Tuesday, February 03, 2004

The Ad Writer's Dream Memphis: My Downtown Rant

Reading along in Rachel's blog, Rachel and the City, a new-to-me Memphis blog, I found this post, which links to this page as a good description of life in Memphis. No disrespect to Rachel, but...EWWWWWWW!

The whole site is a bilious ad campaign masquerading as a tenant-run apartment website. Go look at the pictures of the "tenants" in "candid" moments. If fact, poke around the site a while and you'll learn it hasn't even been rented out when the site went up! But the worst of it is the page called "The Downtown Mood." It reads like it was written by Carol Coletta on a Richard Florida high, downtown advocates pimping the usual suspects like they're cooler than you are but if you have the cash you can buy in too. This is the same little clique who want to turn the downtown into "Manhattan on the Mississippi." Gah.
Memphians are unabashedly social creatures, and nowhere is that more evident than on the streets of our booming center city. The only sound more common than the toot of a trolley car or dull hum of a barge or train is the shout of a "hey y'all" on Main Street as the weekday lunch crowd pours into the sunshine. There is always a party somewhere. And everyone knows everyone?even if they've only lived here 30 months, like me.
What the f*ck is this? They forgot all the traffic noise and the bumpin' car stereos, and the "Hey man, give me a quarter." from the many homeless who swarm there. "Everyone knows everyone?" Sh'yeah, if you're the right someone; wrong social or class cues and you're stared right through.

This rose-blindered view seems to forget all those modern suburbans out on Mud Island. Just a short car ride out to acres and acres of sardine-packed, cookie cutter boxes. They like to mingle downtown but as I noted, it takes a car ride to get there. The writer also forgets to tell you that large chunks of the downtown start rolling up at 3PM, with huge swathes closed by 6. Yeah, parts of downtown rock until late, but be careful not to stray. One block too far the wrong way and you're a statistic.
FedEx. International Paper. AutoZone. These are just a few of the corporate heavy-hitters who call this burg home. Memphis has an impressive business community, and is the largest distribution center in North America. Three large banks are headquartered here. Our airport welcomes a Northwest Airlines planeload of people from Amsterdam daily. And Business 2.0 named Memphis one of the top 20 up-and-comers in E-commerce. Our new nickname is rapidly becoming "The Silicon Bluff."
Sez who? Half of eleventh graders this year in our City schools aren't up to passing the graduation test. Those folks will work for FedEx, IP and AutoZone, but only in maintenance and warehousing. Some folk speculate that's why our schools are so terrible: to keep a low-educated populace who can't aspire to more than the grind of distribution/warehouse jobs. Too many well-educated people and you can't staff those crappy jobs. Nor can you pay them chump wages.

I'm definitely getting sick of the touting of the one flight to Amsterdam. It's "Hey man, Europe, man. We're so important we've got a direct connection to Europe, man." As though European cachet debarks from each flight to cast a patina of Euro-sensibility over Memphis. Only in the dreams of the deluded.
People take their work seriously in Memphis, but at the same time you can expect to slow down if you're coming from the East or Left Coast or Atlanta. Here, taking lunch is cool, working until 7 is about as late as it goes without a crisis, and no business conversation begins with business. People are laid back and generally quite fun loving. And relationships matter, so start working on them right away.
That's right, we're Southerners so we don't work hard. We'd rather talk about you, damnyankee. There's a reason we don't blow ourselves out down here -- it's frickin' hot! Wait until you experience Memphis with 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity. You'll take long, lazy lunches, too. Believe me.
This is a city known for its dives. P & H, just on the edge of downtown/Midtown, is one of the best for low-key socializing. Sleep Out Louie's is this city's version of Cheers, while T.J. Mulligan's in the Pinch promises to raise your testosterone level with its trivia games, buckets of beer and sports programming. The Arcade restaurant, just a block from the Lofts, cannot be missed for a don't-bother-to-shower-just-cure-your-hangover Sunday brunch. And hole-in-the-wall downtown restaurants like The Green Beetle, The Marmalade and Cozy Corner offer fabulous food at dirt-cheap prices.
These are dives? Not in reality-land. Memphis has lots of real dives, but the yuppies who live downtown wouldn't be able to get in safely, nor get service.

