Show Some Pride

August 11th, 2011

As a city, we have choices about what we want to look like, who we want to hang out with, and who we want to be.

If, for example, the new Playhouse On The Square is the girl or guy we want to take home and introduce to Mom and Dad, then the new CVS Pharmacy across the street is the girl in fishnet stockings working the corner and the guy asking the price.

One is ours and the other is everybody’s.

As published in The Daily News, August 12, 2011, and in The Memphis News, August 13-19, 2011

Nineteenth Century Club


Our profile, our expression. Our individuality, our creativity. Why we look like us and not like everybody else.

Take it off. Take it all off.

Irresponsible developers, shortsighted politicians and insensitive chains have taken a seat right down front – right next to cynical indifference – and they’re making it rain. Desperate property owners are up there on stage, taking the money and spinning around the pole.

On Union Avenue alone, the Hill Mansion died for a now-defunct fast food joint, and now another dances on the grave. Union Avenue Methodist gave it up for a butt-ugly drug store, and now the street’s remaining granddame, the still stately but fading Nineteenth Century Club, is offering herself to the highest bidder. Her festive neighbor, the Taliesin Ballroom, long ago went south to Taco Bell.

This is not about preservation stagnation. Holding on to things that no longer work and weren’t significant in the first place can hold up things that do work and could be significant. It’s also not about the seller’s right to sell. Declining memberships, congregations and fortunes have consequences.

This is about recognizing ourselves, what should be preserved, what should be improved, and things brand-new that will make us more than we were.

If we don’t save what should be saved, we all lose. If we don’t replace what’s leaving with something better, we’re not progressing, we’re backing up.

If we allow franchises to dictate our streetscapes we might as well conduct our design conversations through drive-through squawk boxes. If we allow strip centers to represent our architecture we might as well accept Dryvit as an architectural breakthrough. If we overrule our design review boards and sell out our overlays with exceptions for anyone who winks at us we might as well make the exception the rule.

We might as well be anywhere because we’ll look like everywhere and nowhere.

There are signs of new respect for design. Playhouse On The Square in midtown and Opera Memphis out east deserve our applause, the look of Sutherland Clinic is good for our heart, and plans for the new STCC nursing school make us feel a bit better.

There are signs of new respect for old friends. Loeb Properties’ approach to Overton Square is imaginative and sensitive and just might start the party again. The classy conversions of neighboring houses into an architectural firm and a bank look right at home on Union. Downtown, a warehouse has become a college of art, a post office a law school, and a down-and-out office tower is back in and flying high.

But ugly signs are growing.

Germantown Parkway and Goodman Road aren’t urban planning, they’re suburban train wrecks, and more and more cities seem to be on board. Big parking lots and big boxes aren’t town centers, they’re corrals and cattle barns, and guess who’s being herded inside.

Pay attention. Don’t let anybody strip you of your pride and personality.

I’m a Memphian, and we don’t want this to get any uglier.


Sandi Butler Hughes: They don't call it "branding" for nothin'...just like cattle...thank you for your rant!

Yvette Rhoton: Brilliant. Loved every word.

Kini: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot..." Joni Mitchell, and now you, have said it all. Lunched today a Caritas Village. Met Onie. It's a terrific place! Thanks for the column on it and a reminder for me to check it out! My friend ordered the HB (we're having HB's tomorrow, so I opted for chicken salad and soup - awesome chicken and best soup in town!) Will definitely order the burger next trip (next week!) You were right on.

james west: local politicians who allow the rape of the city to continue suffer no consequence. it is important that the political class learn they represent more than corporate "people"!

Joe Spake: Excellent post, Dan. We suffer from a lack of passion about our city and its heritage. Too many of us Memphians are complacent and just absorb the junky developments in the core city. CVS will offer us lots of enticements to enter their hideous Union Ave. location; and we will line up to sample the new fast food fare at the location of the 19th Century Club.

me: While I agree that big box urban planning isn't the prettiest, I am disheartened by the retroactive nature of people's feelings on this matter. People complain about Union Avenue Methodist selling their property to CVS. But UAM asked, during the deliberations last year where were you before they were forced to sell. If someone or some group had stepped forward to help them keep the building three years ago, it might still be there. Or even better, why didn't someone who cared about the building and its history step up and buy it, instead of letting CVS take it? As an open market society, you have to bow to market forces. If you want to save the building and its esthetics find a buyer to save it or accept that the market doesn't want it. We've all seen Overton Square go from being a commercial and social center to being a desperate void. If you want to save it, buy it. Develop it. But don't force stagnation and true urban decay by blocking anything but your vision.

Charlton Jones: I live in Midtown and will never shop at CVS. You forgot one building on Union, Idlewild Presbyterian Church is still thriving. Also, the newer housing at Peabody and Mclean on the sight of the old main library conforms well to earlier midtown construction.

Gordon Alexander: As leader of the Midtown Action Coalition, whose members fought to save the Methodist Church, I can only say "Bravo!". You are 100% correct; this is not about hanging onto buildings that don't serve a purpose anymore, but rather preserving the character of our neighborhoods and our city. We won at Overton Square and had the numbers in the CVS fight, but City Council turned a deaf ear to our concerns, treachery that we will never let them forget. You're welcome to one of our newly-printed "Boycott CVS" bumper stickers if you'd like.

Dennis Riddle: I am old enough to remember the King mansion being torn down...I pledged and never did eat at the fast food place that sucked the mansion into oblivion. NO ONE can convince me that our architectural history cannot be saved. Unfortunately $$$ talks and those with money live either outside the loop, in secured historically protected neighborhoods or in another state (with no care about our city unless it greases their pockets). :(

agnes: wish we could save the 19th Century club for SOMETHING,,,,,,it is too stately for another bad fast food joint........

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