But then I encountered the story of Beale Street in Eugene J. Johnson and Robert D. Russell, Jr.'s book, Memphis: An Architectural History. They open their discussion of the story by saying, "Beale Street today [they were writing in 1988] is one of the saddest examples of what urban renewal did to cities. It stands isolated in a green desert of grass that grows where once a thriving, or least throbbing, black community lived and gave sustenance to one of the greatest centers of black culture in the United States."
I am going to give an extensive quote from Johnson and Russell, because the book is currently out-of-print, and it might be difficult for people to read it in the original. That said, I hope the University of Tennessee Press reissues this marvelous work!
By 1964 the Memphis Housing Authority (MHA) had prepared a masterplan for whole Beale Street area, which it announced in an eight-hundred page report that suggested that Beale had to be destroyed to be saved. No one, of course, read the whole report. It was accompanied by a curious public relations brochure, short and east to read, that illustrated all of the street's great monuments that were not black. Left out were pictures of the famous saloons, which the tet did mention, and of the pawnshops that clogged the block between Main and Second, which the report did not mention. The brochure contained the ominous statement: 'Beale Street has been permitted to deteriorate to a point where little remains, from a practical standpoint, of its lively past.'
Consultants for the plan were Walter A.J. Ewald and Associates, who had submitted their report in 1963. They envisioned a Beale Street surrounded by new shopping malls. That is, they had decided, at the very beginning of the project, to tear down the surrounding community of houses and small businesses and replace them with a cordon sanitaire of shops, arranged like those in a suburban mall.
The project, of course, was sheer pie in the sky. There was no money to fund it, and there were no businesses lining up to open shops in those devoutly-dreamed surrounding malls. In 1964 the city told MHA to go ahead with an application for a federal grant, and in winter 1968 the project was still under not-very-urgent discussion. In April 1968, however, Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered at the Lorraine Motel, just a few blocks from Beale. That assassination lead to the assassination of Beale Street. In November 1969, with almost miraculous alacrity, HUD set aside $11,000,000 to fund the Beale Street Urban Renewal Program, and in June 1970, a HUD undersecretary flew into town to announce another grant of $14,000,000 for renovation. The bulldozers were already at work. By the time they got through, all but about 65 of the 625 buildings that had stood on the 113 acres of the renewal area were gone. If decimation takes one in ten, what should we call an act that leaves one in ten? Fifteen hundred residents were displaced to other parts of the city. (emphasis added)Johnson and Russell go on to describe the destruction of the block between Second and Main, once occupied by pawnshops, forever insulating Main from Beale. That was followed by a long period of languishing, during which most of the remaining buildings fell apart.
This story is astounding on many levels, among them these:
- By 1968, urban renewal was widely discredited -- it was shut down in 1973;
- By 1968, urban renewal was widely known as "Negro Removal" -- no black community would have seen it as a salve for the wound of losing Dr. King;
- By cutting off the support of the Beale Street community, the city undermined the integrity of Main Street, which has struggled to survive.
|Looking west toward the Beale Street neighborhood from the Lorraine Motel. Vacant lots still apparent.|