Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Sanctity of Property

The urbanist Steve Mouzon recently took note of Memphis' effort to save the Tennessee Brewery and in noting, wrote an excellent 2 part (part 1, part 2) how-to guide to preservation, "Ground Rules to Save a Building from Demolition".  There are so many excellent ideas here that I recommend you read them and, if you care about preservation and your built environment, commit them to memory, which should be easy for Memphians because he illustrates them with a campaign vision for the Brewery.

But I must take issue with how he begins his list.  His very first rule.  I don't have a problem with what I consider it's real point -- make nice and be nice with the owners of the threatened property.  But I do have a great beef with its actual title,

Property Rights.

The phrase "property rights" has jumped out of the trollpit of online news comment sections and into the mouths of people trying to court favor, or avoid disfavor, with right-wing property owners (although I suspect those owners' speaking them behind closed doors are the medium between the trolls and the advocates).  And it's bullshit.

Making urbanists and preservationists accept "property rights" as a ground rule for their work is as bogus as telling equality activists they must accept the "sanctity of marriage" and pro-choice activists the "holiness of life" before they can begin their work  The problem is not that we don't.  The problem is these ground rules require an oath of loyalty because the opposition says we're disloyal, without requiring the opposition to do the same. And the opposition is no more loyal to an absolute concept of "property rights" than those fighting for the "sanctity of marriage" or "life" are to theirs.

Right-wing property owners will fight a stinky chicken farm opening next to their new clearcut residential development, or a Son of Bottoms Up Strip Club opening across from their new family-oriented strip mall, no less passionately than urbanists and preservationists will against development actions that destroy the built city's quality and value.  None of these fights are confiscatory and all are legal.

We should neither apologize for nor waive our right to legally fight a property owners' anti-social designs with their property.

Because sometimes we have to fight.  We should fight.

Which is why I have a real problem with what comes right after the Property Rights title:
"Don't waste your time on a 1960s-era cause… you know, petitions, standing in front of the bulldozers, and stuff like that. Those tactics might have once worked (and in a very few places) but if you want to make stuff work today, you need to realize that you don't own the property… and someone else does.
(What?  We don't realize that someone else owns the property? And can we drop the "1960's" as a dog-whistle call for "hippie")

Fighting goes a long way in advocacy circles, and a short way in long-term success.  But that short way can save stuff in the meantime, giving preservation advocates cover to find owners and developers who see what we see.  As a primary strategy it's not going to save our city, and we'll exhaust followers with crisis after crisis, but it is a tactical tool that we must keep in the bag because sometimes the owners, no matter how nice and ready for business we are,  don't want to be our friend and don't give a shit.

And these tactics have worked today with huge success in Overton Square, the University District and the Nineteenth Century Club (not to mention the greatest fight of them all -- to keep Interstate 40 from mowing down Overton Park).  We can't depend on it -- we must still find owners who care -- but these tactics are still part of urban triage.

So we should make no apologies for our passion.  Let's keep it sharp,  use it judiciously, and follow Mr. Mouzon's wise advice.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Crosstown Arc

Itinerant writer's note:  while it's been a long time since the event happened, and since I began this blessed post, and a lot has happened on the street, I believe the observations and ideas are no more full of crap than they were on the day I began them.

Besides enjoying the great spirit and energy of last November's tactical urbanish MEMFix on Cleveland, it was really cool to get a sense of the street with lots people flowing around and through it, on foot, bicycle and car.

It gave a sense of what a vital Cleveland could be, perhaps for the first time ever, and what could keep that from happening.

On one hand, the main strip of shops on either side of Cleveland between Overton Park and Autumn have a single row of parking in front of them, separating them from Cleveland, with lots of curb cuts.

This is the way it's always been at that spot on Cleveland, but the disruption the parked cars and continuous curb cut caused to pedestrian flow and energy was marked at MEMFix.  A major event could be happening at one of those spaces and it's possible that street energy wouldn't change.  Passing walkers, cyclists and motorists might not even notice that something's happening.  Pushing a patio out to the street is a possible solution, as the now defunct Memphis Mary's did.

and the Cleveland Street Flea Market hinted at during MEMFix.

