Ranting

Still crazy. Still right.

February 19th, 2021

Roundabout

(published in The Daily Memphian)

I’m writing about Lauren Crews and his crazy idea. Again. Maybe we’re both crazy.

We first talked about it sipping whiskey years ago at sunset on the bluff behind the National 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.

After all, even without easy access, Lauren has converted the long-closed Marine Hospital sharing a boundary with the museum into the Marine Residence at Historic French Fort. The many windows and high-ceiling rooms of the hospital have become modern apartments, the wide porches of the nursing quarters have become galleries over a courtyard pool.

If Lauren’s crazy about this property, he’s not alone. Indigenous people 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. The Marine Hospital cared for those broken by the river here.

Even in the quiet, you can hear the centuries. Even alone here, you are never alone.

If Lauren is crazy, then so are all those who came before. Then so am I.

A few years ago, architect and city planner Andy Kitsinger, then with the Downtown Memphis Commission, showed Lauren the idea of a traffic circle ... a roundabout ... to access what bad planning cut off 50 years ago, allowing interstate traffic direct access to the Harahan Bridge without slowing, allowing the south of Downtown smooth ingress and egress out of a mess.

Trucks would no longer back up interstate traffic waiting to access a ramp and execute a dangerous merge into traffic on Crump to cross the bridge. Cars would no longer have to dodge those trucks to exit Crump onto Metal Museum Drive. The transition of interstate into city street, the southern entrance to Downtown, would make sense for the first time in a lifetime.

It was a crazy good idea.

Lauren shared it with the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT).

Tennessee approved it and was actually going to build it ... before a few neighbors got in their way. Then they revised the plan to one that would briefly close one of our two bridges to open up possibilities only imagined before … before Tennessee’s 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 Lauren polished it anyway, and it shines. And the fight to easily access our history, to stand on our oldest ground above our best view of the Mississippi, to make traffic Downtown make sense continues.

I’m told things are stirring again. TDOT is saying that the roundabout is back on the calendar for this year. Maybe, just maybe, our leaders will find the courage to build it this time around.

I’m a Memphian, and Lauren’s kind of crazy built this city.

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