In Search of the Heart of Memphis

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Madison Is Memphis


“You can observe a lot by just watching,” Yogi Berra once said. And as I’ve learned Memphis I’ve spent a lot of time driving up and down the streets, east and west on the avenues, from Collierville to the river. Being a Midtowner I’ve spend most of my time west of Highland, along Walnut Grove or Central Avenue - avoiding congested Poplar Ave wherever possible - up and down Belvedere and McLean and Cooper here in Midtown, and out and back along Madison for trips to either the environs around Overton Square or for trips Downtown. 

Madison at Claybrook St.



Y'all already know that Madison Avenue became one of my favorites. As observations go, it started with just a feeling. A sense both of what Madison is and what it was. Trip after trip I began to realize, in no particular order:
That it is far less congested than Poplar or Union. 
For just over half it’s length, there are the remaining trolley tracks and supporting cables over the street (a note on the trolleys later)
There are dozens of older, charming, one- and two-story commercial structures up and down the avenue. 
Bars Restaurants Tattoo parlors Second-hand stores Record stores Recording studios Music venues.
It has Overton Square, the original Huey’s, the Gilmore Building and Fino’s.
It passes Marshall Ave, which leads straight to Sun Studios.

And it has the most elegant and dramatic westbound entrance to Downtown. Past Marshall, over a curve and a weave in the road above Danny Thomas Blvd, and then down a gradual approach through brick buildings, toward the light towers of Autozone Park and into the modest Memphis skyline.

The Madison approach into Downtown

I’ve learned that much of Madison remains intact, with a few notable exceptions, like parts of the Medical District, old Russwood (baseball) Park, the interruption of the 240 overpass, the Cash Saver parking lot and the plot of land that was once home to good ol’ Anderton’s Restaurant. But over the length of its four-plus miles it has generally not been paved over, commercialized, demolished, or swept aside in favor of fast food drive-thru’s or chain drug stores, like what has happened on Union Avenue. 

I’ve shared these observations with a few people. I’ve learned that efforts like this have been started before, specific to Madison. More recently, when I’ve spoken of Madison to people in the know, Madison home-owners and business owners and life-long preservationists, I’ve gotten the ah-ha’s and the yes’s and “I’ve got some stories!” Their eyes light up. 

And then I sometimes get this: “So are you an historian, an architect, in city planning…?” 

Nope I’m not. And by starting this Madison Avenue project I created quite a task for myself. What was conceived of as just a photo essay has turned into what it’s turned into: a daunting no-deadlines endeavor to piggy-back on what others have done to continue to document and preserve this iconic Avenue, and tell some of its stories along the way. So no, I’m not an historian, in the sense that I don’t have a degree in history. I’m not on any government boards or commissions, I’m not a city planner, and I’m no architect. (This is actually a good thing for this project, since I’m not tied to any agency nor private firm with any agendas or biased interests.) 

However, growing up everyone told me I was going to be either an architect or a city planner or both one day (insert George Constanza jokes, here), because one of my main hobbies as a kid was drawing and sketching and building anything and everything related to cities: detailed buildings and cityscapes and maps and views-from-above. I was obsessed with cities.

So was the late great Jane Jacobs. And I’m not suggesting that I can stand toe to toe with Ms. Jacobs - if I can come anywhere close to what she accomplished I’d be declared a saint here in Memphis - but she is most definitely the perfect role model in my efforts. Like me Ms. Jacobs was not a city planner. She did not hold a degree in history. 

Ms. Jacobs was a writer and an editor. And she was passionate about the city she wrote most about, her Manhattan neighborhood in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. Among her greatest strengths were both her love for her neighborhood and her powers of observation. 

In those aspects her and I have a lot in common. 

But Ms. Jacobs saw what city planners of the late 40’s and early 50’s could not see in their studies. Cities in those days were perceived as overcrowded and dirty and industrial, not for raising families. And while leaders and planners, back by heaps of federal dollars, were focused on the highway system and the movement of people and their automobiles out of or around cities and out to the suburbs, from her window or stoop Ms. Jacobs observations told her that so-called super blocks and vast plazas don’t work, that highways destroy neighborhoods, that parking lots and sprawl are wastelands for pedestrians. But that the neighborhood, the intimate city-scape, does work.

