I have lived in Memphis for over 30 years. Most of that time was spent in the halls of Memphis City Hall and the Vasco Smith Shelby County Administration Building. I am a City Planner by trade and take great pride in the rebirth of our Downtown.
That said, I have witnessed up close and personal all of the iterations of Main Street. Cars, no cars; trolleys, trolleys along with cars; one big fountain that only worked 25% of the time, tiny little fountains that only worked 25% of the time; no trees, lots of trees; uneven bricks and concrete walkways, repaired bricks and concrete. I have witnessed all the free festivals we used to have from Oktoberfest to the Beale Street Music Fest to Memphis in May to the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival; I’ve watched all those festivals save one, thanks to the Center for Southern Folklore, now charging fees too high for many to attend.
I watched and participated in the beginnings of the Center City Commission and the Center City Revenue Finance Corporation, both fine and capable organizations with planning and economic staffs that work hard at rebuilding our Downtown. We are all proud of the rebirth of South Main, Redbirds Park, the FedEx Forum, the additions to the Convention Center (though I still lament the loss of Ellis Auditorium), the investment by the Belz family and Henry Turley among many others in retail and residential development that has made our Downtown the subject of praise. The Methodist LeBonheur Hospital System and St. Jude have shown the integrity and have seen the promise that investing in Downtown and the Medical Center can bring. Once Bioworks survives this wretched recession, we expect huge things from them. I’ve also watched the Center City organizations expand their territory out to the Parkways in order to help other neighborhoods and gateways into downtown.
But, enough is enough with Main Street! When I read last week that our 2 mayors, City Mayor A C Wharton and County Mayor Mark Luttrell, were making a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Congressman Steve Cohen in order to secure additional funds for yet another redo of Main Street, it was all I could take. Secretary LaHood apparently was concerned about Memphis after reading an article in the New York Times about the declining Black middle class in Memphis.
My best buddy had to listen to me this morning as we took our morning walk through our Midtown neighborhood. But, being a veteran planner and specializing in economic development, she could only nod, agree and add her own unique take on the situation, centered on the loss of her beloved Easy Way on Cleveland (more on that later). We both agreed, redoing Main Street yet again is not going to fill up the Sterick Building.
We are all concerned not only about the decline of the Black middle class, but we are also very concerned about the decline of inner City neighborhood housing, infrastructure and the movement of businesses throughout the area of the traditional City to the suburbs. These businesses pick up and move with abandon. No thought about what they have left behind. We have an abnormally high percentage of vacant single family housing in the neighborhoods that ring downtown Memphis because as the population grows older, they leave the houses vacant and their children and grandchildren, both White and Black middle class citizens have no desire to move into the decaying neighborhoods. The inner City boasts no prominent grocery stores, though wished for by residents, there are no discount retail stores, no doctors, no veterinarians, no full service restaurants of the type that line the roads and highways in other parts of Shelby County.
What we need to do to improve the lives of the Black middle class and the entire middle class of whatever race is to concentrate our efforts, not just on traditional housing programs, but thinking outside the box and directing major transportation efforts on other areas within the Center City Commission’s jurisdiction.
How about channeling some of that money and great thinking into some other “main streets” within Center City’s purview? Like Cleveland from North Parkway to Union. The Sears Building still sits vacant waiting for Andy Cates to work his magic (and I have no doubt that he will once the economy turns around). But, without doing some work on the street that connects that soon to be fantastic mixed use development to Methodist University Hospital, how can we attract our young adults to live there? How can we attract the middle class back to the street to open new businesses? Try putting a multi-modal transportation system between the revitalized Sears Tower and Methodist University Hospital, LeBonheur, UT and St. Jude. It doesn’t have to be a fixed rail system, but it should be a dedicated shuttle that can move employees to the major employers in the area.
Cleveland is adjacent to one of the biggest redevelopment projects in the country – the rebirth of the I-40 Corridor West. Where do you think they shop and spend money? Not on Cleveland that once boasted thriving businesses and was seen as a major road in the first City Plan produced by Harland Bartholomew in 1924? My goodness, even Easy Way has moved out. But if you want a cell phone, Twinkies and chips, cheap jewelry or a can of oil for your car you can find it on Cleveland.
And there are other transportation projects which need attention much more than Main Street. We need to explore multi-modal projects that are pedestrian and bicycle friendly, with trees and street furniture. Here are three more that immediately come to mind.
Let’s spend some of that time and money on Union from the Medical Center to Redbirds Park. A major gateway to the downtown filled with abandoned 1950’s automobile dealerships. The South CBID Plan called for this to be a major entryway. Why did we turn our backs to it? Yeah, we planted some trees, but is that all there is?
And then there is Poplar, including Alabama, from Danny Thomas Boulevard to the new $350 million dollar Methodist Lebonheur Hospital and Legends Park, another wonderful redevelopment of deplorable public housing guided by Robert Lipscomb. Street furniture, trees, soften the concrete jungle.
And what about Crump Boulevard? Major gateway into our downtown from the West. That too was covered in the South CBID Plan. We are improving the intersection with I-55 to help with traffic, but we have got to start working on the road from the river to Danny Thomas. Lots of investment in the South Bluffs area. I think we have an obligation to move further on improving its environs.
Landscape the open parking lots and only allow parking structures that blend with the environment.
It works. It has worked and continues to work in other cities.
Please, Mayors Wharton and Luttrell, don’t just ask for Federal Highway Funds and Transportation Enhancement Funds. Let’s not forget Federal Transit Funds. Urge MATA become a contributing partner that actually follows the plans and programs developed by the various planning and community with development agencies in Memphis. In many cases MATA is the key to implementing strong community plans. And the middle class, young and older needs MATA to support its future.
Oh, and one more thing. Although both of our mayors are enthusiastic and want only the best for Memphis and Shelby County, why do we have to send TWO mayors to Washington, D.C. to seal this deal?