Thursday, June 29, 2006

Details, details, details...

First of all let me begin by saying that I'm opposed to all demolition in Memphis (unless you're demolishing a parking lot to replace it with a well-designed building). Why? Because the new building is almost never as charming, or unique, or beautiful, as the one it replaces. The city usually suffers a net loss of beauty and character and gains a windfall of ugly.

When they started building Belvedere Crossing, at the corner of Belvedere and Union, I figured it was going to be more of the same. They tore down an old gas station, no loss there, but they also demolished a piece of old Union Ave. commercial architecture, the building that housed the Tommy Bronson Sporting Goods Store. It was a simple, elegant storefront that had a piece of ornament above its doorway. I don't have a picture of the original building, but I remember the detail.

The reason I bring it up is this: it appears that the developers have incorporated that detail in the new building (without a picture of the original, I can't say for sure, but I'm almost certain). Add to that they didn't bulldoze the only mature tree on the lot, and I have a lot of respect for the developers. They paid homage to the building that gave way. They respected the beauty of older trees, even if it possibly took a parking space. They did something they didn't have to. They made their corner more beautiful than it was. They made Memphis better than it was.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Respect for Memphis History from Hendersonville

In an awesome and hopeful letter to the Commercial Appeal, the new owners of the Zippin Pippin wrote:

Preserving the Zippin Pippin

As a company that prizes artifacts and memorabilia of historic significance, the Honky Tonk Hall of Fame is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the City of Memphis and its citizens on the best future for the Zippin Pippin.

Though our company is based in Nashville, we recognize that Memphis plays an incredibly important part in our national, state and even personal history.

As the new owners of the Zippin Pippin, we intend to respect that history and, hopefully, help the city leaders move forward with their vision for the property.

Moving the coaster is a monumental task and will be done with a great deal of integrity. Remember, our business is about preserving and protecting history.

City officials and Memphians may rest assured that we are looking at all serious
options for protecting this very important part of Memphis' past.

Robert Reynolds Stephen Shutts

Honky Tonk Hall of Fame LLC Hendersonville, Tenn.

Why is it that some guys from middle Tennessee are more awed by Memphis' history than anyone in Memphis City Government or our daily newspaper?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Being selective in destroying Memphis

In the editorial called "Being selective in saving history" in last Sunday's Commercial Appeal, Chris Peck wrote:
When an opportunity arises to preserve history in a way that helps locals understand their place in the world, or when an opportunity comes along to preserve and restore something that has unique, relevant value to history, every effort should be launched to preserve and restore.

The Zippin Pippin didn't rise to that level. The old post office probably does.

Historic artifacts can and should be preserved when they truly illuminate the past and when they can endure as economic and cultural treasures.
Could his idea of history and preservation be more narrow and antiquated? It's history as museum piece, surrounded by velvet ropes, narrated by little old ladies, scowling at youngsters bored by look-but-don't-touch dioramas.

History is everywhere and its architecural embodiment is everywhere. We live in it, work in it, sleep in it, play in it. The manifestation of the city's history is its complete architectural texture -- not isolated 9-5 M-F museum pieces, surrounded by tree-less parking lots or freshly sodded fields.

I think we could bulldoze much of San Francisco, New Orleans, London, Rome and Jerusalem using Mr. Peck's litmus test. The remaining building would be the stuff that travel brochures and history books are made of, but the cities would be gone.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Save the Pippin!

John Michael McCarthy posted this in Live from Memphis:

Dear Friends,
"Save Libertyland" will be in court tomorrow defending a wooden roller coaster from needless extinction. We need your help, even if you don't live in Memphis! Please read the instructions below provided by law prof Steve Mulroy and do what you
can! It's a simple phone call.
Thanks, Mike McCarthy

Subject: Call Mayor Herenton today at 901-576-6000 - and ask him to NOT allow the Zippin Pippin roller coaster to be for sale at the private auction
on Wednesday June 21st at the Fairgrounds. The Carousel is the only item excluded for auction. The City said it would save the roller coaster then changed it's mind to merely work in tandem with the Fairgrounds. Please do not let them get away with this.

Also ( i know its short notice!):
(1) we need as many as possible to attend tomorrow morning's City Council Parks Cmte meeting at 9 a.m. City Hall, 125 N. Main,
I think 5th floor. We need to show support.