And saying the P&H is on the "edge" of "downtown/Midtown" only makes sense for those who think they're living in some Southern Manhattan downtown, the kind who think the city ends at Danny Thomas Boulevard. I live a stone's throw from the P&H, I can almost see it from my front door, and I live smack in the heart of Midtown. Heck, there are some lifelong Memphians who think Midtown ends over by the University of Memphis!
The one thing that makes non-natives tear their hair out is how mental Memphians are about leadership, government and race. The city and county governments are divided, leading to annoying inefficiencies and turf battles. The city school board seems finally to be on the verge of being thrown out for greed and incompetence. The city council has a meal per diem close to the allowance for NBA players. And some still use the city's undercurrent of racial divisions to make political hay for themselves. All this makes for great reporting if you're in the media. For the rest of us, we either throw up our hands in despair or try to make a difference.

There are many who choose to do the latter. Progressive, bi-partisan organizations bring people together and achieve meaningful change instead of tearing each other apart. A few courageous developers continue to transform the city's core, creating diverse neighborhoods for live, work and play. And there are outstanding local non-profits that bring together people of all colors, creeds and faiths. MIFA, the Community Foundation, The United Way and The Women's Foundation are just a few of the many organizations that make us proud. As is often the case, the best solutions to our city's problems are coming from volunteers with the courage, cash and vision to solve common problems faced by modern cities. Even if you don't have the cash, Memphis needs your time. Become a part of the solution and get involved.
I guess we know who this was written for now, don't we? This has the stamp of Richard Florida's "creative class" hooey all over it.

"A few courageous developers continue to transform the city's core, creating diverse neighborhoods for live, work and play." That's the owner of this building, Henry Turley, the man who is making a fortune with the help of the same city and county governments he just had his ad-writer abuse. Turley, Belz and all that ilk get tax breaks, property abatements, free government money and every consideration you and I are denied. He's been warping the outflow of city and county money to his little dream. The city center gets a degree of attention, money and focus that neighborhoods like Orange Mound and Parkway Village and Hickory Hills would kill for. Any number of commissions are concerned with things downtown, but nothing for the rest of us.
If you like the nightlife and like to boogie, you're going to love downtown Memphis. Most people begin their nights out at "Slims," the affectionate nickname for a super-hip Caribbean restaurant located just across from the Peabody (full name: Automatice Slim's Tonga Club).Whether you like to wear handkerchief tops and pleather pants or just watch those who do, this is your spot. The drinks are potent and pricey, but the scene is worth every cent. And the food's quite good. From there, you might prowl down to Beale Street for blues, beer and neon. Or head across to the Peabody Lobby Bar, always abuzz with a mix of locals and tourists sprawled on comfortable couches and large chairs. Whatever you do, don't go home until you've been to Ernestine and Hazels and/or Raiford's. The former is a former brothel turned bar. The latter is a 70s throwback bar/disco run by a former pimp.
Oy! More hype and silliness. How many folks "hang out" at the Peabody? And I don't think "most" of us could even fit into Automatic Slim's.

But Beale Street? Hey, if you're in New Orleans, go to Bourbon Street, right? Beale used to be a thriving middle-class black business district, up until the Sixties. Like many similar places, it got decimated during that era until it was a crap hole. The City bought it all up cheap, created a business zone around it, then Disneyfied the whole place. Beale Street is to the blues what CheezWhiz is to frommage. It's a tourist trap, plain and simple. Yes, you can sometimes find the real deal there, but mostly it's a jam-packed mass of drunken revellers out "partying" in what they think is a public place.
And if you're an art and culture junkie, you'll find this area to be an oasis of creativity. We have two nationally known art museums, several top-notch theatre companies and the South Main Arts district puts many of the city's best galleries at your doorstep. The Orpheum Theatre gets the best of the touring Broadway shows. Many of our restaurants have been featured in Bon Appetit, Saveur, and other snooty gourmet magazines. And, in March, you'll be able to watch any one of 24 flicks, including an IMAX film, at the swank new movie theater opening inside the new Peabody Place entertainment and shopping complex.
OK, the two museums are not downtown; but if you go into the stores on Beale you can buy all kinds of artsy crap. Hey! We got "The Lion King" this year! At the Orpheum, where they kicked out Ballet Memphis' annual "Nutcracker" benefit. The Orpheum may have racked up, but Ballet Memphis was likely given a death-blow. Those fancy restaurants? Many to most are in Midtown, or Cooper-Young or out east in the County.

