If you’re copying, it’s not yours
March 26th, 2021
(published in The Daily Memphian)
A few years ago, I wrote a column wondering why the town that wrote the music would ever be content to sing somebody else’s songs.
I’m still wondering.
My church has an impressive mosaic of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” over the altar – the one a friend says should be called, “Everybody get on the same side of the table so I can take this picture.” True to the original in every detail, the mosaic is even more impressive when you realize it involves more than 40,000 individual pieces. It’s beautiful.
It’s a copy.
As a Memphian, I don’t like copies. We have a history of originals, ideas so compelling that they’ve been copied around the world. Some you know. Elvis and Rock and Roll. Handy and the Blues. Sun and Stax. Holiday Inns and franchising. Federal Express and overnight delivery. Piggly Wiggly and self-service shopping. Dr. Campbell and modern orthopedics. Danny Thomas and advances in treating catastrophic childhood disease. And more. Like the first city to separate water and sewer systems, the first African American formatted radio station, and once home to the world’s largest spot cotton market, hardwood lumber market, and the South’s tallest building, etc.
It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. When was the last time we were so flattered? When was the last time you heard your fellow Memphians compare their city favorably to somewhere else rather than wish they were there?
Rather than originate, we now seem to want to copy. And we seem more and more able to ignore some of our largest and most visible originals.
Take that idea a few years ago for an aquarium on Mud Island. Please. There’s already one in a place we love to go, New Orleans, and already one in a place we love to envy, Atlanta. There’s even a freshwater one already in Tennessee over there in Chattanooga. Three within 400 miles.
We don’t need AFA. That, of course, stands for Another Freshwater Aquarium.
While Brooks on the bluff has the opportunity to be something original and truly ours, putting a big fishbowl below it is just copying. We need something that brings people to the river and on it, not inside something looking out at it, or looking at something captured from it.
Thankfully, we decided that idea was all wet.
Yet, with something as original as an island for our front door, something we won awards for when we built a park on it, we can’t seem to come up with anything original to do with it now. Somehow, we think what we did in the early eighties and basically haven’t updated, dressed up, or basically paid any real attention to since, should still look just fine 40 years later.
I don’t. And it doesn’t.
Yet, while we ignore the island, we’re giving Tom Lee Park more plastic surgery than the attendees at the Academy Awards. Somehow, we think we can spend tens of millions of dollars redoing a park right across from it and have nobody notice Mud Island’s shabby neglect from that shiny new shore.
And take the fairgrounds. Finally. The youth sportsplex idea isn’t original, and there’s already a Liberty Park over in Clarksville, right here in Tennessee – complete with sports fields, a marina, and statues of Wilma Rudolph and Pat Summit. The only thing in the fairgrounds that is original – the only thing with real Memphis chops – we’ve mothballed for lack of original thinking. We think we can revitalize the Pipkin Building, the equivalent of a municipal triple-wide, and board up the building that made Memphis sports, music and civil rights history.
In the iconic photograph of Paul and Ringo staring up at the Mid-South Coliseum ceiling before their 1966 concert, Paul might be asking, “I wonder how many mothballs this thing will hold.”
After our Liberty Park opens, kids will be at liberty to ask, “Wow, Mom and Dad, we had a great game/race/event in/on the new whatever, but WTF is that huge round thing with the boarded-up doors?” That, of course, stands for What The Fairgrounds are we thinking?
Unlike all the balls in yet another sportsplex, the Mid-South Coliseum is just too damn big to be kicked down the road.
If we’re going to make the fairgrounds look new, have the political courage to tear down the Coliseum and provide a clean canvas so that the idea we copied has a chance to be a good copy.
If we’re going to make it ours, the Coliseum has to be part of it and original thinking is required.
I’m a Memphian, and I refuse to think we’ve forgotten how to do that.
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