I positively detest the cold.  I’m simply not constituted for it.  Winter makes everything brown and grey and nothing blooms.  All those extra clothes and hats and mittens and scarves and coats make me look like that kid from A Christmas Story.  And did I mention . . . it’s cold!

In summer time, I revel in my neighborhood and the sense of place it provides.  When it’s warm, I play outside every day.  I mow my yard (all by myself!), work in my garden, walk my dog all over the neighborhood, and run in Overton Park.  I walk up to the movie theatre or to meet friends for drinks on the patio at Le Chardonnay.  On Saturdays I ride my bike up to Easy Way, then down to Otherlands for coffee, and stop off at Tip Top to pick up a bottle of wine.  I can get everything I need for a big dinner party without biking more than two or three miles.

I know everyone on my street and we have no fear of being nosy.  We’re all different ages and backgrounds, and I rarely walk down the street without stopping to talk to at least two or three of them.  We all have front porches, so that’s where we spend our time.

The Cold Disconnect

Winter is another matter altogether.  I hunker down in the house and generally refuse to play outside.  I tried running in the cold, but the little snotsicles just got to be too gross.  And my toes went numb.   Because I’m not out front in the garden (and the dog refuses to go for walks when it’s below 50 degrees), I don’t see my neighbors as much as I used to.

I read a lot during winter, and go through several cords of wood a month.  Even as I write this, I am snugged up under a blanket, three layers of clothes, fire blazing.  I still shop at Easy Way, drink coffee at Otherlands, and check in with Dewey and his dog Baxter at Tip Top, only now I zip around in my MINI.  The bike is in the garage holding down some lawn chairs that keep tipping over.  In essence, I completely disconnect from my neighborhood, and I lose that sense of place that brings me such joy.

Snow Re-Connection

Our recent surprise snowpocalypse was a stark reminder of how much I miss my neighborhood connection and sense of “place” during winter.  Just after dawn that Monday morning, I dug out two pairs of thermals, several shirts, ski pants, sweater, coat, hat, scarf, and mittens.  And yes, I actually looked like the Christmas Story kid.  I met up with my neighbor and her German Shepherd puppy and we traipsed across the street to Overton Park.

It. Was. Amazing.  Given the ungodly hour, we were the first on the scene and the snow was pristine.  We quickly hiked back into the woods.  I stopped.  I was standing in the only old growth forest in the city, covered in the sparkling snow of a new dawn.  It was breathtaking.  The trees might be bereft of leaves, but have you ever really looked at the grace, beauty, and strength of the bare branches?  You never get to see it in the summer time.

Two hours later, after having caught up with other neighbors and a woeful attempt at a snowman (it came out looking more like a snow lump), we hiked back across the street, wet, cold, and tired.  About an hour later, I got a text about lunch.  Hike up to Bosco’s for some locally brewed beer and a pizza?  You bet!

We met at the corner and schlepped down the snowy alley to Bosco’s.  For the next hour, we laughed, ate, and sampled some of the best locally brewed libations ever.  I also learned that it’s a good thing I’m not a baby wolf, as I would have starved because I eat so slowly.  Full and warm, we schlepped back down those same alleys back home.

I tucked in, fired up the laptop, and attempted to get some work done.  Not surprisingly, I was monitoring Facebook instead.  I was amazed at how many people were already griping about being bored and snowed in.  It was 2 pm!!  And then I remembered.  They live in subdivisions, unwalkable neighborhoods with no pedestrian access to all the wonders of our city.  If they can’t drive, they are completely cut off from those around them (if they even know their neighbors in the first place).  They have no sense of belonging or access to a “place” or a neighborhood.

Bless Those Folks Who Have to Drive . . .

Wow.  My neighborhood is a BIG part of why I love my city so much.  I feel bad for all those Facebook folks who have to wait for the streets to clear before they can take their families sledding.  I am connected to the people, places, and businesses around me.  Even in the worst of winter, I still have the opportunity to laugh with friends who live only 50 feet away.  I can still get my favorite mocha and fresh produce.  My neighborhood and those who inhabit it are an important part of how I judge my happiness in my city.

Loose Translation:

Place is important.  Neighborhoods in which we all can feel like part of a larger community are important.  I’ll admit, investment in walkable, accessible neighborhoods and strong public parks won’t solve our education problems or reduce infant mortality.  So what function do neighborhoods and public places serve?  They provide the visual backdrop for a city narrative in which we can all see our place.  These public places (like Overton Park) are equal opportunity experiences that will never come close to a mall or a freeway.

Anyone could have been the first ones to break the snow in the Old Forest of Overton Park.  That joy is free to anyone who shows up.  My access to such a beautiful park is an integral part of why I stay in Memphis.

The Beale Street Landing is a phenomenal opportunity to create that visual backdrop in which we can all see our place and feel a sense of pride.  Yes, it’s currently over budget and over timeline.  A few snags snuck up on the Riverfront Development Corp.  Happens to the best laid plans.  But that in no way diminishes the value and importance of the project.

Visual Backdrop

Beale Street Landing will provide that same free access that I have to Overton Park.  Even better, it will provide free access to the most incredible of Memphis’ assets: the Mississippi River.  Today, the best I can do to “experience” the river is to walk down to Riverside Drive and stare at it.  Yeah, that’ll make me want to live in Memphis.  Not.

As I said, even the best laid plans sometimes go awry.  We’re in a recession, and it’s admittedly hard to justify spending additional millions on a park that’s already over budget and behind schedule.  So what happens if we just stop where we are?  Quite simply, our riverfront would be marred by a wretched, terrible scar.  I’m not talking about some psychological scar.  I mean a big, ugly scratch in the river bank.

We’ll still get the grass-topped building, and a red spiral thing that goes to a boat dock that never got built.  The rest will be just a bunch of dirt that’s been shoved around.  If we stop now, if we refuse to fund the current request, we’ll leave ourselves (and our city) worse off than when we started.  Should that happen, I suggest the marketing folks hire a good airbrush artist to touch up any skyline photos.

Equal-access public places are a big part of the visual backdrop of our city.  These are places we can all look at and see ourselves enjoying.  Anyone can be the first to stomp in the snow or watch the sun rise in the forest.  My special place, Overton Park, is a big part of why I live where I do.  Let’s make Beale Street Landing the same kind of special place.

P.S.  Don’t worry, I haven’t abandoned my walkable neighborhoods soapbox.  Keep your eyes open for that one.