeal earlier this year, in the “'statistical inference of discrimination’ in the issuance of (city) contracts.” Its there in the way daily murders of predominantly black of blacks is so flatly delivered in the news as just another, well, this is Memphis today, and now for your Mid-South weather.

I’m not pretending to have any answers. And perhaps no one ever will. Memphis has oh about two hundred years of discrimination under its belt to simply be wiped away in the here and now.

The racism, though by all appearances docile, still exists. Talking to a friend the other evening, we touched on this issue. “At least Memphis talks about it to a degree,” he said. True. The Mayor has discussed it, business leaders discuss it, our Congressman Cohen has discussed it. 

But away from print and the spotlights, behind closed doors or during daily commutes on the 240, it’s thought. A bitterness that sits just beneath surface, said in afterthoughts. I’ve heard them.

“Memphis will never be what it once was.” Or “Used to be you could go downtown, and we didn’t have any problems.” And “There was a time everyone knew their place, and it was fine.” 

Yes, it’s still here. Older generations for sure, who forget that the Peabody isn’t boarded up anymore, but it’s here.

And then I think about the irony again, in how so much of what we celebrate about Memphis today, the food and blues and soul music in particular, was born and raised right here in this town by generations of African-Americans. It’s no wonder then, as I learned recently from Wanda Rushing’s Memphis and the Paradox of Place, that there were many mainstream Memphians, older whites and even some middle-class blacks, who for years didn't like the idea of Memphis as the birthplace of rock ’n roll. It still shocks me to hear older Memphians say that they “never really cared for that Elvis.” His music and the rest of the blues were viewed as “racial,” “outsider,” and associated with “low-down culture.”

Which takes me back to my first question. Who are you, Memphis?

The people I spend time with, in the progressive circles of all the organizations dedicated to Memphis change, seem to understand and embrace what Memphis was and what it can be. But there is still that other, older Memphis that hasn’t quite shaken off the Memphis of its collective youth, when “everyone knew their place.”


Cotton Carnival Coverage in Life Magazine

And to those older attitudes that are revealed in private conversation, I want to say that hey, this is not a city of cotton traders or slavers anymore. The heyday of the old Cotton Carnival is long gone. Like it or not, this town grew up in the mud of the Mississippi Delta, like weeds you cut down for years and years, cut down, bulldozed, paved over and built over. Those weeds have bloomed and flowered, and you’ve had over fifty years and a couple of generations of Memphians to embrace them. Stop the bulldozing and face the music, cuz it’s damn good.


You native Memphians may know this, it’s in your blood, but we newcomers are discovering it anew. And though I still don’t have that Who is answer, I think I’m getting closer. Your thoughts folks?

Friday, May 20, 2016

Earning My Memphis “Street Cred”

noun: street cred
  Commanding a level of respect in an urban environment due to experience in or knowledge of issues affecting those environments.  

Cred, as in credibility. That above definition comes from urbandictionary.com.  “He’s been thru it all. His street cred is undeniable.”

If you’ve been reading my blog I don’t have to repeat that I am new to Memphis. As of this writing I have almost seven months of Memphis mud under my boots. And in no way does seven months qualify as “street cred.” Or does it? Makes me wonder, without a full lifetime here, if it’s possible for me to earn any real Memphis street credibility. Takes me back to a question I posed weeks ago about ever becoming a true Memphian. Is an outsider always going to be an outsider?  

I got stuck on this idea over the last few weeks after a locally well-respected business leader, when asking about my objectives for this blog, told me that in order to gain true respect, I might need to earn my street cred.

“Street cred?” I asked. 

“Yes, street cred,” he said. “For example, you could live poor for a month in an abandoned house in the hood in South Memphis or something.”

Ah, that kind of street cred. Cred in it’s deepest urban definition, street-wise in a rough, African-American community. 

Maybe this fifteen-years-my-junior guy was messin’ with my new-to-Memphis pre-retirement angst. But, Uh, No. No disrespect, and not to appear cowardly, but I’m not going to perform that kind of social experiment at my age. In my early twenties L.A. film-school days I could see myself doing something like. But I’m a half-century old. I’ve got AARP knocking on my door. And maybe I don’t look it, but I still have to earn a living. 

I AM NOT here yet.

