Thursday, April 08, 2004

The Mississippi River Promenade

There's a battle underway about some downtown property, and it appears that we, the citizens, will be the losers so that a few folks can make big bucks. When the city of Memphis was first founded, the men who laid it out set aside a large plot of land right on the bluffs in the middle of the city, for future generations. They called it The Promenade. It was always intended to be public space, a place where Memphians could come to meet, mingle and enjoy the river view unencumbered and free.

Over the years, bits and plots of the Promenade have been taken by the City for various "needed" and "important" projects, like a parking garage, a public library and various public buildings, along with the road infrastructure to service it all. Every encroachment only took a slice, but they set and repeated a precedent we must now reverse.

It's the same kind of precedent you still see, almost two hundred years later. Bits of Overton Park are shaved off and handed over. The most recent was for a senior center. Shelby Farms is another, where the "need" for a road of convenience is leading to plans to shrink this national gem and encircle it with strings of concrete and macadam. Always, it's the vision of developers, for whom empty land is wasted land, and the short-sightedness of politicians seeking public favor that rules the day.

So it is with The Promenade. Instead of scraping off the encrustations of previous generations, the Riverfront Development Corporation (is that a telling name?) has unveiled a plan to turn 40% of the land into office space, commercial space and housing. The remaining Promenade space will not stand on its own, as intended, but will be made to serve the development. Future generations will be less inclined to fight against more take-overs, since they will see the park space as subservient to the "important" office space now there. You can read RDC President Barry's Lendermon's explanations here.

There was an eloquent editorial in the Commercial Appeal about another plan, put forward in 1987, that respects the founders' desires and gift. The author made a persuasive case for that plan. Sadly, for reasons unknown, the link now leads to an empty page. Why this has disappeared is a question of some import, since it was the sole voice in the Commercial Appeal that spoke from a dissenting point of view.

In the big local print media, John Branston, in the Memphis Flyer, went to the Public Library and looked up just what the founders had to say:
"In relation to the piece of ground laid off and called the 'Promenade,' said proprietors say that it was their original intention, is now, and forever will be, that the same should be public ground for such use only as the word imports, to which heretofore, by their acts, for that purpose, it was conceived all right was relinquished for themselves, their heirs, etc., and it is hereby expressly declared, in conformity with such intention, that we for ourselves, heirs and assigns, forever relinquish all claims to the same piece of ground called the 'Promenade,' for the purpose above mentioned."
John's column is a clear-eyed and somewhat skeptical look, one that tracks my own a pretty good bit, at the forces at work here. Kudos to John for it.

Over at the Commercial Appeal, it's a different story. Gung-ho boosterism and civic development rule the day. Take a look at this headline from a recent story: Riverfront Development opponents to lead walk. That capital D refers to the RDC, but the sentiment is clear. They are "opponents" of something, not supporters of an alternative. (By the way, read the article for the names of folks and an organisation to hook up with if you'd like to stop the RDC plan.)

The CA has a guest editorial that's also suggestively titled: "Plan returns riverfront to the public." As though this -- the preferred plan -- was the only way! It implies, rightly, that something was taken, but implies the blame lies elsewhere than the true source.

It doesn't end there. In several Commercial Appeal articles, including some mentioned above, you see the same or similar boilerplate language used over and over, language intended to tilt opinion:
a four-block area of parking garages and largely neglected and inaccessible facilities
the area of parking garages and largely inaccessible and neglected structures
and another short news article I saw that's not online to quote from.

It seems a done deal. The plan is far along. The money is waiting, as are the developers. The daily paper is all for it. It'll make Memphis a "world class" city, I'm sure. But it's yet another example of how the City of Memphis is being run by the monied for the monied and their friends. History is an inconvenience to be sold and paved over. It is the future, the City and the regular folks who will suffer. As always.

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