On the way back to Memphis I passed through Georgetown, Mississippi, a town which is largely abandoned, although people still seem to live there. Although I could find nothing about the town’s history, certain clues suggest that it was an early 20th-century company town, notably the divided boulevard called Railroad Avenue, as well as the perfect street grid which is not common in Mississippi. Finally, there is a railroad engine at the highway crossroads surrounded by an iron fence and bearing the name of a gravel company. Perhaps Georgetown was the company town and headquarters for the gravel company. At any rate, the gravel must have played out, and Georgetown now is virtually a ghost town.
At the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers sits Cairo, Illinois, a historic river town that the cruise lines no longer visit, at least in part because of complaints from passengers. Cairo today is nearly a ghost town, its broad Commercial Street almost completely razed. What few buildings remain are largely abandoned, and passengers disliked the eerie feel of the town built to house 20,000 people where only 3000 reside today. With such historic buildings as Riverlore mansion, built in 1865, the Customs House museum, or Fort Defiance, which is directly at the confluence, Cairo still has some points of interest, but the town is largely in shambles due to a eight-year shooting war between its white and Black communities from 1967-1975. Blacks refused to buy from Cairo businesses as a matter of principle. Whites preferred to shop where there weren’t fires, bombings and snipings, so they also stayed away, and the end result was that nearly every restaurant and retail business closed. In recent years, there have been efforts to rejuvenate the town, and to heal race relations in Cairo, but the lack of jobs and the extreme poverty have thwarted efforts at any renaissance. The historic buildings on Commercial Street, neglected since the 1960’s, have collapsed one by one. Furthermore, while the picketing, marching, boycotting and shooting stopped in the early 1970’s, the mysterious fires did not, and buildings and houses continue to burn in Cairo, under circumstances that suggest that multiple arsonists may be at work. Cairo is a sad story, a cautionary tale to America of what happens when people are stubbornly racist and refuse to reconcile.
Although I was in Louisiana for Grambling State University homecoming 2011, the nearest hotel I could get a room in was at Monroe, Louisiana, 30 miles away. When I got to Monroe, I came upon this old, seemingly-historic building at 10th and DeSiard. Signs indicated that it once housed the 10th Street Social Club, the Standard Life Insurance Company of Louisiana, the Monroe Free Press (an African-American newspaper), Eddie’s Place and Hilliard’s Cafe. A sign at the entrance to the 10th Street Social Club stated that any women with weapons would be turned over to the police! The 1965 Monroe City Directory indicated that the building was the Roy-Miller Building, and that it was the site of a number of important businesses, clubs and professional offices for the African-American community in Monroe. It is a tragedy that it has been allowed to deteriorate.
McNeil High School was the school for Black students in Crawfordsville, Arkansas before integration, and later was part of the consolidated Crawfordsville High School, but Arkansas state law forced Crawfordsville to abolish its school district because of declining enrollment, and the school campus is now abandoned. A large tree has fallen on a portion of the building, perhaps during one of the many tornado outbreaks this spring.
When I was young, Overton Square was the happening place in Memphis. The Christmas Parade was held down Madison through the area, and people flocked to places like Bombay Bicycle Club, TGI Friday’s, Paulettes, Silky Sullivan’s or the Public Eye. The years have not been kind to Overton Square, but nobody’s quite sure why. Given the fact that most Midtown addresses are easy to lease (even if a little expensive), I’ve always felt that management must be less than stellar, rents probably a little exorbitant, maintenance delayed at best, so I was not surprised that the new developers that have been brought in want to tear down the entire area and start over. Since the whole point of their contention is that Memphis is an impoverished and blighted city, their idea is to tear down Overton Square and build a typical shopping center anchored by a low-price supermarket. It’s hard to imagine a greater insult to the people of Midtown, or the whole city for that matter.
