"Of outstanding universal value"
January 14th, 2022
(published in The Daily Memphian, January 7, 2022
My friend John Vergos is not a patient guy.
After all, in a town famous for long-smoked, much-basted ribs, his family makes ribs in about an hour, hits them with a mixture of their seasoning, white vinegar and water, and puts them on the table. Done. If you want sauce, you add it.
The family business is The Rendezvous and those ribs are world-famous.
When John was on the city council, fools were not suffered, BS walked, and wasted time was called out as well as those wasting it. He was often the lone dissenting vote, his conscience and the good of his city his only guides.
Three years ago, John had a straight-up world-class idea and he shared it with me. I shared it with you in a column to start 2019. John recently let me know he’s been wondering what happened to that idea. I mean, come on, it’s been three years.
John thought Memphis was worthy of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I thought John was right.
I still do. And so should people in charge. So should you.
UNESCO stands for The United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture. Since it was founded in 1945, 1,092 properties around the world have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites worthy “of outstanding universal value.”
Those sites range from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, as different as the Great Barrier Reef and the center of Salzburg, the Mosque City of Bagerhat and the work of Le Corbusier (I mention that one in memory of my slide rule and my 30 uncomfortable minutes as an architecture major). Some 23 are in the USA. The Smokies are on the list, so is the Alamo, and the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone, Independence Hall and Monticello, and the Everglades, and – of course – Papahānaumokuākea. Don’t pretend you know what that is – I looked it up – a group of islands and atolls starting 150 miles off of Hawaii, the largest marine conservation area in the world.
There are ten selection criteria, and you only have to hit one or more out of ten.
This one, for example:
“to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change”
As for that first “outstanding example of a traditional human settlement” part, we’re on a bluff on North America’s greatest river, the fourth greatest river in the world (I’m giving China’s Yangtze River third in the interest of calming world trade), a bluff named after the Chickasaw before us, home to others before that, burial mounds to ancient dead, ceremonial site to ancient cultures. Hernando de Soto discovered the Mississippi here. The Spanish, the French, frontier America, the Confederacy and the Union Army had forts here, and a future president, Zachary Taylor, was commandant here before another one, Andrew Jackson, was one of the city’s three founders in 1819. The tragic flames of the wreck of the Sultana in 1865 off of Mound City, the largest maritime disaster in American history, could be seen from here.
All of that and this city were and are here because that bluff is above the rise, ravages and just arbitrary nastiness the Mississippi is regularly capable of, and because of that the view that bluff commands is unique among major U.S. cities, rare in the entire world. A view of miles of flood plain that turn into a bay if not an inland sea every spring – the same view, by and large, that all the indigenous people before us saw, that de Soto saw, that we see over the top of a glass at a downtown cocktail party in South Bluffs, or over handlebars looking west from the middle of the Big River Crossing, or what a kid from south Memphis sees sitting in Martin Luther King Riverside Park and looking around that big bend south of the bridges, looking for tomorrow.
As for that “become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change” part, in just one day in 1876 – just north of the Hernando de Soto Bridge today – and just north of one of the biggest and busiest river ports in the world then – the river completely changed course in something called an avulsion. One day, Mound City and Marion, Arkansas, were on the river. The next day and still, they are high and dry, and the wreck of the Sultana went from underwater to under a field. That avulsion set the stage for the Supreme Court decision of 1918 I’ve written about before that set the borders between Arkansas and Tennessee and all states bordered by running water.
That kinda ties in with another of the criteria:
“to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features”
So, see above.
Then there’s this one:
“to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria)”
The Blues, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Soul, SUN and Stax, Elvis and B.B., Otis and Isaac, self-service shopping, overnight delivery, lodging, St. Jude, barbecue, John’s ribs – you know the list – just consider that in conjunction with all of the above.
When that first column ran, somebody said something to Mayor Strickland. I’m told he liked the idea. I heard that others in the halls of power and the seats of decision were interested.
Since then ... crickets.
Since then, we’ve jumped all over Tom Lee Park, cut into the bluff to get to the river, resurrected cobblestones, started a garage roughly the size of FedExForum, and started preparing for more riverboat landings than a Mark Twain novel.
Since then, we’ve begun conversations – again – about a land bridge to Mud Island and making a lake out of the Wolf River chute. And conversations continue about copying other cities – sadly – with things like aquariums and Ferris wheels.
But there’s this that gives me hope.
Herzog & de Meuron of Basel, Switzerland, and New York is working with archimania in Memphis to design the new Brooks Museum on the bluff. Herzog & de Meuron is a recipient of international architecture’s biggest salute – the Pritzker Prize – and their approach to this project so far shows not just respect, but reverence for where they are.
The final building will be far less about itself but far more about the art within and what it overlooks.
While we are often blind to what we have here, the eyes of this architectural team are wide open and they see.
As I said in 2019, y’all, we got this. Tell the mayors, city and county, and the council and commission. Tell the chamber about it, and our tourism folks, and momma and all them. Translate it in French and send it to UNESCO in Paris.
Tell everybody that John Vergos has a world-class idea.
Seriously, he does, and this should be pursued at the highest levels of the city – a unique city high on a bluff.
I’m a Memphian, and with some effort, all of us might just be part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.