Overton Square, looking west at Cooper

So do city streets belong to cars or people? Let’s think about this in the simplest of terms. The most successful streets and neighborhoods have a healthy mix of both. Here in Memphis think of Overton Square, Cooper-Young and South Main. What makes these high-density neighborhoods vibrant and attractive? Just-enough street parking or occasional parking garage and lots of walkability. Shops, restaurants, clubs, and services within residential walking distance, and with their proximity to the street, highly-visible. These areas are more conducive to mass transit, or Uber, because of simple pick-ups and drop-offs. More foot traffic and people crossing streets means vehicles must move slower through these areas, which reduces the frequency and degree of collisions. Lastly, more people and more activity at all hours of the day serves as a deterrent to crime. 

This healthy mix is the key idea of new urbanism, which is why what’s left of Madison needs to be preserved. Blocks of it are still walkable. Ma-and-pops still exist in those one- and two-story early-century commercial buildings. Residential neighborhoods still congregate around it. What’s left of our old trolley system is still there. What’s left of old Memphis is still there. To again borrow the phrase “Midtown is Memphis” - Madison is Memphis.

So, Here we go!

As I mentioned in my previous post, my journey will begin at East Parkway and move west to Downtown and Front Street. But why that way? Why east to west? Doesn’t Madison begin at Front Street? 



It does. In fact there’s a marker at Front Street that designates Madison and Front as a kind of starting point, from zero, of Memphis to all points beyond. And Memphis legend and storyteller and historian Mr. Jimmy Ogle himself told me, just Tuesday, that “Madison starts here! It starts at zee-roe!” He was quite adamant, and of course 100% correct. 


Something else I learned from the same Jimmy Ogle this past Tuesday, is the fact that Madison doesn’t even end at Parkway. Ugh! Argh! Damnit! The nice little bookends of my study are ruined! Truth is, as Jimmy explained, many people forget that Madison starts up again over Parkway, past Lindenwood Church, and weaves its way through a residential neighborhood before ending at the parking lot for the Lipscomb & Pitts Building in between the Poplar and Union Avenue viaducts.  

Thank you Jimmy, and I completely agree with you that Madison starts at Front, but I have my reasons in starting at Parkway. The first reason honors history - East Parkway (once named Trezevant Street) was for many years Memphis’ eastern city limits. The second is purely practical - the Memphis newbie here knows more about Madison in Midtown than he does yet of Downtown, where there’s a lot more history and much more research necessary. I’ve already started my Midtown research, have already loaded up my iPhone and iPhoto with Midtown-Madison pictures, and have interviews lined up with home and store owners in Midtown. And frankly, the people who would know Downtown-Madison of the 1920’s first-hand are buried somewhere in Elmwood Cemetery, whilst more of the Midtown been-there’s are still around for me to badger, and I need to talk to them and soon.



I also like to think of my Parkway start in a romantic sense. A stepping back in time if you will, starting with the more recent and still-accessible history in Midtown and making my way west, back in time, toward Downtown and back to the very beginnings of our city. 

In addition, there’s one other sympathetic notion of mine that wants to start at Parkway: a little-big something called Memphis Heritage. 

Memphis Heritage - memphisheritage.org - at 2282 Madison Ave in the Howard Hall mansion, is a non-profit organization dedicated in its efforts to preserving Memphis’ and Shelby County’s rich architectural history. It was founded in 1975 and it “continues to be the voice” for the preservation, improvement and reuse of the area’s “architecturally and historically significant buildings, neighborhoods and parks.” 

Today MH is under the guidance of executive director June West, who may be the latter-day Memphis version of Jane Jacobs. (And hey, separated by only one vowel) There are many in the city devoted to preservation, who donate, act, and/or provide or arrange funding to preserve significant structures here in Memphis. And there are many in the city who are virtual walking Memphis encyclopedias. But I think I’d get few arguments that when it comes to preservation June is Memphis' leading custodian. 