Of course, Memphis has not treated its entertainment districts very well. The original one, Beale Street of song and legend was acquired by the Memphis Housing Authority as an urban renewal project. Perhaps fortunately, it was eventually reconceived as a tourist attraction, but not before the garish, out-of-place MLGW headquarters was built in the block where Ruben Cherry’s legendary Home of the Blues record store once stood, and the equally-awful R. Q. Vinson Towers elderly high-rise was erected at the other end of the street. And the rest of the street was cut off from Black Memphis by massive demolition to the south, then turned into a Disneyfied parody of itself that ironically has not always been so welcoming to Black Memphians, particularly the youth. In the early 1960’s, a new entertainment district of hip jazz and folk clubs developed in the area of Walnut and East Streets and Westmoreland Avenue. Known as Car Barn Corners, the cognoscenti frequented The Sharecropper to hear Tommy Ferguson’s progressive jazz, or the Hourglass nearby to enjoy a folk hootenanny. But the streets of this district no longer even meet, the whole area having been reconfigured by the construction of Shelby State Community College (now Southwest Tennessee Community College). Besides entertainment districts, developers have torn down the Convent of the Good Shepherd (for a supermarket), Owen College (for Vance Avenue Junior High), Siena College (for the Oak Court Mall), the Hill Mansion (for a fast food restaurant that I recall didn’t stay open a year), the old South Side High School, Anderton’s Restaurant, the Pig N Whistle, the Frostop Rootbeer on Getwell with its distinctive rooftop mug, Libertyland, Rainbow Lake, Clearpool, the original Leonard’s Bar-B-Que on Bellevue, Tim McCarver Stadium, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church headquarters (for a Chick-Fil-A), Stax Records, Lakeland Amusement Park and Speedway, American Sound Studios (where Elvis once recorded, to build a Chief’s Auto Parts which closed within a year), the bandbox at Riverside Park, Guthrie School, Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul studios, Messick High School, and I could go on for days. Enough is enough. The rootlessness engendered by rampant demolition contributed to suburban flight, higher crime, and even bitterness, anger and depression. There’s hardly any of old Memphis left to see. We need to organize now against Sooner Development and others who are behind the plan for “redevelopment” of Overton Square, by which they mean demolition and the construction of a typical shopping center with parking lots in front, and a couple of restaurants at the streetside as a “concession to the neighborhood.” Let’s debunk the myths of Overton Square so that we can make a better decision about its future. MYTH #1-“Overton Square is vacant because of crime and a deterioration in Memphis economic situation” FACT-The nearby Cooper-Young area of Midtown is booming, and another nearby redevelopment area, the Broad Street Corridor in Binghampton is becoming an art haven. Nobody can recall the last serious crime in Overton Square. MYTH #2-“Business owners would have stayed in the area if they had been making money.” FACT-Two of the businesses that recently left, Le Chardonnay and Bayou Bar and Grill were forced out, either by high rent, or simply a flat denial of a lease renewal. They moved directly across the street. The landowner seems to have decided to force the buildings to become vacant, then use their vacancy to justify demolition and replacement with something else. MYTH #3-“Nothing has ever been able to work in Overton Square.” FACT-Many businesses have had successful runs in the area. Bosco’s, Paulette’s, the Bayou Bar and Grill, Le Chardonnay and Memphis Pizza Cafe are all examples of successful businesses in Overton Square, and there were many others prior to the opening of Beale Street. However, the biggest factor in the Square’s recent decline has been problems with building owners and managers, including bankruptcies and, more recently, outrageously high rents. MYTH #4-“The Overton Square buildings are not historic.” FACT-While the buidlings in Overton Square are not as old as historic buildings in other parts of the city, they are old, attractive and have historic value. The iconic Memphis rock band Big Star frequented the TGI Friday’s and had one of their publicity photos taken there. 2166 Madison, at the corner of Madison and Cooper, was the site of the Bitter Lemon Coffeehouse, a legendary hang-out for young beatniks who helped rediscover Furry Lewis, Nathan Beauregard, Joe Callicott and others. MYTH #5-“Midtown needs another supermarket” FACT-Within Midtown proper are a Schnuck’s and a Piggly Wiggly. Not far away are three Krogers (Summer, Poplar and Lamar). And even if Midtown could use another supermarket, it doesn’t need a low-price discount chain store, more likely a food co-op, or a Fresh Market. And Overton Square doesn’t have to be the site of it. It could easily be put further west on Madison where the South Central Bell building once stood. MYTH #6-“Memphis can’t support more than one entertainment district.” FACT-Memphis already supports two and a half entertainment districts-Beale Street, Cooper Young and the growing arts community on Broad Street in Binghampton. In Saint Louis, there are entertainment neighborhoods everywhere-Laclede’s Landing, University City Loop, the West End, Lockwood Avenue in Webster Groves, Soulard Market,etc. The key is that each of these areas has a unique character. They don’t all try to be the same thing. MYTH #7-“If we don’t let the developers move forward, nothing will ever be done with the property and it will just sit there continuing to rot.” FACT-This is the view the landowner and developers want you to embrace. But the facts are, the attractive sturdy buildings could easily be part of a real redevelopment effort. The only needs are for the buildings to come under the control of people who have the vision for reclaiming the district-perhaps an Overton Square Community Development Corporation. Then, once the buildings have been restored, they can be rented to appropriate businesses-at reasonable rents that allow the entrepreneurs to succeed. If you live in Memphis, talk to your city council member about blocking demolition and requiring that any reuse of the property reserve the existing buildings. Otherwise, it will just be another piece of Memphis history that we’ll have to imagine in our minds.