That same urban dictionary definition referred to “a level of respect.” So perhaps there are levels, or grades I can achieve in earning my Memphis credibility. My own Memphis S-C. And here’s what I’ve done:

I learned how to make a proper half-sweet Southern Iced Tea. 

Oh, man, that ain’t earning any cred. Well, if there are grade levels there are grade levels, and we all have to start somewhere.

A good half n’ half iced tea - about 4 cups of boiled (not still boiling) water, 2 bags of Luzianne’s tea for a minimum of 5 minutes, about a half-cup real pure cane sugar, then about 4 cups cold water, refrigerate. Done. If my mother-in-law can give me the thumbs up I know I’ve got it. And I even like it, to the point where I know who has the good tea around town and who doesn’t.

Impressed yet? Didn’t think so.

Real, Stone Ground Grits. It's an art.

I make red beans and rice. Pretty good too. I learned how to make shrimp and cheese grits. Real grits. Not instant. I’ve made ‘em a few times now. Got ‘em just right about… once. 

I got me some good ol’ cowboy boots. We had been in town for barely a week - well, in Collierville waiting for our belongings to catch up with us - when I noticed men around town in boots, and I just had to have a pair. 



If you’re a boot person, treat yourself to a trip to C’Ville’s Town Square and walk into Hewlett & Dunn boot store. They’ll talk about boots, show ya boots, and tell ya how they’re supposed to feel around your feet. And mine, they feel fantastic. I could walk in them all day. I could wear ‘em to bed. Yes they’re that comfortable. I wear them whenever I can.

And then I noticed something. After our furniture finally arrived and we moved into our Midtown apartment and we went out and about town, few men were wearing boots. Is Memphis not a boot town? Nashville - I know, I know - sure as hell is. 

But in proudly wearing my boots to everything from music joints to trips to Target to dinner out, and to networking events and to an interview with a recruiter and to city advocacy events and to neighborhood association meetings and to city council meetings … I wasn’t seeing many men in boots. Guys in marketing and the arts - some of them sport boots. But not most businessmen.

Back to street cred. While I haven’t made myself homeless to establish it, did you notice what I have done?

Shortly after we were settled in, after I had I gotten more of a taste for Midtown and Downtown and South Main, after the holidays had passed, that falling-for-Memphis thing started to truly sink in. And I found myself not only falling for the city, I found myself defending it. And wanting to join the so many other voices who feel compelled to defend it, improve it, be an advocate for it, and fight for its heritage.

I started an Instagram account, documenting
my discovery of Memphis, and found myself
wanting to help preserve old structures like these.


So I dove in. I dove in headfirst. 

Before I proceed, I gotta ask: How many of you have ever picked up everything and moved from your hometown or home state and to a new city?  Show of hands. Hmm, ok. Not bad. 

Out of the above, how many of you moved to a city in which you knew no onenooo-body in the business community? No leads, no contacts. Hmm, ok. 

Out of the above, how many of you made this leap after 30? After 40? 

I’ll admit it. The older you get the harder it becomes to be fearless. There’s those R things to worry about, like Responsibility and Retirement and… and Rogaine and slower Reflexes. About to turn 50, seriously mulling over a career change well away from the corporate world I had known since my mid-twenties, I dove in. I said, W-T-F, I’m doin’ it. Gonna act like a 20-something and take the leap. (I’m gonna have’ta take some Cred points for that.)

I attended every event I could find that was dedicated to all and everything for Memphis advocacy and change and improvement. I attended any event held by or sponsored by anything Memphis, Memphis-This and This-Memphis and That-Memphis. You know them… Livable Memphis and Leadership Memphis and City Leadership. Innovate Memphis and Emerge Memphis and Memphis CVB (say it with me, Convention and Visitor’s Bureau). You should see my Safari bookmarks and my Eventbrite calendar! Choose 901 and Indie Memphis and Memphis Heritage. Joined the Memphis Chamber and subscribed to everything, from the CA and the Daily News to the MBJ and Smart City Memphis and High Ground News.



“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” One of my favorite lines of any song. And with nothing to lose and everything to gain, I dove in to all of it. I dove in far enough to where I started to feel like “that guy.” As in, there’s That boot guy again. The University Club and an AMA luncheon, there he is. Co-Work Memphis and a panel discussion, there he is again. Civil Rights Museum, the Circuit Theater, Loflin Yard, City Hall, there he is like Zelig. 