If you want to do more research of your own, you could start by searching the archives of the Memphis Daily News or the Commercial Appeal or the Memphis Flyer with key words like 'preservation,' 'heritage,' 'historic,' and so on.  Like this article from June 8, 2009, which is particularly noteworthy as it applies to my project. 


So it seems quite apropos to start my four-mile-long journey into Madison’s past, present and future with the very heartbeat of Memphis preservation, and 2282 Madison Avenue, Howard Hall.

Finally… Let the journey begin.


Next week’s post will spotlight Howard Hall and a hundred-year-old house two blocks in from East Parkway.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Vanishing Memphis - The Battle For The Street


I’m not talking about the murder rate. I’ll save that topic for another post. 

No, I’m talking about preserving Memphis’ unique urban heritage. I’m talking about saving Memphis from the ravages of developers and a quick buck. I’m talking the ever ongoing fight to save streets so unique to Memphis and Midtown, streets that need a little saving like South Main has been, streets like Cooper Street and Central Avenue. And Madison Avenue, from East Parkway all the way to Downtown at Front Street. 

It’s much more important than you might think.

“Madison is one of the last, walkable streets of its kind that we have left,” said June West of Memphis Heritage. 

“Madison really is old Memphis, and what Memphis was,” Willy Bearden told me. 

Sunset over Madison from Overton Square

With this post I hope to do something fairly ground-breaking. Or, ground-saving, really. And dauntingly ambitious. And I’m going to asking for your help. In the next few months I will be asking you all for your valuable memories and information about what is and once was here in Memphis, and specifically along Madison. I have many resources lined up already, but I’ll need your help as well. Keep reading and you’ll see why.

I’m going to introduce ya’ll to something called New Urbanism (some of you of this know already). Only a few decades old in its theory, New Urbanism is really quite old in terms of actual practice. I think it can be summed up in this wonderful, memorable passage from the late great Jane Jacobs, the urban activist who in the 1960’s helped save New York’s SoHo and Greenwich Village from being leveled for an expressway:

“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance … an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”

Thriving cities and towns are walkable - think of traditional downtowns and town squares. Brings to mind easy weekend afternoons, small shops, the old soda fountain. Memphis on the other hand has often been cited as one of the least walkable cities in the U.S. There are a few wonderful exceptions - South Main, Cooper Street from Young to Union, Broad Avenue. And of course Madison.

What makes Madison so unique? What sums it up nicely is what Mr. Bearden and Ms. West said, that Madison is old Memphis, and that Madison is one of our last walkable streets.

And if you have a few 10 or 20 minutes, whether you’re new to Memphis or have lived here all your life, take this little driving tour through Midtown the next time you’re out on a random weekday or Saturday afternoon, and pay close attention to your surroundings: 

Start at Cooper-Young. Drive north on Cooper Street toward Central Avenue - casually, don’t mind that person behind you who seems annoyed - and look around. Look at the height and accessibility of the buildings. 


Southwest corner of Central and Cooper

Before the second railroad trestle, turn left on Central Avenue. 

The approach to Central Gardens, with beautiful oak trees
 lining the street, and old houses sitting atop green bluffs.
 

Now turn right onto Belvedere Boulevard. 

Belvedere Boulevard - notice that green median,
separating the oncoming traffic, of which there is almost none

Now at Peabody Avenue, turn left. More green bluffs, more trees over the street. Don’t drive too fast, this here’s a residential neighborhood. Depending on the time of day, there’s a few joggers, bicycles, baby strollers.

Go all the way to Cleveland Street and turn right. When you get to the light at Union - you’re going to go straight, no turning yet, and you’ll inevitably have to wait at the red light - think about the little pleasant drive you just had and take a look at your surroundings. 

There’s a gas station to your right, and a big block of concrete
and steel called Union Centre to your left, with a big LED screen
flashing advertisements to distract you while you wait.

Take Cleveland all the way to Madison Avenue, and get in the right-hand turn lane. 

Before you turn, notice the rails embedded in the street  
before you, and beautiful little 1348 Madison Ave.
There’s subtle signage on the windows for tattoos.

Now head east on Madison. 

