Memphis is filled with fools… there, I said it!

When we build let us think we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work that our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone upon stone, that a time is to come when these stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, See! This our fathers did for us.

–          John Ruskin, 19th Century Art & Architecture Critic

 The above quote, unceremoniously photocopied, has hung in a cheap frame on the wall of every office I have had over the last 15 years.  I am a fool who clings to the belief that we can do a much better job of planning for and building our city.

The quote was written 41 years before the Memphis women’s group, The Nineteenth Century Club, was founded to improve the lives of women and children in the city.  With the motto “Influence is responsibility,” perhaps they were also fools.

The book in which the quote is found (The Seven Lamps of Architecture) was published 60 years before the current Nineteenth Century Club mansion was built.  Like many lumbermen of the 19th century South, Roland Darnell invested much of his riches in an iconic Midtown structure intended to elevate the standing of themselves and the city.

Perhaps this, too, was foolish.

The place I first saw the quote was etched into the lobby floor of the famous Chicago Tribune building.  It was placed there 76 years after the quote was written.  Newspaper publisher Colonel Robert R. McCormick held an international competition to design “the most beautiful and eye-catching office building in the world.”

Who knew that the Midwest had such fools?

And now, over 160 years after Ruskin gave us such an inspirational aspiration, we are again feeling the effects of generations that traded greatness for mediocrity.  Union Avenue may lose the Nineteenth Century Club.  I think we are collectively a bunch of fools.

When do we throw up our hands and surrender?

How about now?  Most of us already have!

John Ruskin was concerned with sustainability and craftsmanship long before Mayor Wharton dreamed up Sustainable Shelby.  Ruskin was not afraid to go out on a limb and let the world know exactly what he thought of city growth and the importance of the structures that accommodate growth.

Over the past twenty years, many people have revived his critiques as a method of warning against our ongoing folly.  And many, many other warnings have gone unheeded over the years, as well.

Yet, year after year after year, plan after plan after plan has advised modern Memphians on their looming fate.  And we have regularly, even purposefully passed on the really hard choices.  Why should we expect tomorrow to be different?

Population Density Per Square Mile

New York City



















Our problems are not a surprise!

If you have ever read Smart City Memphis, you know we promote talent attraction and population trends.  You know we understand the economics of cities and the dire straits ours is in.  You know that we have offered solutions to education concerns, systemic poverty, to environmental conditions and business retention.  We study other cities, benchmark our programs and search for unique attributes to promote.

We try to build coalitions and support those who roll up their sleeves on the community’s behalf.  We give away credit and push as many items quietly as we do publicly.

But at some point a guy gets tired.  At some point the Nineteenth Century Clubs aren’t that much more important that transit options and downtown office markets and access to parks and retail overbuilding issues and property tax inequity.

At some point you have to ask yourself who’s winning and who’s losing.  You have to ask yourself if the patient can be healed or if you are strong enough to stay by her side while she just dies.

Detroit is largely composed, today, of seemingly endless square miles of low-density failure.”

– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

 This is a terrifying quote.  Not because it is harsh.  But because it was harsh in 1961.  Because seven years before the first Camaro rolled off the lines in Detroit, Jane Jacobs knew where that community was headed.  Because in 1961, we could predict the coming traffic mess in Atlanta.  Because seven years before Martin Luther King was assassinated, Memphis was already headed down this same road of “low-density failure.”

In the 1970s, there was a terrific battle to save the Napoleon Hill Mansion on Union Avenue.  It was to be torn down to make way for a drive-through fast-food restaurant.  The demolition was finally approved.  And the dominoes along Union Avenue continued to fall.

To many people, the Nineteenth Century Club may be the last stand.  In reality, if it is sold and scraped bare, it will be but the last breath of a once mighty body.

Today it is a monument to the past… to great entrepreneurs, to bold philanthropists and to a city that was once the envy of its peers.  But it is a useless monument along a river of accepted neglect, failure and lesser structures.  It reminds us of what we could have been until we decided to not to.  It is a monument that has no admirers.  And is that a monument worth keeping?

When gone, maybe we can wax nostalgically about the times before with no guilt or responsibility.  Maybe we can drive-through and move-on and wonder why no one cares any more, knowing that it is no longer our problem to deal with.

We can watch our parents move to towns with squares and character.  We can watch our children move to cities with life and opportunity.

And those of us left?  We can blame ourselves for not working harder to save one more old building.