Memphis: Setting the Scene

46 thoughts on “Memphis: Setting the Scene”

  1. Speaking of parking and the idea of Granola Shotgun, there’s an ‘oopsie’ in the new tax code that nails parking lots. I’m sure it will be watered down, but right now a parking lot is considered serious taxable income:

    “And that’s how the plain language of the US tax code came to imply that every private employer in the country that has a parking lot or garage must calculate what it pays to store the vehicles of employees who drive and then to pay taxes on that value every year.”

    Dovetails nicely with your ideas that corporate taxing and income generation has gotten so opaque that it’s essentially unmanageable, even by those who wish to control it.

    1. Fascinating! Now… call me cynical, but if this tax on employee parking spaces actually starts to cost companies real money it’s entirely possible that there could be a revolt. The spin doctors could easily re-label it a la the “Death Tax” vs. inheritance tax. “Here’s the Nanny State forcing decent people out of their private vehicles and on to filthy buses full of junkies and whores.” Or, low level employees will see their free parking go away as lots and garages are calved off into private entities (possibly a wholly own subsidiary of the mother ship) while “important” employees retain their premium spots near the front door. We’ll see.

  2. Memphis, has a violent crime rate that is one of the highest in the nation, included rape, murder and non-negligent manslaughter, armed robbery, and aggravated assault.
    No easy answers there, and I somehow doubt that changing the housing will change the people.

    1. You’re right that changing housing alone can’t fix anything.

      But most of those crimes are symptoms of poverty coupled with the destruction of local community.

      You can’t pin the full responsibility for the problem on the character of the current inhabitants of poor Memphis neighborhoods without considering the economic context, just as you can’t put full responsibility for the opioid epidemic on the addicts without considering the effects of deindustrialization and the pushing of opioids by pharmaceutical companies.

      The people are small players in a much larger set of economic and social changes that have been unfolding under our noses for a long time.

    1. And that’s different from the exclusive leafy outer suburbs…. How? If property values don’t rise no one will ever build anything. The trick – and I’m not saying this is even possible – is to incrementally improve things so prices rise gently over a period of time in an organic rather than speculative manner. In practice, it’s mostly boom and bust as you suggest.

      1. As you already know…price appreciation in property are not necessary for property to have a positive return. Right now, American housing has to appreciate because there is no other cash flow. You get your gain at the day of sale.

        You could have pragmatic, practical, and useful housing that had all sorts of other regular cash flows – kitchen bakery, room rentals, daycare, farm, barber shop, wood shop, pottery studio…

        Under this scenario you could actually have housing costs depreciate (as some believe it should, as things wear out) and you could still have a positive return.

        1. Excellent point, and one I would gladly participate in myself. Except… society is Hell bent of not allowing homes to be used for practical productive purposes. Even if zoning and municipal regulations don’t prevent home businesses the private HOAs will. The idea is that “the good people” have money from some invisible odorless silent source and they spend that income on a consumer “product” they live in.

          1. Are you familiar with the “sneaky fucker strategy”?

            It’s an evolutionary biology term for males that pretend to be “one of the girls” and mate with females right under the nose of the alpha male.

            I think there is a corollary for single family zoning. In many places, there is a home based business license that will allow you to do quasi commercial things right from your home.

            Forget the fire sprinklers, grease traps, handicap ramps…just get in there and get your groove on.

            1. I’ve known a few sneaky fuckers over the years. I refer to myself as a slightly different variant on the same basic theme. I’m Templeton the rat from Charlotte’s Web complete with the voice of Paul Lynde. But that’s a different story…

              I could write so many great posts about people who have converted their homes into productive businesses in direct opposition to a long list of rules and regulations. But I’d get them in to all kinds of trouble.

            2. In Kiryas Joel the Hasidic residents are now using single family homes to run businesses and retail establishments and dividing them up into multifamily buildings. All you need is a critical mass of residents who won’t object and a local government to not stop it and you can do a lot with a neighborhood of single family homes. Obviously a unique situation because of the residents, but it shows it’s imagineable at least and possible under certain circumstances.

        2. The funny thing is that a good number of the features of very expensive and exclusive housing today actually apes the design of economically productive spaces, especially kitchens, i.e stainless steel kitchen appliances, butcher block counters, etc.