A recent Executive City Council meeting. I'm in the back.

I doled out all versions of my business card and I collected dozens upon dozens of cards from all walks of Memphis life. I emailed the Downtown Commission and heads of businesses and bloggers I began to admire.

“I want to promote Memphis,” I would say. “I love this city,” I said. “I want to be a change agent,” I would say. I Want to be A Part of It, ba-bump! (Sorry, wrong song.) 

I met and talked to key business leaders, learned about the movements developing Soulsville USA and Crosstown Arts and the Blight Elimination Charter, and just plain got involved. And I think that earns me at least a little of that S-C. 

So whether you’re 25 or hitting the 5-0, get involved. New to Memphis? Get involved. Be fearless. Don’t just eat at all the restaurants you find on Yelp, or follow the Events guide in the Flyer. Get out there. Go to events. Just about everything in Memphis is f-r-e-e Free. Volunteer for things. Go to city council meetings (that’s a whole other story). Attach yourself to a cause you feel passionate about. I’ve been to just about every major city in this country, and Memphis is arguably the most accessible city out there for getting involved and meeting people. Key people. You want to meet that CEO? Do a little homework and a little networking and you can likely get a few minutes or even a meeting.

And hope that someone notices. Notices enough to take a chance on you. No matter how old, or young you are. 

Notices that Hey, All right, you’ve earned yourself a little street cred. And by the way, I like those boots.





Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Tried and True Memphian Has Left Us


We lost a beloved family member this past weekend. She was born here in Memphis, she accompanied my wife to California in 2004, and she returned with both of us last October in our trek across the country and back to Memphis. 

She brightened our mornings, our days, and our evenings in front of the TV. She was easy-going and never raised a fuss. She didn’t read the newspaper, she didn’t get involved with what’s happening in Memphis, she wasn’t aware of the Greensward battle, nor school closings, budget cuts, shootings, de-annexation, or how the city council runs things. And she didn’t care. All she knew was that she was happiest here in Memphis and when we were by her side.

She was our cat. Little Miss Sable. And she died quietly in our arms Sunday morning, on of all days, Mother’s Day.



Of course I wouldn’t devote a blog post to something so apparently irrelevant and unrelated to Memphis if not for two things. First, her life and passing just deserves the honor - this is my little eulogy. And, little Sable was a lot like Memphis, determined and odds-defying. 

There’s a great moment in the movie “As Good As It Gets,” when Jack Nicholson’s acerbic and obsessive-compulsive Melvin Udall tears up while playing the piano in his living room, a private moment of longing after returning to his neighbor the adorable little dog Verdell, with whom he had formed an unexpected bond. Mr. Udall plays the piano, holds back tears, looks over at the empty dog bowl on the floor, laughs at himself over getting weepy and says, “Over a dog!” 

Now if you’re not a cat person, just bear with me. But my wife and I were more than weepy Sunday over our little one. In fact the grief I felt that day hurt more than I imagined it would. And the fact that Sable passed on Mother’s Day was all the more … ironic, apropos, extra sad… I don’t know. Because for my wife, little Sable was her only “child.” 



Sable - I often affectionately called her Toots or Tootsie - lived a long life of almost 20 years, especially long for a Persian. Persians are often prone to a variety of kitty illnesses: leukemia, heart disease, kidney problems. And though Sable didn’t suffer from any of those, her life began and was filled with various health problems. She was a runt of the litter, and could fit in my wife’s one hand. Her vet here in Memphis, when he first examined Sable the kitten in 1997, said to my wife, “You paid $300 for this one?” 

Sable went through it all. She had surgery to rebuild most of her intestinal tract. Still she pressed on. She had a cancerous tumor removed. She had chemo. And she pressed on. She was treated for heart disease. She pressed on. She had a marble-sized cyst removed from her back side. Again she pressed on. She lived nineteen and a half years (that’s about 95 to you and me) when the odds gave her only a few. She was one smart and determined little beast. 