Also, most of the area is single story.  It provides no hovering counterbalance to the off-street parking frontage.

Finally, the large Sears Crosstown surface parking lot is a major discontinuity between the great building and the shops on either side of Cleveland and Autumn (including those on the other side of the pocket park).

The Cleveland/Watkins curve is carved into the parking lot, with the giant building hovering above it as you come from the south, giving it much better energy than your standard surface parking lot.  It also helps that its greatest uses for the past few years have been for public space rather than parking lot.  Still, the parking lot is so massive that I think it's possible that the Sears building could be completely occupied and have no effect on the surrounding buildings.

On a much better hand, MEMFix revealed to me and everyone there what a cool, strong anchor the district already has in the Cleveland Street Flea Market.

 and the visual street energy created, temporarily, by the eccentric triangular crosswalk.

And the pocket park made lively by the excellent bike wheel sculpture.

The literal intersection of these 3 pieces at the center of the Crosstown arc was the ultimate revelation of the day for me.  

This spot is the key to the revitalization of the rest of the area.

With a few changes this corner could activate Crosstown.
  • Make the triangular crosswalk permanent and and even add a light (which I believe is feasible since the only post office left in Midtown is on Autumn).
  • Break off a piece of the Sears parking lot at that corner and give it to someone willing to build a street fronting bar/restaurant.  Or build a semi-permanent cafe site opening to the corner site for food trucks to pull up to.
  • Give more definition to the pocket park via trees or other devices.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Iron Mullet Becomes a Decorated Shed

The one on the left was created as sitcom backdrop and  recreated for laughs.  The one on the right was created as a city symbol and recreated for laughs -- almost!

I like laughs.  If there's a problem with the new signage of the Bass Pro Pyramid and DeathStyle Center (other than keeping the people of the Pinch and Harbor Town awake at night), it's that it's not funny enough.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I Am a Sivad Geek

Sivad's Candelabra, in Skelevision! at Art for Jobs
Advance Memphis, 769 Vance Avenue
Thursday, September 20, 2012, 5-8 p.m.

I have my ancient pre-VHS memory of  Memphis' black-and-white-magical late-night can't-wait don't-miss hyperlocal horror host with the terrifying face and deep southern-accented voice,  and I have ready access to surviving video and audio recordings of  the menacing jokester with the impeccable visual showmanship telling the bad jokes and singing the weird songs, but I want more Sivad.

 So I've stenciled Sivad.

I've carved him into a discarded wooden cabinet door

and lit the carving with TV lanterns made from my old smoker.

I've silkscreened him

and illuminated his silkscreened eyes with LEDs.

I've drawn him by hand,

and rendered him in vector drawings.

Most recently, I've cast concrete busts, Sivad's Candelabra, complete with Sivad candles

and lit by Skelevision! lanterns.

And I did it with no more heart and skill than that possessed by an obsessive bored insomniac caveman, hunkered underground in the south of France.

My creating these icons are what The Gates of Memphis are about.  Fo me, it's not enough to have memories and fixed artifacts.  We have to build homages to our giants.  I'm just doing it at a Spinal Tap Stonehenge scale.

But I'm probably not going to making any more Sivads for awhile.  I've got my eyes set on Sputnik Monroe.

Until then, come to Arts for Jobs and buy some great art for a great cause.  Or buy Sivad's Candelabra in Skelevision! priced at either $30 or $50 -- I don't remember.

Good evening!

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Signs of Change

It was good to be wrong.

I didn't think Mayor Wharton would make the decision to put in dedicated bicycle lanes between Cooper and Cleveland.  Or at least all the way.  There was no major player pushing it, only a lot of citizens and community organizations.  And while the opposition was relatively small and individually muted, together it had made a big media splash, successfully positioned itself as "business" and counted Wharton supporters the Boggs family among its numbers.  I cynically figured there was no way that the Mayor wasn't going to look for a compromise, as he had on Cooper when he rejected protected bike lanes at the prodding of some Cooper-Young business owners.

