Tuesday, November 20, 2007

River Posts Offer Grist For River Decisions

A few weeks ago, two reporters for Grist magazine, a leader in environmental journalism, were in Memphis as part of a tour of Old Man River from Dubuque to Memphis, and we got the chance to meet with them.

It’s always interesting to see ourselves as others see us, and that certainly goes for Memphis when we are seeing our city through the green-conscious eyes of Sarah van Schagen and Katharine Wroth. We appreciated the opportunity to talk with them about our city and its riverfront, and we found their impressions instructive.

Here’s the posts from their river blog that refer to Memphis:

Along the Mississippi: A developing story

Memphis debates what to do with its riverfront

By Sarah van Schagen

After arriving in Memphis, Tenn., birthplace of rock 'n' roll, Katharine and I headed straight out to Mud Island for a Smashing Pumpkins concert. (Work related, I swear!) The concert was held at the Mud Island Amphitheater, an open-air venue on the long, narr
rrow peninsula created to shelter a small harbor and keep a meandering tributary on course.

While the Pumpkins performed, my attention was focused on the river flowing just behind them. Even in the cold wind and drizzle, the outdoor arena was a great place to reflect and really connect with the river. But then I began to wonder how people interact with the river when they're not watching Billy Corgan rock aquamarine manpris and stripey knee-highs.

This morning, we headed out to meet with John Conroy of the Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation, the group that manages Mud Island Park and is working to develop a number of areas in downtown Memphis. Conroy showed us aerial maps of the city as well as drawings and a 3D model of RDC's plans for a major project on the riverfront that includes floating docks to accommodate the changing water levels and a mixed-use promenade that would include stores, restaurants, and residential areas.

You can read the rest of the post by clicking here.

Along the Mississippi: A uniter, not a divider
Memphians hope river can bridge racial divide

I mentioned in my last post that there are a lot of complicating factors involved in decisions about what to do with the riverfront in Memphis, Tenn. Yet another complex issue here, though, is the undeniable racial tension.

Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, Memphis went through a major decline, with many people leaving the downtown area and moving to the suburbs, and downtown businesses crumbling as a result. The current population of the city area is primarily black while the suburbs are mostly white, and the two don't often mix.

But embracing the river could change that.

Tom Jones of Smart City Consulting (and not "It's Not Unusual") told us that Memphis will be in the next few years the first majority African-American metro area -- a fact that, he says, Memphians are slow to embrace.

"Memphis is built on African-American culture and the river culture," Jones said. "Strip everything else away and those are the two things that mattered then and matter now. And somehow we need to focus on both of them and quit pretending like each of those factors is a problem."

To read the rest of the blog post, click here.

Along the Mississippi: A flood of coverage
A recap of our week on the river

Huckleberry Wroth and I survived our travels down the Mississippi last week, and we've now returned to our respective coasts to reflect on everything we learned. I must say, visiting three cities in seven days is no lazy float down the river -- we covered a lot of ground. Here's a recap:

In Dubuque, we:

· Chatted with the charming mayor, Roy D. Buol.
· Lunched with city leaders at a conference led by the American Institute of Architects' Sustainable Design Assessment Team.
· Found some interesting bathroom reading material.
· Talked with the city's planning services manager about re-embracing the Mississippi.
· Drove the Doris Day up and down the river.
· Got a view of the city from atop the country's shortest, steepest railroad.

To read the rest of the blog post, click here.


sherman said...

so, what was the t-shirt?

Anonymous said...

Quote: "Yet another complicating factor is the historical significance of many of the buildings downtown (some of which would be torn down in RDC's plan) as well as the cobblestones that pave the riverbank."

What buildings might those be?

Smart City Consulting said...

The t-shirts were bought in Dubuque. They said something like: Not everything in Iowa is flat, with the lettering across the women's breasts.

We're not sure what buildings they are referring to.

black and know it said...

Get your head out of the sand... Memphis' rank and file Blacks are NEVER going to embrace the "Downtown/Riverfront Economic Development Model" for Memphis. The model was RACISTLY evolved in the mid '70's with a GOAL of using public dollars to change the racial population mix of DOWNTOWN from a 81/19 Black to White ratio to a 76/24 White to Black ratio and this is exactly what WE have today. (I have a copy of the Center of Memphis document "for eyes only" circa 1976)

Now, WHITE dreamers want to attempt the very SAME thing as the PRICE for DEVELOPING Whitehaven. Race relations on White folks terms in Memphis is a dead issue as long as I am allowed to take breath!

Anonymous said...