Our little nugget

And in that spirit I think of her as a true Memphian. Born here, she was my wife’s companion through thick and thin. From their early days off Kirby Pkwy and Poplar, to their little apartment at the Kimbrough, and finally two-thousand miles west to California, she and my wife were partners through ups and downs. And then came me. 

As fate and grace would have it, I was lucky enough to meet them in the late spring of 2011. I fell in love with them both. 



By then Sable was already pushing 15, but she was sweet and spunky and obstinate as though she were more than half her age. She liked to rub on my shoes when I would get ready to leave, as if to say “don’t go.” She would hop up on the sofa, plant herself right next to you, and stare at you until you petted her. On those evenings in the front of the TV, she would grant you about an hour of cuddling next to you - not on you, Persians aren’t known as lap cats - but when you’d scratch her little face and then take a break she’d paw at you and grab your hand and pull it back toward her. 

Like many cats, she loved drinking out of a faucet. In her case she preferred the bathtub. But in her older age she couldn’t jump up and in by herself, so she’d inch her way toward the front of the tub, look up and stare at you until you got the message that she wanted in, and when she knew you were reaching down to pick her up, “You want in the tub, Toots?” she would let out a meow or two and start purring until she settled in under the drip drip drip of the faucet. #whysyourfacewet 

Sable was born missing one fang. And animals lovers know that a missing fang means she had trouble getting food into her mouth. So eating for her was a chore. At times she looked like someone bobbing for apples, fighting for every bite. On many occasions my wife would sit with her and feed her bite after bite of her favorite crunchy snacks, and Sable would do her little balancing act, put her head up, and use gravity and her tongue and her other little fangs to get the nibble into her mouth. 



And then there were sushi nights. In Newport Beach we lived around the corner from a sushi restaurant. And whether we dined in or picked up our food to go, we would always get an order of salmon sashimi (Sake, as they call it), or sometimes Maguro (tuna) just for the little beast. And before we could open up any containers, she could smell the fish and she’d be all over us. Even if she were fast asleep in a back bedroom, we’d give her a whiff of the fish - “Sable? Want a treat?” - and she’d hop down and follow us all the way into the living room. (We had sushi just last week, so Toots got a little fresh salmon treat in her final days)

Every year she got a little older and we had to babysit her a little more. Each morning we’d look around the house for errant, um, tootsie rolls. “Oh, she went in the bathroom again.” Or, “Look under the desk.” 

“Sable… Tootsie! What are you doing little nugget? Your box is clean. Why here?”

As it turns out, we think it was our house in Newport that was the culprit. In our three years in that house we had a running, not-so-funny joke that the house was cursed. I’ve mentioned this is prior blog posts, but it was in that house where we endured floods and court fights and family deaths and all sorts of challenges that came at us weekly. We are sure that Sable felt all of it, taking on our stresses and acting out in ways only cats can. And when we packed up our car and walked out of that house bound for Memphis, we knew we were leaving behind a time and a place that all three of us - me, my wife and Toots - were all too anxious to leave behind.


The back seat of our car, four days and four nights,
California to Tennessee



We had fears about how well our little almost-19-year-old would fair during our 2000-mile journey, hours upon hours in the car and each night in another hotel room. But we made the back seat into a little Sable bedroom, and she did just fine. We even let her meander around above the rim of the Grand Canyon - she couldn’t run anymore, so we just walked along by her side as she enjoyed the sights and smells of the great outdoors. And the owners of a little restaurant in Shamrock, Texas even invited her in so she could enjoy lunch with us. (Thank you The Roost).

The Roost, a charming restaurant in little
Shamrock, Texas

Once we arrived here in Memphis and settled in, she was comfortable right away. She ate more. She didn’t look 19 going on 20. She looked, oh, not a day over 13. Everyone would ask, “She’s nineteen? No way!” She seemed more perky. And we didn’t find random morning surprises around the house anymore. It was as though she knew she was home, where she belonged, back in Memphis. 

Right back at the Kimbrough where she belonged

In her very last days we all, Sable included, kinda knew the end was near. Our vet (the excellent Dr. Debes at Walnut Grove Animal Clinic) told us it was something neurological, maybe a tumor or a minor stroke. Sable was having trouble knowing where she was. But she could always sense us, and wanted to be close to us. Never the lap cat, she would sleep on our laps or my chest for an hour or more. She wanted our attention as close to 24-7 as possible. Never before liking to be held, in the last days she would yell, “Meoaarrrw!” at me from across the room until I picked her up and held her, and put her right next to me while I worked. 