Note the trolley cables above you, and drive along the few hundred feet of rails, for fun. As you drive along, pay attention to all the smaller businesses along the way. You’ll pass big brown Minglewood Hall on the right. And as you approach Avalon Street take a look at that giant parking lot on your left. Somewhere past all that asphalt and vehicular sprawl is a Cash Saver. Keep driving. 

Ah this is better. Clock-wise from top-left, the little gem
of an intersection at the corner of Belvedere.
The famous Bar-B-Q Shop, the iconic, and landmarked Gilmore Apartment  

building at McLean with Fino’s Italian Deli down in the corner.
  Before you reach the original Huey’s, the wide patch of green
where the old Anderton’s stood, a local restaurant favorite
for generations of Memphians.

Slow yourself down a bit and you’ll be arriving into the heart and entertainment hub of Midtown and Overton Square.

Middle to left, Babalu and the upstairs patio of Lafayette’s Music Room
Weeknights and weekends you'll find plenty of people walking, 
dining, laughing, crossing the street.


Keep straight, and go through Cooper Street.


Looking north from Madison, that open space behind the chain link fence -
that’s where the new, very pedestrian-friendly Memphis Ballet is being built.

You’re going to turn right on East Parkway up ahead, but before you get there, see if you can find the old mansion that is home to Memphis Heritage. It’s before Parkway, on your left past the small wall and fence along the sidewalk, that buff-colored structure amongst the oaks. 

Memphis Heritage

Now make your right onto Parkway. Stay right, because you’re going to turn right onto Union Avenue, and it happens upon you quickly. Stay to your right, being careful not to turn into little Monroe Avenue, and slowly, carefully, yieldingly merge onto Union heading west.

Hold onto your wheel and watch your mirrors. Despite all the thump-thumps of manhole covers, you might consider staying in the center lane. Why? Because every now and then cars in the left lane will try to turn left … without the advantage of a center median. And from the right lane you’ll have be on the lookout for cars bolting onto the roadway to your side from any number of fast food places, stores, or parking lots. You’ll probably hear your share of honking horns along the way, and you may be tempted to honk yours too sometime throughout this stretch. Oh, and don’t even think about turning left at any light - it’s against the law - see those no-left-turn signs? 

A lot of signage, hovering just off the street and over the sidewalks.
Sidewalks? Where are they?


Enough bare-knuckling. Let’s get off of Union. Whew! You can relax again.

I have been critical of Union Avenue, for it’s lack of unique place and for the proliferation of fast food chains and national brand name drug stores that line the avenue. In its present state, it’s an avenue that at first glance could be Any Commercial Avenue, USA

What I did not know, what I could not know a few months ago and so early in my Memphis discovery, was how glorious Union Avenue once was, and how it has been literally desecrated.

I did not yet know, for example, that the CVS drug store that now sits on the southwest corner of Cooper St and Union was once home to the Union Avenue Methodist Church, a beautiful building dating to 1912 on the National Registry of Historic Places, that was sold to CVS Pharmacies and bulldozed in 2011. In a sad lesson of How City Heritage Dies, its sale and eventual demolition was approved by the Memphis City Council at the time in a 10-2 vote. 

Southwest corner of Union and Cooper, August 2007. A CVS is now here.
Notice the irony in this image? 

There's been yet another collision on Union. (google image)

This is just one example of many. Now I find Union Avenue to be both exasperating and tragic, an example of what we hope does not happen to other Memphis streets. 

Cooper Street is still largely intact. It looks like it did in 1950. Same can be said for Central Avenue west of the Parkway. And with a few glaring exceptions, Madison can still boast many of the same historical, iconic structures that are common to early 20th century U.S. cities and to Memphis in particular. 

But they are in danger. 

Vulnerable to predators, at risk for demolition, one by one. What makes them so? It’s not termites or deterioration, although those do occur on occasion. No, they are at risk for a few primary reasons, including - for some, but not all - their lack of official status as city landmarks, outright neglect, ignorance, or the quick buck of a demolition-turned-parking-lot, and lastly due to the Catch-22 of economic growth and development, which often favors new construction over preservation. 

