Danny Thomas Almost Killed Me

20 thoughts on “Danny Thomas Almost Killed Me”

  1. Johnny,

    Thanks so much for stopping by and depositing your two cents – Lord knows this city needs the investment! I was honestly excited to see an objective third party comment and hopefully offer some fresh insight and perspective, but after reading more and more of what you feel compelled to highlight, I must say I am a bit disheartened.

    I am certainly not here to try and refute much of what you have brought to light, only to suggest that your comments are not in the least bit constructive on the whole. That is why I have decided to pin you with the prestigious “Captain Hindsight” award. Speaking as a native Memphian who moved away and came back, I must say that much of your negative insight and historical perspective is why I chose to leave in the first place; but I am back BABY! And I love this place, despite its many blemishes. I lived off South main downtown for 7 years and watched it grow and now work downtown in a building that was built in 1926 and revitalized last year. You are familiar with the urbanization statistics and projections for the US, aren’t you? Positive revitalization and pockets of growth are happening and transforming this city whether you choose to write about it or not. Its just happening here as you well know.

    This city may have a lot of lemons, but the people and businesses here are making sweet, southern lemonade. I hope that you can accept the challenge to turn your frown upside down instead of reaching for another tissue writing your newest issue.


    1. I’ll be writing a blog post called “The Captain Hindsight Award” now!

      Memphis is exactly the same as nearly every other town and city I’ve ever visited all over the country. You think you’re reviving – and parts of town are. I’ll be writing about that too. But the larger trend is that we build disposable places, run them down, then move on to the next place. Disposability is built in to the tax code, the building code, the way we finance infrastructure, and our cultural narratives. So the results are the same everywhere.

    1. I make no attempt to monetize this blog. It’s a passion, but not a profession. If I was being paid to do this do you really think anyone at City Hall would write a check?

  2. Does being so close to an interstate cripple a place forever? Bad urban design aside, given all they’re learning about the health consequences of living so close to an interstate, these places may have more challenges than just not being walkable.

    1. Ideally, the highways would be removed and replaced with tree lined boulevards that add to the quality and value of the city – as well as ameliorate the health issues you mention.

      That’s not going to happen in Memphis. So the next best options are 1) Leave a block or two on either side of the highway vacant and wooded as a buffer. 2) Construct larger buildings along the highway with triple glazed windows and loads of insulation.

      The third (and mostly likely option in places like Memphis) is to have poor people occupy the unhealthy zone in substandard structures. It will fit nicely with the substandard schools and so on.

  3. “I don’t need to travel to Tennessee to go to an Applebee’s.” – anymore than you need to go to a glass pyramid to buy fishing gear, either. And the authorities anywhere/everywhere just don’t get this…

    1. Like I said… these places will thrive or fail on their own terms. They don’t need or want a carpet bagger coming in and telling them how they should organize their affairs. But we are approaching a saturation point where every town has a premium outlet mall, a casino, and a half assed “technology center” full of heavily subsidized low grade call centers. I just don’t care… I don’t have to live in any of these places.

  4. As a long-time reader and fan of your blog and Memphis native I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to see this series of posts. Thank you for turning your eye to my hometown. It’s interesting to see the familiar from a new perspective. I agree with your assessment of Memphis’ problems, but I am heartened by a handful of revitalizing projects and a new sense of possibility that has been sorely lacking in recent decades.
    I hope you’ll spend some upcoming posts talking more about what’s going on in some of the “niches” where you could be happy living. While I no longer live in Memphis I follow developments there closely and can honestly say it’s a better city than it’s been in any other part of my three decade lifetime.

    1. I’ll be honest. Memphis is no different from hundreds of other places I’ve been. Rockford, Illinois or Columbus, Georgia have the same bones and the same basic institutional dynamics. They all have the remnants of pretty good downtowns and a collection of neighborhoods with good bones close to the center. But everything the authorities do – no matter how well intentioned – is predicated on a deeply profoundly inescapably suburban mindset. The larger cultural imperatives demand that any kind of new “urban” anything is a tacked on decorative treatment only after the cars and visitors from suburbia have been accommodated. And honestly… I don’t care enough about any of these places to be bothered one way or another. They’ll succeed or fail on their own terms.

      My saddest moment in Memphis was walking down Beale Street when I realized it had been transformed into the equivalent of a row of themed strip mall tourist traps surrounded by municipal parking structures and acres of grass where a town had once been. The goal was to turn the entire neighborhood into a shopping mall and they succeeded. I don’t need to travel to Tennessee to go to an Applebee’s.

  5. As far as I can tell from 1,500 miles away, any bottom-up revitalization of Memphis is likely to start in Midtown and spread downtown, rather than the other way around.

    Just compare State Highway One in that area with the area you almost got killed trying to cross it.