And, she was right there with us, in our laps, until her very last moments. 


Our little Memphian. With a true Memphis heart. She was resilient. She was lovable. She “talked” to strangers. She defied all odds. She will be greatly missed. But we were lucky to have had her.


Sable, native Memphian
Dec 1996 to May 8, 2016

Friday, May 6, 2016

Turning a Corner On The People’s Green

As my knowledge of Memphis deepens, so does my opinion. So here goes, I’m jumpin’ in - it was inevitable that I would eventually drive a stake in the ground with my own personal take on something that is of concern to many people, including myself.

I am talking of course about the battle between Overton Park and the Memphis Zoo over the Greensward, the open public green space that is the beating and bleeding heart of Overton Park.

If my website and blog are doing the trick, then you are new-er to Memphis, a Memphis advocate, a believer in Memphis, or all of the above. However you categorize yourself, understanding the story of Overton Park will provide the proper context for what’s happening now. 

The Memphis Zoo and Overton Park were birthed more or less together in 1906. By a few heave-ho's the park came first. Our historic Overton Park is Memphis’ version of New York’s Central Park, and was designed as such. It’s on the National Registry of Historic Places. It’s a state and city landmark. 

Overton Park Map, 1906 or thereabouts
(from overtonparkforever.org)

The zoo came to life right after. 

While the famous Memphian, businessman, and outdoorsman Colonel Robert Galloway was busy helping orchestrate the opening of Overton Park, a Southern black bear named Natch (named for Natchez) was dropped off by a neighbor into the lap of the northwest corner of the new park. Galloway and Natch the attraction and a $1200 donation turned it into a zoo.

The first zoo attraction, the caged black bears
(Historic Images)

In 1906 the Memphis Zoo and its caged bears occupied that small northwest corner of the park’s 342 acres. Today that original plot of maybe an acre has been expanded to a footprint of, according to Wikipedia, over 76 acres, or almost a quarter of the entire park. 

The Overton Park story is not unique in battles fought for the survival of other famous and historic city parks. Chicago’s Grant Park faces generational battles over development, Central Park has waged many battles from 1930’s shanty town “Hoovervilles” to negligence and crime in the 1970’s and 80’s, and Crotona Park in the Bronx was split by the Cross-Bronx Expressway in the 1950’s. Overton Park had its own historic battle in 1971 over the fight to stop Interstate 40 from being built through the park’s center, and another lesser-known fight just a few years ago to keep the Greensward from being developed for use as a storm-water retention basin.

And now the Zoo.  


An early-70's map of Overton Park with the proposed I-40
route superimposed over the image. Notice the size of the
zoo in the upper-left, northwest corner of the park.
(from overtonparkforever.org) 


The zoo is both a huge Memphis success story and now the park’s unfortunate adversary. The zoo continued its success through the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, and continued to expand. The zoo was something Memphians in the ’70’s could be proud of, especially after the trauma of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, the demolition of Beale St. and demise of downtown, and the migration to the suburbs into the ’80’s. 

With the zoo’s success came expansion. And then automobiles. The once vibrant Memphis trolley system had long given way to people in their cars, and with the increased parking needs into the 70’s the zoo began encroaching onto the park’s only wide-open green space, the Greensward, using it for overflow parking. 

This arrangement seemed just fine in the 70’s and 80’s, because many people in those days had the perception that the park wasn’t all safe. Long-time midtowners tell me the park “had its diversity, sure, but mostly it was safe.” But I’ve read and heard other people say it was a drug haven, dirty, and a place for random crime and as a pickup place for “those people, the gays.” Meanwhile the zoo and its parking lot seemed to be a safe haven for suburbanites from East Memphis, Germantown, and growing suburbs like those in Cordova or SouthHaven. 

But today is not the 70’s. Today, after year’s of work by the former Memphis Park Commission and now the Overton Park Conservancy, the park is as safe as ever. The historic old-growth forest is vibrant and a refuge from the city for walking, jogging and biking, the eastern part of the park is filled with picnickers on spring and summer weekends, and families have a safe playground and for their kids and “bark” park for their four-legged family members. It has its 9-hole public golf course, the historic Brooks Museum, the Levitt Shell where Elvis held his first public performance, a veteran’s plaza and memorial, and little Rainbow Lake.