Hey black and know it:

Enjoy taking your breaths in Mogadishu on the Mississippi for as long as you live; Memphis is lost as a city for anyone with anything at all on the ball to live in, build or expand a business.
To anyone else out there (black or white), I invite you to move to beautiful Middle Tennessee like I did a few years ago; your bad Memphis attitudes will miraculously vanish over a short period of time. Plus, it's booming and people actually WANT to live here, and aren't constantly working on an exit plan like Detroit South. Ciao.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever conducted or are you aware of any study of individuals who have returned to Memphis after living elsewhere for a number of years? If so, what have you found to be their impressions of the city? Have they tended to stay once returning? Do they get involved in civic matters,etc.? I ask because I am myself such a person. What about transplants from other cities? What makes them decide to stay?

Chris said...

Gee, anonymous, for someone who has transcended the negative attitudes of Memphis, you sure do seem pretty negative. If you're so happy in Middle Tennessee, why do you bother to leave sneering comments on Memphis-centric blogs? Shouldn't you be out dancing in the heather or something?

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous 1:57,
I am such a person as well. I think there is much here to enjoy and, like the other six places I lived after leaving here, there is still much to do. Sorry to those looking for nirvana, it doesn't exist on earth. Keep on working at improvement here. And to Anonymous at 12:31, hope you continue to enjoy Middle Tennessee, also hope you keep your negative attitude there; You are welcome to come visit us in the future, as long as you are gracious.

bob said...

black and know it -

I'd love to see that document. Can you scan and email it to me?

Smart City Consulting said...

Black and know it: The question that immediately springs to our minds is why the African-American city mayor, the African-American county mayor and the majority African-American City Council would act as co-conspirators for such a "racistly evolved" plan.

Anonymous, to your question about any studies about young professionals who return to Memphis, we have not seen anything that qualifies as strict research, but we are aware of a couple of studies being done on this subject, particularly as it relates to the problem of African-Americans who go away to university but cannot find a job that allows them to return.

Family and friends, according to our research, are powerful magnets that influence young professionals' decisions about where to live and work, but these workers are looking for four primary things for a city to get on their list - clean, green, safe and tolerant.

We're exploring the issue that you raise at the December 13 Leadership Memphis class, and we'll report back here what we hear.

bob said...

Smart City writes: Black and know it: The question that immediately springs to our minds is why the African-American city mayor, the African-American county mayor and the majority African-American City Council would act as co-conspirators for such a "racistly evolved" plan.

I take it, then, you have never heard of the term "house [negro]"?

Amie said...

I have only lived in Memphis since 2004, but I love it here. The main draw to my moving here was family, but now that I am here, I do find plenty to keep me interested. I have lived all over the world, and I will say that every city has it's good and bad points, Memphis included. The key here is that if there are things you don't like about our city, work to change it, moving to middle TN (or wherever) does not solve anything.

Anonymous said...

I've been here since 1986. as a technical professional as well as a musician.

I can honestly say its a dangerous and very poisonously racist city.

When my time expires at my current position at a large research / health care institution, I shall be moving on.

The blatant curroption, and racial divide by the city leaders is unfathomable.

The lack of an educated populous is simply staggering.

I've tried to affect change, and its to no avail.

Unfortunatly, with such a largely un-educated population as well as the curroption and finger pointing, race card playing, etc, its pretty much hopeless.

bob said...

Ah, but wouldn't having a world-class landmark like Beale Street Landing convince you to stay?

Smart City Consulting said...


We have trouble using such a prejorative term to ever describe Mayor Wharton or even Mayor Herenton. Any notion that they are mere tools of a white power elite just doesn't reside with full reality of this city.

Also, Beale Street Landing isn't about creating the magic answer to Memphis' competitive problems. It's about being the catalyst to the environment that is needed to attract young professionals and keep them here, a battle we continue to lose by default. While we are strong supporters of the Landing, a new, improved Shelby Farms Park, the Greening Greater Memphis manifesto, etc., no single project is THE answer. They all come together to create the kind of context that is needed for competitive success.

Smart City Consulting said...


We agree with your attitude about making the commitment to do something to change things. What would be your top priorities?

Smart City Consulting said...

Sorry, Amie. I have an appointment with my opthamologist for Friday. :)

bob said...

Just for the record --

I wouldn't use the perjorative about Wharton. I would say he's a pragmatist and has an effective style. As long as he stays county Mayor, his style works. (Were he to be Mayor of our pathological city, it would be a different matter.)

As for BSL, you ought to know better. The people you'd like to attract here aren't going to be impressed by a $30M monument to Herenton's follies. Their priorities are more sensible. They want a clean city, good schools, low crime, and plenty of public green space.

Given that you write so much about those things, I can't fathom why you persist in defending the indefensible. It's stunning. I think the term is, "cognitive dissonance."