    They tried to connect that area to Downtown with the transit and bikes, which is a good idea. But I guess they couldn’t get their heads around the idea of “de-highwaying” Danny Thomas downtown, and asking the suburbanites to get there on the full-length limited access highways to the north and south.

  6. (1) EZ Payments—- “….The same people who bitch and moan about squandering taxpayer money on after school sports programs for low income kids trip over their dicks to write a blank check for a shiny new stadium for billionaire vanity projects.”

    I don’t think so. Personally I haven’t tripped over my dick on this one. K-12 education is a veritable reservoir of wasted spending, but I am just as opposed to Corporate Welfare. In the 70s people actually thought new arenas and stadiums would be an economic multiplier, but there has been study after study of the last 40 years of stadia building and results are in: They are a tax sink hole. People are beginning to catch on. Even Las Vegas’ new stadium for the Raiders, which has the veneer of “public financing”, is, as I understand it, based on the premise of “Stick it to those idiot tourists. Compared to what they spent at the tables, resort fees, and the Spearmint Rhino, they’ll never notice the extra 10 bucks”.

    (2) Setting the Scene—- Hipster Doofuses with Beards. Please tell me somebody didn’t offer up a trial balloon for a Farmers Market. I love older architecture and hate expansive parking lots as much as the next person, but sometimes a bulldozer is the best tool for the job. Did they go overboard during the Urban Renewal Fever of the 60s and 70s? Absolutely. But a fair number of those older residential buildings actually weren’t built very well in the first place…..and in Memphis’ unique case there’s the seismic risk and cost to retrofit to consider.

    I agree we have “out-kicked the coverage” when it comes to the economics of providing state-of-the-art infrastructure to the far exurbs, but I don’t know if rebuilding a ghetto just like the ghetto we tore down half a century ago is the answer either. And I am curious…..were any ghetto residents actually consulted by the Bearded Cognescenti what THEY would like in the old ghetto? You have to admit the optics have a whiff of paternalism. The “stakeholder roundtable” stuff flies just fine in Marin or Santa Barbara, but might hit some turbulence in a place like Memphis.

    Thoughtful piece, and thoughtful comments, as usual. Thx for the link to incrementaldevelopment.org

    1. Such good comments!

      Okay. There are so few people of any economic or ethnic group in giant chunks of Memphis that displacement isn’t a huge issue. The reality is “urban removal” has already reached its full climax condition. The territory would have already reverted to a forest if it wasn’t for the municipal mandate to cut the grass on vacant lots. Are there poor black people struggling to get by in Memphis? Yes. Are Johnny-come-lately bearded Hipsters the source of their conditions? No.

      I’m all for pulling down old buildings that have reached the end of their useful design life. The trick is to replace crappy old things with better more durable things. That’s what Incremental Development is all about. Start with a tent. Then upgrade to a food truck. Then build a tiny one story wooden building. Then bump out the back. Then add a second floor. Then tear it down and put up a four story brick building… Or, you could just jump directly to a huge glass pyramid with $100 million dollars of public funds and hope it all works out.

      As for seismic retrofits, the pyramid got one as part of the Bass Pro Shops $30 million subsidy package in 2014 – paid for by a tax surcharge on the “trashy low rent properties” all around it. The engineers and the city must have known the area was earthquake prone back in 1989 when the structure was originally build, no? Not to mention the flooding problems it encountered (down in a hollow on the banks of a river) when it was still a basketball venue.

      The problem is a glass pyramid is “prestigious” and sexy. The whole incremental mom and pop thing is “trashy and cheap.” Why would any community want to attract such low end crap?

  7. I didn’t think there were cities more eviscerated by highway bulldozing than Cincinnati, but it looks like Memphis takes the cake.

    Since moving to Texas I’ve come to appreciate frontage roads (also called “service roads”).

    They existn (ubiquitously) due to a quirk of the Texas constitution requiring that anyone whose land is taken for highway (a super broad term in Texas) construction must have access from their property to the resultant roadway. Rather than building a nearly infinite number of on and off ramps for every freeway to every farm, homestead, and ranch, a surface street follows the entire route of the freeway (the frontage road).

    This does take a lot more land, but it means that the off-ramps of the freeway merely link it to the frontage road, which then interfaces with other streets normally.

    The pedestrian environments this creates are not nearly as perilous as what you’ve shown. They’re not going to impress Olmsted, but they’re less likely to kill you.

    1. Memphis, Tennessee is… Rockford, Illinois. Memphis is… Columbus, Georgia. Memphis is… a hundred or a thousand nearly identical places all over the country. The buildings, the political dynamics, and the economic trajectories are all the same. I “could” find a niche to live in each of these towns if I had to. But fortunately I have better options.

      Each of these places once had a gorgeous vibrant downtown core, as well as a functioning local economy. I won’t live long enough to see them revive to their pre WWII levels.

      I believe the Volkswagen plant is in Chattanooga, not Memphis.

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