In Search of the Heart of Memphis

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.

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