Sunday, July 19, 2009
Memphis: The Good, The Bad And The In-Between
As the cat-loving father of two wonderful daughters, I have always found dogs and boys mysterious in equal measure.
The dog illiteracy was solved with a lovable Airedale terrier named Brodnax, the company mascot and family pet of Carol Coletta and John Montgomery, and the ignorance of boys was resolved when my two perfect daughters Emily and Adrienne married two exceptional men Jeremy and Matt. Jeremy’s son Seth was the bonus.
Dogs and boys played in a weekend in which we saw Memphis – the good, the bad and the in-between.
It’s Not Easy Being Green
First, the good: Nonconnah Greenway on Forest Hill-Irene Road north of Bill Morris Parkway. I’ve driven past the 50-acre, $1.4 million project many times, but it was volunteering to walk my brother-in-law’s Australian blue heeler that took me into the green space.
It’s an unspoiled treat as the walking paths meander beside the creek and take visitors past all kinds of plants and wildflowers. There’s an attractive stone entrance, water feature, lake, a metal bridge, and a sidewalk that connects the Mike Rose Soccer complex to the Veterans Cemetery.
The Greenway opened about two years ago as a part of the Wharton Administration’s green space plan and was conceived by Shelby County Director of Public Works Ted Fox, former Army colonel heading up the Memphis Corps of Engineers Office. Mr. Fox has a vision for a series of interconnected greenways and made the convincing point that our county’s creeks should not be neglected as public discussion concentrated on greenway plans along Wolf River.
Nonconnah Greenway is one of those lesser known special places in Shelby County, and it’s made even more satisfying by the surprising natural setting preserved there.
Mud In Your Eye
Second, the in-between. With Seth spending the weekend with us, we gave him options for the afternoon, and after serious deliberation, he elected for a trip to Mud Island.
It’s been so long since we’ve visited the river park that we couldn’t remember the last time with any certainty. That alone bears testament to problems of access and animation that erode any sense of urgency for return visits to the isthmus (part of the reason we have so strongly endorsed a skate park for the tip of Mud Island).
It was clear from our visit that Mud Island is limping along as a result of a strapped budget and limited staff. In mid-afternoon on Saturday, the park had hundreds of visitors, but the line at the ticket window should have been a tip-off that Mud Island is essentially operating on a “no frills” budget. There was one clerk in the ticket office, leading to a 15-minute wait to buy tickets.
We’ve always loved Mud Island, and we were pleased to see that care is still given to the landscaping. It’s when you look close that it becomes obvious that maintenance is pretty basic and the physical condition of the place is tired and lacking.
There is an obvious need for paint and polish, but a number of repairs are more than simple fix-ups. Joining the phalanx of tourists visiting Mud Island, we couldn’t help but see the park through their eyes – torn fabric and peeling paint for the monorail portion of the visit, cobwebs and ceiling problems along the escalators to the scale-model river, which needed more water to provide for more pleasant wading, alphabetical letters which needed to be replaced on some of the large displays showing river tributaries a disappointing Gulf of Mexico, desperately in need of maintenance and begging to be reinvented.
There’s so little to do that the most popular activity for adults and kids alike was to slide down the steep hill leading up to the amphitheater, and the food is marginal, especially considering that it’s a signature tourist attractions. But the biggest problem with Mud Island is that once you’re there, it’s essentially just a place to take a stroll.
Unfortunately, in city government’s haste to turn Mud Island over to Sidney Shlenker as part of his Rakapolis project, a bizarre development combining Egyptology and rock and roll and linking The Pyramid and Mud Island, it gave him carte blanch to do pretty well whatever he damn well-pleased.
And he did. He added eyesore after eyesore – adding a sandy beach, turning Gulf of Mexico into a swimming pool and most grievous of all, pushing an outstanding $1 million children’s playground over the side of the banks, removing a special place for young visitors who seemed on Saturday to be generally unsure about why their parents have brought them to the park.
Getting It Right
All of which makes it timely for Riverfront Development Corporation to think of how Mud Island can be reinvented to offer more uses and to create more revenues to get the park back into decent condition.
The visit to Mud Island was a cautionary tale for Beale Street Landing. Memphis is much better at building big projects than we are at maintaining them. We are encouraged that in addition to building the badly needed riverfront icon, the Riverfront Development Corporation is developing the program and activities that will keep the place alive.
That’s the thing about public realm. It’s about more than constructing it, but equally important, it’s about programming it. That’s why Memphis has no high-functioning public realm other than Overton Park that we can point to as an example of what it looks like when we do it well.
The Public Gets It
It’s a problem that’s not lost on the public. When the 130 people on the seven committees of Sustainable Shelby cast their votes and the opinions of the public were also weighed in, the #1 priority set by the process was creation of quality public realm.
In his presentation of 12 modest proposals for Memphis, former National Endowment for the Arts design director Jeff Speck said that Memphis has little public realm that works, and we do a dismal job of connecting the public realm to neighborhoods or to the fabric of the city.
That ultimately will be the test for Beale Street Landing. It’s not that it can just be architecturally striking. It must be characterized just as much by its connectivity, its vibrancy and its animated sense of place.
We have confidence that RDC “gets” it when it comes to the various elements that must be present for a quality public realm. After all, many of the people at the organization remember the big promises for the expansion of Tom Lee Park – the food vendors, performers and a beehive of activity.
Once the park was doubled, there was little mention – much less attention – to these issues, and today, Tom Lee Park continues to remain a place of unrealized potential.
One last word about a visit to Mud Island. Many of our fellow guests walked over from the Tennessee Visitors Center in downtown Memphis. You should try it sometime. From the front door of the center, it’s about a two football fields walk to Mud Island, except it’s impossible to walk it directly because of the ugly fences on the perimeter of the parking lots.
Finally, the bad. When I returned to my car, which was parked one block from Mud Island on Jefferson, the passenger window had been broken out and my XM radio stolen. In 38 years of working downtown, it marked the second time I’ve lost a window, so I guess I’ve been lucky (not counting the time my car was stolen).
Strangely, Saturday, I didn’t so much feel that I had been victimized by a criminal as that my ticket as a lover of this city had been punched for another year.