Whether it be from neglect, ignorance or growth, or simply any time a property owner wants or needs to sell, the immediate threat to these properties is very real. Witness a textbook example of an iconic, lonesome, century-old building Downtown on Poplar Avenue that was recently targeted by a business owner who wanted to buy it and tear it down for a parking lot. 

http://www.commercialappeal.com/business/Proposal-would-raze-101-year-old-building-for-parking-lot-378400871.html

From the Commercial Appeal

238 Poplar, the 100-year-old Gusmani Building, occupied by a bail-bondsman and a small law office, under threat for no other reason than the easy money that comes from paid parking. Yes that’s all we need - more parking in an area with an abundance of parking. (Why don’t we pave our parks for parking too while we’re at it - oops, that battle is unfortunately well under way.)

However June West, having her finger constantly on the pulse of City Planning, through Facebook and other outreach, encouraged we in the community to write to the city Land Use Control Board to strongly oppose the development. In addition, new Downtown Memphis Commission president J. Terence Patterson was quoted by the Commercial Appeal as saying that it is “important to retain the few urban buildings that remain along this (Poplar) corridor,” and that vast parking lots such as those found all along many Memphis streets are an “inhospitable environment for pedestrians.” 

The hearing had been planned for the very day of this writing, June 9, but through those efforts and Mr. Patterson’s opposition, or simply by coincidence, the developer requested to hold his application, for now. The case “may be heard (at the) July 14” hearing. Stay tuned.

Do we really need more of this in Memphis? (google image)

This is exactly the kind of structure by structure efforts that are needed to preserve the rest of the city’s iconic properties. That’s why the case of the Gusmani Building is so textbook. I don’t know the exact count, but there has got to be close to a hundred or more vulnerable buildings like this in the roughly 10-15 square miles of the metropolitan area within the borders of the river and the north-east-south parkways. 

Many buildings like these were long ago lost to fires, neglect, or demolition. Those architectural “marvels” called parking lots sit in place of many of them. Others were bulldozed in the 1960’s to pave the way for the I-240 that both cut through and accelerated the development of the Medical District and what is now The Edge, west of the 240 and between Poplar and Union. But many buildings remain on parts of Union near Sun Studios, and up and down Marshall Avenue around where the High Cotton Brewery is located. They are old warehouses, or what are called Standard Traditional, and One, Two, or Three Part Commercial buildings unique to the time.

And although at first glance these buildings may not seem landmark-worthy, consider this: They have historical and cultural significance here in Memphis, important as they relate to our musical heritage, and for signifying what makes Memphis Memphis. Once they are gone they cannot be replaced.

One of the most important first steps in this preservation is public awareness. That’s where this project, and your help, comes in. I’m only one person with zero funding - all my raising-awareness efforts are volunteered - but with your help and resources we can be many. 

What I want are your stories and any information you may have. As I make my way down Madison and document each property block by block, I would like to hear what you know about specific properties. Maybe your grandfather worked there. Maybe you spent your college years hanging out there. Maybe you bought flowers or candy or bummed cigarettes there. Maybe you had a first date there. 

I have resources that can cover the facts, but it will be your stories that can bring color to the black and white documentation. And together we can accumulate an entire grassroots history of Madison from E. Parkway to Front St. 

(To be clear, many buildings along Madison are already landmarked. Especially those Downtown, or apartment buildings like the Gilmore. But many structures east of B.B. King Blvd are not.)

Eventually I want to take this effort to other significant but not-landmarked Memphis streets, like Marshall or Monroe avenues - I might even name them as part of a “Memphis Music Madison Corridor,” or something like that. 

I am also wide open to suggestions and pointers and other resources. I am happily aware of Josh Whitehead’s excellent Memphis history blog http://cremedememph.blogspot.com , the West Tennessee Historical Society https://wths-tn.org and Memphis Heritage http://www.memphisheritage.org sites, and many others. But there may be other individuals or organizations in the middle of similar efforts. I don’t yet know what I don’t yet know.

Please, join me in this effort. And let’s get started!



