Thursday, January 28, 2010
Memphis' Main Street
I had the great pleasure of visiting Main Street, Memphis, TN today, hosted by Altha Stewart and Emma Martin. Reverend Noel Hutchinson oriented me to Memphis, saying that there's so much history here you could easily spend three days seeing sights without repeating any. He took me to see the small music studio where Al Green recorded his hit records. I really connected with his insight as Altha, Emma and I were driving on and around Main Street. The historic waterfront, the touristy Beale Street, the tragic Lorraine Motel, and so many other places that are iconic parts of American life are right there by Main Street. Memphis has turned this to advantage, dressing Main Street up for the tourists. I can understand the impulse to do this, as the place touches the kind of deep feelings that attract people. But there was also a tendency to remarkable paintings on buildings -- not slogany murals, but real, deeply felt works of art -- and these sprouted all around Main Street as they seem to do throughout the city. They are a sign that Main Street is still serving local people, though perhaps not as well as it serves visitors from around the world. In that same vein of ambiguity, Main Street Memphis is not as thin as some I have seen, but it has its share of nearby empty lots, reminders of a lost industrial past. How does Main Street help in the reinvention of Main Street? If it has no room for the locals, the city has lost a key place of conversation. In that situation, how does the city have the conversation that's needed to save the city? It reminds me of the nursery rhyme "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost..." Memphis' ambiguity strikes me as holding enough connection to itself that it is a chance of holding that necessary conversation. At the same time, it has the stirring creativity of great port city. I say Memphis is a city to watch.