Cynicism sucks and I'm glad to have mine sucker punched by the Mayor's decision.  Without the easy cover of the support of a bigwig, the Mayor didn't compromise -- he listened to his Bicycle and Pedestrian coordinator and the many citizens and businesses who had supported it, and re-striped Madison with dedicated bike lanes.  Perhaps it's too much to to call the decision by a Memphis leader to ignore a narrow and antiquated vision of business historic, so I'll just say the decision was great.

The decision was great 6 months ago when the striping began, but now it's been proven even greater now because of something that wasn't mentioned by anybody during the debate, at least directly.

The transformation that's resulted from cars parking on Madison in the new parking spaces.

The extra spaces were definitely part of the give and take of the process, but now that people are using them, not only bicyclists but people walking back and forth to their cars are energizing the street.  Plus Madison lined with cars makes it obvious to anyone randomly driving down the street that something is happening here.  Madison hasn't had that consistent visual cue until now.

The change most pronounced in Overton Square where the street parking has re-energized the district's street without Bob Loeb having to do anything.

I believe that the next Madison location that would benefit is the cluster of businesses and restaurants at Madison and Belvedere.  So the next time you have to drive to Zinnie's or the Lamplighter or Audiomania, park across the street and seed the energy.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Memphis and Urban Magnets

Alan Boniface of Vancouver's Dialog design group spoke last month to Memphis about the pieces that make a place into an urban magnet.  To be successful, an urban magnet requires
  1. retail
  2. production
  3. education
  4. programming
  5. form.
After his talk, a local panel representing various Memphis-area districts (Soulsville, Overton Square, South Main, Crosstown, and Hernando) discussed what parts of the urban magnet recipe they have and what they are missing.  Of the groups, the South Main district had them all.

Besides the urban magnet template, the part of the talk that really grabbed me was the statistic that Memphis has 1/30th the density of the densest part of Vancouver (and 1/7th of the overall density of Vancouver).  Which leads to a problem I see over and over again with Memphis' adapting to many urbanist ideas -- that the ideas come from places of categorically greater density, and assume categorically greater density.  So, although South Main has definite and growing magnetic quality, it isn't enough to fill or sparsely populate streets even now on a workaday basis. Obviously it wouldn't happen overnight even in a denser place, but Memphis has to be particularly aware of density and population as its major urbanist challenge.  Which I don't believe we are.  And the danger is that we'll be transporting the same marginally expanding group of people from Soulsville to Overton Square to South Main to Crosstown to all the other districts, with economic sustainability for few.

Still, figuring out how to fill Memphis with people is a fun problem to solve -- once Memphis admits that it is the problem.

Sears Crosstown

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Memphis First

I had the real privilege to help with the Memphis First Robotics competition Quick Build session this past Saturday at the University of Memphis.  Students from Memphis high schools came together to begin building robots as the first part of the competition.
The instruction manual

The hardware

Students from the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering begin work on their robot frame.

Craigmont High puts the motors on their assembled base.

Teams work on the programming and electronic components
It was wonderfully rich mix of young, middle, old, female, male, black, white, Asian, Latino, student, teacher, parent, mentor, sponsor, friend coming to together to learn, build, do, redo, make, program, share, talk, meet, eat, compete, cooperate, collaborate and create with each other.  Most surprising to me was the growing enthusiasm from the student teams as the day progressed.  By the end of the build at 4 p.m., teams from Hamilton, St. Mary's, Manassas, Craigmont and Memphis Business Academy had their basic robot going, and the rest were very much on the way.

While it was a scheduling coincidence that the build happened on the Martin Luther King birthday weekend, the event still demonstrated a great new Memphis that MLK's legacy is helping build.

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