Watch for my next post on the subject, in which I’ll start the journey by comparing the history and developments of Union versus Madison. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Movement Most Memphians Don’t Know About


There’s a huge movement going on in Memphis. A ground swell toward revitalizing blighted neighborhoods block by block, toward developing artist communities, toward bringing business and bodies back into Downtown, toward replacing apathy with hope.

But most Memphians aren’t aware of it.

I’ve written of this a few times, the apathy and underlying shame some Memphians feel, that Memphis “isn’t what it used to be,” or “bussing in the 70’s ruined this city,” or “I will never ever go Downtown no matter what,” and most recently, and shockingly, that “I like the city…  I just don’t like the people.” (True story. Um, all-righty then!)

I hate to put labels on people. But generally speaking, I’ve learned that the people who feel this way are any or all of the below. These people:

  • Experience Memphis not through doing or seeing, but only through the Commercial Appeal or 5pm newscasts. 
  • Barely venture anywhere west of the 240.
  • Never venture anywhere west of Highland.
  • Never venture anywhere into zip codes that end in 03 or 04.
  • Have lived in the Mid-South too long (this is relative - you know the type, “too long” can be three years or eighty).
  • Compare everything to when they were in Florida (I’ve been noticing this odd trend)
  • Believe this country is in the worst shape it’s ever been.
  • Still believe that Downtown is a drugged-out wasteland.  

Part of it is just age. If you’re in your 70’s you’ll always harken back to your swinging 30’s. It will always be better back then, no matter what year it was or is. And being “set in one’s ways” is a truism that will exist forever. 

Now I could say that they are part of a gray haze of malaise that hovers over “outer” suburbia in this country, well beyond the pull of downtowns. I like to call it “suburban isolationism.” It is rooted in fear. A false sense of security that they are safer in the suburbs than in the city. The kids are okay there, the restaurants and grocery stores will be brand-name familiar - the comfort of the predictable - and the only conflicts encountered will be on FaceBook or why the neighbor’s trash cans are sitting out there empty. Whitewashed in every sense of the word, and nothing there to challenge the senses, good or bad.

I could say that, but I won’t. Because I believe another part of this apathy has to do with something altogether different.

Memphis today reminds me at times of a small-scale version of 1970’s New York. And before you snicker, understand that I’m not making a negative comparison. Ask a native New Yorker about the 70’s and they get nostalgic. “I could afford it! My 2-bedroom apartment in the Village was only $300 a month. Howard Johnson’s was still here, Times Square wasn’t Disneyland, we had the Twin Towers, it was gritty but everyone had a good time.”


A Lower Manhattan street in 70's New York
(nytimes.com)

Madison Ave, Memphis, November 2015

But as most of us know, the perceptions of 70’s New York during the decade were quite the opposite. 70’s New York is the very model of urban decay. To many, New York was dead. Crime was high. Poverty rates were high. School systems needed fixing. Industry and large pockets of the population had escaped to the suburbs (from 1970 to 1980, over 800,000 people left NYC). The tax base had dwindled. Parts of the city were blighted, burned out or rundown. Streets were a potholed trip to the auto shop waiting to happen, sidewalks were one broken ankle away. Office buildings sat empty and were dark after sundown. 

The Bronx, NY, 1970's (wikipedia)

Memphis, does that sound familiar? 

But look what happened. Those who stayed and dug in their heals, who declared their love for their city and fought the fight, turned New York into the juggernaut it is today. (Although it can be argued it’s gone too far, that it’s too expensive and it’s lost its grit, character and soul. That too may sound familiar. Nashville, anyone?)

And that was in a city of over seven million people, not six-hundred-thousand. That in a city that averaged over 1600 murders in the 70’s, where unions and strikes and city pensions crippled city budgets in the ten’s of millions, and where over 30,000 empty properties were in default, city-owned, off the tax rolls, generating zero property taxes.

I’m not quoting these statistics to depress anyone. My point here is - and we don't have half as many problems as NY had in those days - that if a city with as many problems and as huge as New York City in the 70’s can bounce back, then so can Memphis. 

How did New York turn around? Among many initiatives a focus on repairing and rebuilding infrastructure - streets, mass transit, bridges, blighted buildings, etc. - in attracting professionals back into the city, and in reducing city debt. That’s happening here today in Memphis. A generation ago our own South Main was filled with drugs, prostitution and homeless. Look at it today. Overton Square and Park are thriving and safe. Nightlife is booming everywhere. Patios are packed on warm spring and summer days. 