But then again, maybe I'm insane for expecting a different result.

Smart City Consulting said...


It's not either-or, as successful cities are proving every day. And our opinions are based on our work and experience in other cities, not just this one. Something has to be done to enliven a deadly dull riverfront; it's just such a lost opportunity. As for our opinion, we think we're more flexible on this issue than you. But we love you just the same.

bob said...

We love you too, SCC.

And we agree 100% with this statement: "Something has to be done to enliven a deadly dull riverfront; it's just such a lost opportunity."

Which is why we feel that, instead of just waving the flag about this plan, you would do your readers a greater service by exploring (without bias) the reasons why earlier plans were never carried out. Surely with your long involvement in local government you must have a few ideas on the subject, even if not necessarily first-hand.

We eagerly await your post. (Please focus on pre-2000. We already know who and what to blame after that.)

Amie said...

I wouldn't say that I have a set list of priorities for changing Memphis, I simply wonder if those who do are actively trying to do something to change whatever they see as broken or if moving is their only answer. The local issues that I hear about the most tend to be centered on education, race and crime issues, and the anonymous post after mine pretty much sums up the 'it's hopeless' response that tends to answer those issues. I agree that working on such fundamental issues is challenging (and not just in our city, look at the world at large!), and although I do not have the answers, I do not think we should give up.

It is my belief that changing attitudes about a place is the first step in getting past the "it can't be fixed" attitude. I think we should focus on the positive qualities Memphis has (which is obviously subject to individual preferences), and build from there. If the people who already live in Memphis badmouth it, how would we possibly expect to attract new residents? If our population begins to have pride in our city, it seems to me that there will automatically be more civic involvement, more entrepreneurship, more artistic output and more inspiration for finding creative solutions to the issues we face as a city.

Smart City Consulting said...


Great point. Our national research indicates that the opinions of friends and relatives are key influencers in where young professionals live.

Smart City Consulting said...

Bob: What pre-2000 projects specifically? We may not answer today, because we have a project whose deadline is looming, but we'd be interested in pursuing this.

bob said...

Be glad to help.

I see three that are mentioned on this page:
- 1978 Memphis Riverfront Study
- Center City Riverfront Public Spaces Plan
- Center City Commission Plan (Venturi, Rauch, Scott Brown)

Full text of CCC plan here.

Herenton's plans evolved over the 1990s. They borrowed ideas from the earlier ones, and added some new twists.

Text of his "Memphis Landing Preservation Plan" here.

I'm not saying every one of those ideas was great, but with so many studies and proposals out there going back two decades before the RDC, why did none of them - particularly WRT the Cobblestones area - ever get carried out?

Smart City Consulting said...


Ah, those reports. We know a bit about them, especially the one involving Denise Scott Brown, because one of us chaired the committee that hired her and another of us cast the deciding vote to hire her rather than someone whose recommendation would undoubtedly have been for a festival marketplace.

Your question deserves deeper thought, so we'll continue to think about it, but first off, it's worth remembering that the Brown reports, for example, were a lattice of recommendations and observations, so it's difficult to pull a few quotes that summarize their sense in their entirety. The report by Ms. Brown, as we recall, had more than 20 volumes, but in the end, the Center City Commission was disappointed in her findings and never had them boiled down into the single summary plan needed to execute it. Instead, the CCC spent the money earmarked for the summary plan on another design for Court Square and the plan's volumes came to rest on the dusty shelves where it remains. We always found Ms. Brown's plan insightful and thoughtful, but at the time, the CCC's inaction was compounded by its going through a transition period after Mr. Dudas left as executive director and there just wasn't enough momentum to move the plan ahead. What we liked most about Ms. Brown's approach was her way of blending the historic with the entrepreneurial, the practical with the ethereal.

As for the OPD plan, it was just that - an OPD plan, generated internally in City Hall and without the serious foundation of political or public support needed to move it from just another plan to action. Like a lot of OPD plans, in the end, it counted for naught.

As for the Hall plan, as we recall, and this one we know the least about, because of the impending large-scale planning by Ms. Brown, it never gathered any steam behind it. Also, it seemed at the time that people were wanting something with more energy.

As for underutilized plans, we'd also add in the Memphis Talent Magnet report that we developed in 2002 and the Memphis Manifesto Summit a year later.

We guess the lesson is that it takes an alignment of public and private interests to create the energy for action, and sadly, none of these three plans created that. We also think that none of them captured the imagination of the public or politicians and so there was never any effective advocates for them that could make them happen.

By the way, if you're interested in plans, we have an original copy of the Memphis Comprehensive City Plan by Harland Bartholomew in 1924, and like all the others, it's interesting to see the various visions of the riverfront.