May 24th, 2018
It’s been called the place where all of this began.
It’s been called many things in several Native American tongues, and in Spanish, French and English … all before we were called Memphis.
It’s been called French Fort and Fort Pickering.
The view of the river has been called the best in the city.
And the best idea to revive it, remind all of us of its history, and make all of that accessible has been called crazy.
As published in The Memphis Daily News, May 25, 2018, and in The Memphis News, May 26-June 1, 2018
STILL CRAZY. STILL RIGHT.
Lauren Crews and I sipped coffee and talked about his crazy idea. Again. I’m writing about it. Again. Maybe we’re both crazy.
We first talked about it sipping whiskey years ago at sunset on the bluff behind the Ornamental Metal Museum, gazing out on the river’s big, bold bend south of the Harahan, the most dramatic river view in Memphis, dramatic enough to accommodate big, bold vision.
At that first meeting, Lauren told me that people think he’s crazy.
After all, he paddled a canoe from the Twin Cities to New Orleans – just him and his dog. He rode a bike to New Orleans, too, all the way down Highway 61 in the summer, the heat driving him dizzy into ditches.
After all, for more than a decade he’s been trying to develop property you can’t get to from here, to resuscitate a once vibrant community now haunted by its ghosts. His original partners bailed long ago, and he’s spent so much time wandering the labyrinths of city and state bureaucracy that he may qualify for a civil service pension. The neighbors want to keep their almost secret neighborhood a secret and centuries of life here can barely get a pulse.
If Lauren’s crazy about this property, he’s not alone. Native Americans built mounds and honored their dead here. Chief Chisca, chief of an extinct tribe so long ago we’re not sure of its name, made his capital here. De Soto first saw the Mississippi here or very near here. The Spanish, the French and Americans had forts here. Before future president Andrew Jackson founded Memphis, future president Zachary Taylor commanded Fort Pickering here, and the Union Army would later command the Mississippi from here during the Civil War, their battery mounted on one of those ancient mounds. For almost a century the Marine Hospital cared for those broken by the river here. These days, the museum is the only bright, shiny piece left in a graying landscape.
Even in the quiet, you can hear the centuries. Even in the empty buildings of French Fort, you are never alone.
If Lauren is crazy, then so are all those who came before. Then so am I.
It was Lauren who came up with the idea of a roundabout to access what bad planning cut off 50 years ago, allowing interstate traffic direct access to the bridge without slowing, allowing the south of Downtown smooth ingress and egress out of a mess.
Tennessee approved it and was actually going to build it, and briefly close one of our two bridges to open up possibilities only imagined before … before our governor allowed himself to be bullied by Arkansas’s governor … before Arkansas’s governor allowed himself to be bullied by gambling interests in West Memphis … before a little inconvenience for a few months once again buried our oldest unpolished jewel.
But things are stirring. Maybe, just maybe, something’s about to shine.
I’m a Memphian, and Lauren’s kind of crazy built this city.