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.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Terri Baltimore's address to SAJE People's Planning School

Terri Baltimore is a community organizer in Pittsburgh, PA, working in the Hill District. This African American neighborhood is a famous place, home to many artists, including August Wilson whose plays detail life in there. In 2007, Terri Baltimore addressed the SAJE People's Planning School and shared the story of her work in the Hill District. I was a part of that work, beginning in 1997, when I was invited to address residents who were being displaced by HOPE VI. I came to Pittsburgh knowing that displacement was a painful and costly process. I learned while there that displacement was not simply a problem of the past, but was a repeated problem, affecting the same spaces and the same people, over and over. This summer I plan to go back to Pittsburgh to understand another part of this story: economic displacement by deindustrialization.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Vinegar Hill, Charlottesville, VA

Tom Hanchett, historian at the Museum of the New South, sent an email about a student project depicting what urban renewal did to the African American community of Vinegar Hill. He notes, "Here's an absolutely PHENOMENAL visualization of the African American neighborhood that was wiped out by Urban Renewal in Charlottesville, VA. Delve especially into the dryly named 'Appraisal' page -- the more you click, the more impressive it gets." Hanchett is himself a student of urban change, having authored, Sorting Out the New South City, which tells the story of Charlotte, NC. Over the course of its development, Charlotte was transformed from a small city in which people lived near others who were different in race and in class, to a much larger city strictly divided by race+class.