And there are literally dozens of start-ups, including not-for-profit, community-based, or commerce-driven organizations, agencies, labs, etc. devoted to change and progress.

Just a few of the many organizations devoted to change

So with all that’s positive, what’s that something different that produces such apathy and shame in some Memphians? Part of it no doubt is that so many have seen Memphis make other comebacks only to take it to chin yet again - the starts and stops and openings and closings all over the city in the last fifteen years alone come to mind. But I think a good part of it is lack of awareness. Well people, Memphis has gotten off the mat again, and ya’ll need to be aware of it. 

Some brief highlights:

Did you know that Soulsville, that south Memphis neighborhood anchored by McLemore Ave and the old Stax Records, has been making a huge Cooper-Young-like comeback? Thanks to investments, community leaders and organizations like advancememphis.org, the neighborhood can now boast a music academy, a foundation, and a charter school for local and budding musicians in the neighborhood. Local entrepreneurs have opened up or relocated restaurants and shops. Once a dying neighborhood, residents there stuck around and slowly rebuilt into what its now become and the progress it continues to make. 

Stax Academy Alumni Band at Loflin Yard for
Thursday's Gun Violence Awareness Day

How do I know this? I know this thanks to the conglomerate of the New Memphis Institute and High Ground News (highgroundnews.com), a local web publication dedicated to shining lights on urban comebacks such as these. 

When hearing news on the north Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, most Memphians cringe and tell me, “Don’t get yourself stuck up there!” But did you now that the neighborhood has been taking Soulsville’s cue and is in the midst of a similar comeback? There’s a community development corporation working toward improving housing, a fight to eliminate crime, a new Montessori-like school, and a new Frayser branch of the Memphis Public Library system. How do I know this? High Ground News of course.

Did you know that, within the inner metropolitan areas of Memphis, within the loop bordered by the river and North, East, and South Parkways, that the South Main neighborhood is among the safest in all the Mid-South? Did you know that condos and apartments are on the rise, that the area is about to become the most densely populated neighborhood in the city, and that it is now thriving with shops, restaurants, businesses and agencies? That a new movie theater complex is in development at Central Station? That the old Tennessee Brewery is completing its restoration for a mix of loft-living, shops and businesses? That the Old Dominick Whiskey Distillery across the street from Gus’s is being restored? That the old Chicsa Hotel on S. Main has been fully restored into high-rise style apartments? That the former empty lots around the corners of Carolina Ave and Florida Street, in the area called South Junction where the freight lines converge in their journey across the country, are now home to three-story apartments and the new urban restaurant oasis called Loflin Yard? How do I know this? By spending time there. And from the Memphis Daily News, the Memphis Flyer, and companies like StartCo and the Memphis chapter of the AMA (American Marketing Association). 

The Tennessee Brewery, pre-preservation.
Tragic if we had lost this to demolition
(memphis.edu)

Did you know that Mayor Strickland has supported a team to put together the Memphis Blight Elimination Compact, “a group of civic, business, and public sector leaders” whose sole mission is to, you guessed it, eliminate blighted properties across the city? 

And just this past week, on Gun Violence Awareness Day, Moms Demand Action leaders and the Mayor got together downtown for a #WearOrange gathering in support of victims of gun violence, and to the continued dedication to reduce it.

And there's so much more.

I’ve lived here seven months. How do I know this when most of Memphis does not? How is it that when I end up in a conversation in a bar or during an event, I the newbie am delivering news of all these positive developments to strangers and long-time Memphians? Again, Awareness. And, by my choices in news sources. I certainly can’t rely on the 30 second snippets of air time local newscasts give to stories, nor to the limitations imposed by the very respectable Commercial Appeal. And I don’t listen to the naysayers.

So how do we spread the positive word to the rest of Memphis?