Thank you,


Monday, June 19, 2006

Great Moments in Memphis Cultural History: Barbecue

At last Saturday's excellent Live from Memphis Li'l Film Fest, I learned how cole slaw ended up on Memphis barbecue sandwiches (via Jon W. Sparks entry, "Good Pork and Good Slaw"). The wife of barbecue entrepeneur Leonard Heuberger was the genius behind this innovation. She was running low on barbecue while her husband was running errands, so to stretch it out, she decided to put slaw on the sandwiches. Heuberger, who was German Jewish, had been preparing and serving the slaw as a side item, but it was an instant hit with customers on the sandwiches, so there it stayed.

Economics + imagination = creativity.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

This blog has nothing to do with crime

Except, except, except ... Since crime churns terror, fear, suspicion, racism, ostracism and flight, it's destructive to individuals, and poison for a city.

While we're still a ways from the early 90's homicide records, were going back up at a frightening pace. My 2 wishes for crime-fighting here:
  1. the Broken Windows theory applied.
  2. a Google Mapping mashup of crime in the city. Perhaps a publically, globally accessible graphical representation of crime would get more citizen, politician and police interest in fixing those hotspots.
And here are 2 new efforts, one led by citizens, the other by elected leaders, to do something about the problem.

There is nothing so right about Memphis (or any place) that crime can't destroy it, and there's nothing so wrong with Memphis that creativity and imagination can't solve.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Hippy Hotel

We saw this van at Peabody Place last weekend. It was beautiful. It was parked in the lobby to help promote the movie "Cars" playing at the Muvico.

When it hits the highway, it's probably an excellent advertisement for Memphis -- the Memphis where people imagine. If people are like me (not really something to bank on, but it may be true in this case) they want to look closely at the sayings, artwork and bumper stickers that decorate it.

And like all good viral marketing, it has a url.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Demolishing Elvis

People come here looking for Elvis. Not just where he rests, but where he lived, ate, worked, played. They're looking for artifacts of Elvis. They're looking for the things that made Elvis, Elvis. But we keep knocking down these treasures. Listed below are pieces of Elvis' Memphis and their fates:

  • Memphis Funeral Home, Union Avenue, which handled the funerals for Elvis and his mother: demolished.

  • Baptist Hospital, where Lisa Marie was born and Elvis was pronounced DOA: demolished.

  • American Studios, at the corner of Chelsea and Thomas, where Elvis' recorded "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto": demolished.

  • Stax Studios, on McLemore, where Elvis recorded: demolished, then rebuilt.

  • Graceland, Elvis' home from 1957 until his death, and his final resting place: preserved.

  • Zippin Pippin, Elvis' favorite roller coaster: threatened.

  • 1034 Audubon Drive, Elvis' first home (1956-1957) after becoming famous: preserved.

  • Overton Park Shell, where Elvis first performed in public: threatened.

  • Chisca Hotel, where Elvis' recordings were first broadcast: threatened.

  • Sun Studio, where Elvis' first recorded and hit it big: preserved.

  • Loew's State, a movie palace on Main Street in downtown Memphis, where Elvis worked as a teenager: demolished.

  • Lauderdale Courts, the public housing project where Elvis lived during high school: once-threatened, now preserved (as Uptown Square). Note that this success was not due to Elvis' history, but their prime location downtown, their WPA built architecture and the imagination of the developers. But preserved is preserved, even if their new name is a bit bland.

With the exception of Loew's State, all the demolitions took place after Elvis' death, when there was no question of his importance to Memphis.

Even if you concede that Elvis is Memphis' one-trick pony, which I don't concede, but if you did, you would still have to ask -- why are we poisoning the pony?

UPDATE (9/24/2006): the Shell no longer appears threatened.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Making a Safe City

Paul Ryburn has been writing a lot about downtown crime lately. He's received lots of support and a little bit of flak for writing about it. The flak is apparently coming from folks of the "if we don't talk about it, it doesn't exist" persuasion. Paul apparently subscribes to the "we can't fix it if we don't talk about it" school of thought. And he's working to fix it.

He doesn't mention the Broken Windows theory, but it sounds like he's a believer:

I don't think cruising in and of itself is the biggest crime problem downtown, but I do believe that would-be criminals see that violations of the cruising ordinance, the noise ordinance, traffic laws, etc. will be tolerated, and they see an environment in which more serious crimes will be tolerated as well.

By the way, he's only recently started writing about crime. The rest of the time he's writing about the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of downtown Memphis.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Chisca threatened!

