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.

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 , the West Tennessee Historical Society and Memphis Heritage 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. 


  1. Owning a 100+year old house on Madison between Cooper and E. Parkway, I have a real interest in preserving this street. How can I help?

    1. Help is terrific! And I will be starting the essay on Madison at E. Parkway. Go to my profile for my email address and let me know how I can contact you and we can set up an interview.