What is needed is nothing short of a campaign. A wide media campaign to spread the news of this movement to all the Mid-South. A campaign that would run during local newscasts, appear in print in the CA and the Flyer and the Daily News

Memphis needs a Mayor Ed Koch-style “I Love New York” moment. Anyone remember those ads? Of Mayor Koch arm in arm with the Rockettes with the Manhattan skyline in the background, singing “I… Love New Yorrrrrkkkk!?” 

The venerable New York Mayor Edward Koch in his heyday
(wikipedia)

I don’t see many Memphians shouting out “I LOVE Memphis!” I will sometimes hear muted pride in their voices at times if I dig it out over the wail of guitars and after a couple of beers, but I don’t hear anyone yell “I love this town!”

Like the I-heart-NY blitz, such a campaign for Memphis would be greeted at first with derision. It would be mocked, just as Koch was mocked. Come on, who does that? Dances around and shouts to the rooftops that they love their city? Or anything or anyone for that matter? Can you see Strickland sashaying around Tom Lee Park or with a guitar in hand at Lafayette’s and Graceland or eating chicken at Gus’s and (stealing from Jefferson Starship) singing “We built Bluff City! We built Bluff City on Rock ’n Roll!”

What? Too flashy for Memphis? Not conservative enough for Memphis? How about those lit-up-like-Vegas billboards along the 240 that turn night to day? How about the guys at Landers Ford during the local broadcasts or worse, the It’s-All-Good white-rapper car guy? Do they make Memphis look respectable? 

It's All Good!? No. It's All Scary!
(youtube)

No. I’m talking about something a little more elegant, bluesy and gritty like a B.B. King guitar lick. Something with just enough cheese but short in corn, and memorable. It could go viral. And it would generate smiles, showing Memphians having a good time.

We Built Bluff City!
Our Mayor Strickland, lower-left, for the Wear Orange 
gathering on Gun Violence Awareness Day.

And I suspect I’m not the only Memphis newbie who feels this way. My ears perked up when new Grizzlies coach Rizdale, in his introductory press conference, had to milk the crowd into three tries of loosening up and finally saying “We're supposed to be having a good time, y’all.”  

We are supposed to be having fun! This is a fun city damnit. The music, the nightlife, the food, the I’m-spread-too-thin on weekends because there’s frickin’ so much to do! And the progress! The hope!

And I guarantee that such a campaign, though it could be met with some resistance at first, would turn heads and change some perceptions. Incrementally, it could change attitudes. Little by little in between bits on the local news, seeing Memphians expressing joy for their city, people could be swept up by the enthusiasm. Happiness is infectious.

And listen to me, the new guy, writing about a belief in Memphis. I was initially reluctant to move here, knowing only the words of naysayers and bad press that Memphis was in imminent economic, cultural and social decline. I am happy to say that I heard it wrong, just as many in this city have it wrong. I had a wait-and-see attitude when I crossed the Hernando Bridge. Well the wait wasn’t long, and I’ve seen first-hand the progress and efforts being had by talented and hard-working people who are helping Memphis reach its fullest potential.

Back to New York and the 70’s. Why is it not looked back on as a nightmare? Why do New Yorkers look back on the 70’s with nostalgia? It’s certainly not their age - they can’t look back on it like America used to look at the 1950’s, when “Gee our old LaSalle ran great and everybody pulled his weight” - even Millennials wish they’d lived in New York during that disco’ed time. So what is it? 

It’s because of things called Hope and Opportunity. And Challenge. Amidst the crime and poverty and empty neighborhoods, some see hopelessness while many see opportunity. It’s all over if you look for it. There’s a niche set of groups of Instagram users who are urban explorers, who photograph Memphis from rooftops, or in abandoned warehouses and churches, or along graffiti-strewn rail yards and city walls. There’s tremendous beauty in it, as they place themselves into the old urban spaces, making themselves part of the fabric of what once was, and what can be. 

Some of the adventurous Instragram'ers I follow.
Check 'em out.

There is grace and hope amongst it all, where there is nowhere to look but up. Surrounded by old abandoned structures, there is adventure and the sense that anything is possible.

Anything
Is
Possible


That’s what the movement is all about. That’s what Memphis is now. Here west of the Parkway. It’s time the rest of Memphis learns it too.