Peabody Place? More gah. Did you know they have a dress code there? You can be ejected for wearing your baseball cap backwards. If you are young or black, that is. When Peabody Place first opened, it got swarmed on the weekends by young poor blacks who lived in the area. That freaked out the owners (Hey, Mr. Belz and Mr. Turley!) who had tried hard to coax surburbanites back into the City center for their swanky stores. It got so bad that they ended up getting the City Council to ban "cruising" in a large part of downtown, just to discourage young "inner city" blacks from hanging out there and screwing up all that profiteering. After all, they don't have money or upscale-ness, so who wants 'em? Letters to the editor at the Commercial Appeal, a big booster of course, from freaked out and pissed off suburbanites led to a renewed ad campaign about how "hot" and "cool" Peabody Place was.

What's in Peabody Place? Nothing you need. The design of the place is crap, too. They had an odd parcel to work with, and a laundry list of things to squeeze in, so it's like a visit inside a schizophrenic's mind. Tower Records? Down that escalator. The Muvico? Up those stairs, but you buy your tickets down over here first. Jillians? It's right there, but you have to go around that corner to get in. The way out? Through that long blank concrete hallway. Wait! We want a fountain and pond! Just scrape up some of that floor over there and slap it in Food court's right there, in the middle of traffic.

Only the Tower Records is worth it, as they have a great CD and DVD selection, though their prices still suck. They also have a massive newstand. I went to the Muvico only twice and won't go back. First time, bad service. Second time, a fire alarm during the middle of the movie. The guy at the cart/kiosk in the mall said it happened all the time. They got used to it and learned to ignore it. Sure enough, most employees at the businesses in Peabody were ignoring the alarm and continuing to work. Some of the moviegoers had left the building, but the manager was trying to corral the stragglers to let them know the movies were going to restart. Cause of the fire alarm? The Brazilian restaurant had a grease fire in the kitchen. Yeah, I'll be back reeeeeeaaaaaal soon.
Finally, Memphis brings out the artist in everyone. Where else can you see a homeless Elvis impersonator, or look out on an unspoiled bank of the Mighty Mississippi as you can in this city? The city's raw beauty, irony and eccentricity get inside your bones and make you a native fast. But only if you get close to the city's heart, downtown, and avoid the soulless suburbs.
I'm as bad as any other Midtowner about chauvinism, I'll admit. I wouldn't live anywhere else in the City. I can walk to everything I need, if I want to. (OK, I have to. I don't own a car.) But downtown, this Disneyfied Manhattan on the Mississippi is not the heart of the city. Try Midtown, or Cooper-Young, or Orange Mound or the North Parkway area, or Summer Avenue, or Jackson Avenue, or hell, even Raleigh. That's this city's soul -- it's a loose collection of strong neighborhoods, a small Southern town blown up to big city size somehow. Most Memphians have long made it clear we'd like to keep the small scale and small-town sensibility. It's only the yahoos like Belz, Turley, et al. who keep forcing all this expensive crap on us for their own enrichment.

As I said earlier, gah.

Endnotes: I was looking around the "The Lofts" website and found that it's done, apparently, by ExtraLarge Media. You look around their website and you find out their only listed client is...wait for it...Henry Turley Downtown! Ahhhh...it's all so comfortable inside the cocoon.

For fun, call up the page source for The Lofts homepage. Usually Ctrl+U in a PC. Read through the code for a couple of fun bits. Also, go to the "About Us" page and click on the "Who are these guys" link to go to a "hidden" page. What self-serving twaddle.

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