Another Memphis architectural landmark and piece of history is under siege. The Chisca Hotel in downtown Memphis, where Dewey Phillips first broadcast an Elvis Presley recording, from the mezzanine studio of WHBQ Radio, may be demolished.

A development partnership - Area Hotels LLC - has submitted a set of plans to Memphis and Shelby County planners showing a four-story Hilton Garden Inn being built at the southwest corner of Second Street and Linden Avenue. The eight-story-tall Chisca sits to the east of that land at 272 South Main St.


But it's unclear, based on the documents, what the hotel development now means for the Chisca, which preservationists once were confident could be preserved and renovated. David Pear, a consultant with the Memphis firm Pinkowski & Co., has worked in recent months with the project's developers, and said the plan originally was to save the hotel.

But the cost became prohibitive to update it for use as a new hotel structure, he said.

"And I think the plan was then to tear it down," Pear said.

Downtown's Madion Hotel has successfully re-imagined an office building (the building wasn't even designed as a hotel) from approximately the same era, in a less prime location. Why can't the Chisca group successfully convert a structure built as a hotel, located a block from Beale Street and the FedEx Forum, on South Main, 2 blocks from the river, probably with river views from its roof (the landmark is 8 stories; the replacement would be 4) and with a built-in Elvis angle, without "prohibitive" costs? If you can't imagine this project successful without dynamite, then sell it to someone who can, and find an empty lot somewhere nearby.

This is the cost that is prohibitive: the opportunity cost to Memphis of ignoring, neglecting, bulldozing and blowing up our architectural soul.

More on this and the destruction of Elvis' Memphis soon.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

What are the Gates of Memphis?

The Gates of Memphis are monuments that will ring the city of Memphis. To visitors and newcomers and passersthrough, they will announce, "this is a land of Giants". To citizens, they will remind, "Giants have walked here; follow them."

We will construct them at both the modern and historic entrances into the city, with the Mississippi River and Interstate 40 the symbolic boundaries -- the Walls -- of the city. Since Interstate 40 was built along the flood plains of the Wolf River and Nonconnah Creek, natural levees and their height follow the Interstate as it encircles Memphis -- creating excellent promontories to build monuments. We will build the Gates on these promontories and the Bluff: Highway 61 (Third St.) and Interstate 40, Interstate 55 (Old Bridge) and the Mississippi River, Interstate 40 (New Bridge) and the Mississippi River, Highway 51 (Thomas) and Interstate 40, Highway 14 (Jackson) and Interstate 40, Highway 64 70 (Summer) and Interstate 40, Highway 72 (Poplar) and Interstate 40, Highway 78 (Lamar) and Interstate 40, Highway 51 (Elvis Presley Blvd.) and Interstate 40.

There will not be a single style of architecture, but the overall effect will be classic neon Las Vegas (the better to see us with, especially at night), Route 66 roadside architecture, monumental scale and Memphis cultural imagery. They will be many stories high and visible from miles away as you enter the city by car, plane, or train. They can have functions other than visual, but those functions cannot dilute their visual impact.

We will name them after the Giants who have passed through them. The Old Bridge gate will be the Johnny Cash Gate, the Lamar Gate will be the Elvis Presley Gate, the Highway 61 Gate will be the B.B. King Gate and so on.

Now you know why I put "Delusions" in the subtitle.

Yet we already have one of the Gates half-realized -- the Pyramid. Half-realized. The problem with the Pyramid is that we let banality infect a great idea (based on the pyramid, pictured, that Memphis built for Tennessee's 1896 Centennial Exhibition). We turned a monumental idea into a pointy suburban office park. Still, the mythic structure is there.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Gates of Memphis

The Gates of Memphis are devoted to 3 ideas:

  1. that the great city of Memphis, Tennessee must preserve and create an architectural presence that embodies the city's historic and mythic creativity, and further inspire its citizens' imagination. If Giants walk among us, then we must be able to see their footprints. Otherwise, no one will believe us.
  2. that the creativity and imagination of the citizens of Memphis, whether entrepeneurial, gastronomic, scientific, digital, architectural, organizational, musical, visual or written, is the most important activity of the city.
  3. To flourish, the creativity of Memphis requires democratic, participatory and transparent institutions. Hierarchy and exclusion selfishly darken the field of ideas, stunting if not poisoning the growth of creativity and with it the future of Memphis.