          Some of this is of course because these things are functionally superior and more durable, and the occupants use them heavily, but in many cases, they are basically just for show purposes, and are used lightly so as to keep them looking pristine, sort of like the “living room” of old where the kids weren’t allowed, and was only used for entertaining when the boss visited.

  3. Hi Johnny,
    Thanks for another great post. I hope someday you will condense and curate this very thoughtful and original blog into a book. Personally I like the aesthetic of nature taking over long abandoned human structures. Perhaps the softening of the hard edged urban landscapes by nature will one day add value back into blighted urban neighborhoods like the one you showcase here. Of course slow urban decay is ubiquitous and not just confined in big cities like Memphis or Detroit. In my little Midwest town 5 houses have disappeared from the immediate vicinity of my home within the last 10 years. Nothing has been rebuilt and the neighborhood is a bit more open and looks nicer, although perhaps and the expense of the communities long term viability.

    1. You’re hitting on the two larger narratives at play here. People like greenery, open space, and nature. But ugly things pay the bills. In the long term we’re going to have two environments. 1) The rural life where people get greenery and nature, but not city level services. The money just won’t be there to supply them. That could be a good life for many people willing to manage their own water and waste systems and generate their own power. So long as they can earn a living in the hinterland. 2) Some version of urbanism that is self supporting. That doesn’t mean Hong Kong or Manhattan. A simple one and two story Main Street from the 1890s managed just fine.

        1. I’m a big fan of John Michael Greer. He’s a good tonic to mix with James Howard Kunstler’s bitters. Makes a nice cocktail. KMO on the C-Realm is the cherry and little paper umbrella. In his youth KMO worked for the nascent Amazon in Seattle, got a fat payout in stock options, and was a hard core libertarian. Now at fifty… Well, check out the C-Realm. I find him charming in a realist-adjusts-to-external-reality kinda way.

    2. Book? There’s no money in physical publishing these days. A few celebrity authors do well, but the money mostly comes from movie rights. I don’t attempt to “monetize” this blog either.

      1. Like a blog, a book is not necessarily written for the money. I see the book as incomparable vehicle for sending a thought-package idea across space and time. I’ve seen a lot of websites and blogs go dark. A well-written and well-made book tends to last. As a fan of your blog, I hope you’ll consider writing one.

  4. Does Memphis have enough demand for infill urban development in neighborhoods like that, but local zoning codes and the cost of renovation prevent it?

    Or is it the case that there just isn’t enough demand for housing in that area to support revitalization? Both are hard problems, although the latter is a lot harder.

    If there is sufficient demand, why not just tear down the dilapidated structures, beautiful though they may be, and build from scratch if it’s less expensive? You could always preserve a brick or stone wall to keep the historical character if you wanted to do so.

    In the rest of the world, people have always rebuilt on the ruins of the past (in fact, this is often how ancient ruins are discovered) because, as the saying goes: “Location, location, location”.

      1. 😉 I fall for all your bait. No wonder I’m addicted to your blog Thanks for the blog and looking forward to the follow up post.

  5. The last two paragraphs are the most profound and instructive on how and why America looks the way it does.

    Every highway that destroyed an “undesirable” neighborhood, every parking lot that wiped out “undesirable” houses, every factory shut down, every new shopping center built away from downtown, what was the motivating factor in all these decisions?

    Why it’s as mysterious as Brexit to me. Keep out the people you don’t want and you’ll live and die happily.

    Tragically, this ugliness, this rot, this waste, it’s all-American. And I wonder if all the talk about small houses, walkable neighborhoods and the like will fix the underlying hatred that made us who we are today.

  6. FUCK, those old buildings look so cool. The empty lots and sweet old architecture reminds me of Detroit (duh).

    Aside: that is a good looking dinner table.

    1. Love the podcast. Thanks for sending the link. It’s pure Chuck Marohn and Joe Minicozzi. There’s a deeply ingrained narrative that prosperous suburbs are being drained of funds to support the slovenly ne’er-do-wells in the city. I have no interest in fighting that cultural dynamic. Time will do all the heavy lifting as money dries up and hard choices are made. That doesn’t mean the people who now live in inner city neighborhoods will benefit from the changes. There’s already a migration of poorer people to the declining lower value suburbs.

  7. You’ve described [fill in city name here].

    If only [fill in city name here] had more tech companies! There would be cool restaurants and specialty bike, beer, and bread shops with reclaimed wood and Edison lighting! All it takes is more people living where people used to live!