The Greensward, the way it should stay
(overtonpark.org)

And the Greensward. It’s used for picnics and birthdays, rugby and soccer games, occasional festivals like this weekend’s Latino Fest, or for a little frisbee or playing catch. It is indeed like Central Park’s great Sheep Meadow, an open do-what-you-want space, and for some, their only real backyard.

And the zoo wants it. 

The historic Greensward, as the Zoo prefers it
(from The Commercial Appeal)

I’ve done my fair share of research, and it’s head-spinning the fights that have been waged in just the last 8-10 years alone for this precious stretch of historically-landmarked lawn. 2008, ’10, ’12, ’14, this year - even years seem ripe for fighting - all have featured fights in the press, in city council chambers, on the lawn itself, over this treasure of acreage meant to be kept open. In it’s original design, Overton Park’s Greensward should not be tampered with. Like the old-growth forest and classic framework of the park within the city, the Greensward is the centerpiece of the park’s history and legacy.

And the zoo seems to be silently lobbying to take it.

Unlike the very public battles that are being waged to Save the Greensward, or to Stop Hurting Overton Park, the suggested and feasible alternatives to parking on the grass (there are many), or petitions on change.org or the moneys being raised for legal fees to fight this use of public land in courts, the zoo has been noticeably silent through much of this. With minor exceptions and through issued statements - not public discourse - the zoo has stayed behind closed doors on this issue. 

Which lends to the belief shared by many that the zoo - and namely the villain in this fight, zoo president Chuck Brady - has the city and future zoo development securely in their back pockets. I’ve talked to many residents. I’ve jumped into the many FaceBook discussions. I’ve read opinions and articles in the Flyer, Smart City Memphis, The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis Daily News. I’ve been to city council meetings. I’ve read comments from those who have said that the land is “underutilized.” (Huh? Why, because someone isn’t paying to use it?)

All these signs point to one disturbing observation: Brady and the Zoo are on a path toward taking the Greensward. 

All the trends throughout the years support this. There have been petitions and protests and noise and stand-in’s and banners and re-directing traffic and bumper stickers and lawsuits filed. But there is only one constant, and that is zoo expansion. First chunks of land in the northern part of the park, then huge swaths of the old-growth forest, and now the Greensward.

Part of the old-growth forest after being chopped down
for more zoo growth. (overtonparkforever.org)

Zoo-claimed forest in green (overtonparkforever.org).
If the zoo took the Greensward, center, there would be
no open greenspace left in the park.

The zoo supposedly has a 10-year plan they won’t publicize. Future expansion into a foot-print that currently belongs to the park. And the zoo has donors. Big ticket donors. Donors who can influence campaigns. And a city council on its side whose majority is either complacent in letting the zoo have its way, or is outright activist in pushing through motions that override a mediation process designed to find a solution to not just the zoo’s parking issues, but to the entire park’s parking overflow problem. 
And I keep coming back to the same thought: Zoo, Greensward. And more.

I said once that Memphis is moving forward, progressing and developing while honoring its history, and it’s doing all that despite itself. “Itself” seems to be those silent but powerful movers and shakers who shape the future of cities, sometimes in the wrong direction. While the rest of us rejoice in the development of Broad Avenue, Crosstown Arts, Soulsville USA, Overton Park, Cooper-Young, Downtown and South Main, there are factions who seem intent on pushing the city in another direction. While many of us marvel at the repurposing of the old warehouses around South Main and the re-use of historic buildings Downtown, there are those who would just as well tear them down.

I haven’t figured out the why's yet - well experience tells me exactly why, but I'll save that for another time. Overton Park is a land-mark, not a car-mark. It’s a haven for people and families and the great outdoors, not underutilized empty space waiting to be developed or paved over by more corporate zoo interests.

And I won't be falling for the "there are more important things than some park lawn to worry about in this city" arguments that I've heard. Everyone must do their part to fight for the present and futures of their own neighborhoods. You fight the fight you are equipped to fight.


And so my discoveries continue.