    [Removing tongue from cheek]

  8. Does the prior urban use and building rot make the soil too toxic to produce food?

    Because if we keep this up, eventually the entire country will consist of new suburban development and vacant previously developed lots.

    The problem is people. As noted on this site, it just works a lot better if people live closer together rather than spread out miles away.

    Memphis is de-annexing areas that are too far out to ever be developed. They’ve realized that at some point the whole thing isn’t sustainable.

    The big industry in metro Memphis is distribution. Tennessee has close to the lowest state and local tax burden as a share of its residents’ personal income in the country (I believe it is second lowest off the top of my head). But since 2000, all the new development has taken place across the state line in Mississippi, where lots more in tax breaks are available.

    1. 1) Maybe yes on building rot preventing urban farming, because of years of lead paint leachate in the soil.

      2) I’m not sure where you’re based, but there is lots and lots of farmland and rangeland and water in the US, especially the Midwest. We’re in no danger of running out even in our grandchildren’s lifetimes. Western/southwestern water, and coastal land, are another story entirely. But as long as people want to live in a pleasant climate near mountains and oceans…you’re right, the problem is people.

      3) Re people and settlement: Look at a couple of very old European settlements in North America, particularly those along the river around Albuquerque and in French Quebec. The farm form was very skinny and deep, with the houses lined up in community along the road. Not dense, but village-like nonetheless. Your neighbors were close.

      1. People have a false impression that farm soil is pure and clean. It isn’t. Industrial agriculture is based on all manner of toxic inputs for production crops and livestock that are continuously applied and tend to accumulate over time.

        Urban soil is often contaminated with lead and other impurities so producing food in it needs to be done in an intelligent manner. Raised beds work for compact high value crops. Low value commodity row crops aren’t suited for small lots in city neighborhoods anyway. Fruit trees, berry bushes, nut trees, and fruiting vines grow very well in less than perfect urban soil and common contaminants like lead don’t materialize in the edible fruit of perennials.

        1. I agree, and was too succinct. I should have gone on to say that you have to test and adapt your methods and crops to the conditions…just like all agriculture.

          Leaded garden produce is a big no-no and lead does require soil replacement or addition (as in raised beds).

    2. Healthy food can be grown in urban soils even if the land has been tainted by lead and such. Raised beds and perennial tree crops work just fine and produce healthy food.

    1. That was my thought too.

      Couldn’t they have just kept the surface lot at the VA and used the money for cost effective “public’ housing the property? Much better for the mission, I think.

      1. VA hospitals serve a fairly wide geographic area. They also serve a huge cohort of people younger than 40…the people who have been fighting continuous wars in SW Asia since 2002. (I have a daughter in law whose primary care comes from the VA because otherwise she and my son would pay crazy premiums to cover her on his insurance.)

        Most of those folks don’t need public housing, they just need a parking spot so they can see their doctors. Building a garage is better than knocking down more buildings for surface parking.

        1. My point is that many individual decisions are made with good intentions to solve specific problems. But cumulatively the end result is bad for the neighborhood.

          1. It’s not bad if the VA hospital visits and garage encourage a pharmacy or restaurant or prosthetic supplier or pot dispensary to open across the street where the VA would otherwise have bulldozed/paved something else, and that story isn’t written yet.

            Cumulatively the end result is change. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s bad. I have a bias against bulldozing more houses or adaptable neighborhood commercial buildings to expand surface parking, especially when done by government agencies. I recognize, though, that parking structures have maybe a 50-year life in freeze-thaw climates and this is just kicking the can down the road two generations instead of the usual 10-20 years.

            My grandchildren will need to do something when they’re my age…maybe they will utilize their game training to fly mini-demolition drones equipped with mini-cruise missiles, pulverize the garage when it’s no longer useful, and then run the grinding machines that will turn it into the gravel that haul in dump trucks for spreading on broken down roads.

          2. Hi Johnny,
            I found your blog via a reply to comment I left on Naked Capitalism. I used to work in Memphis city government. After that I did mapping and surveys of the neighborhood around Legends Park. I did a lot of GIS mapping to explain Memphis in my blog. Check it out of you have the time.

            1. I went down a rabbit hole reading Polar Donkey, but couldn’t find the particular posts relating to the Legends Park area. Please send a specific link. I’d love to read it.

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