Preservation and Loss At Hickman, KY

ghost towns, Photography, Travel

I had only been to Hickman, Kentucky on one previous occasion, back when I was in college at the University of Tennessee at Martin. It had been the closest Mississippi River town to the campus, and I drove up there one evening to see it, and ended up eating a hamburger at a bar on the main street of the downtown, Clinton Street. I recalled it as a sort of romantic spot, with an old and historic courthouse high up on the bluff above the old downtown, which was starting to be abandoned due to river scouring of the bluff on which the downtown area sat. At least part of Clinton Street had been barricaded off, and the folks in the bar and grill told me that the area had had to be abandoned due to the instability. That would have been in April of 1987, and I was curious to see how Hickman looked nowadays. In some ways, things had changed for the better, or at least one thing had, in that the Corps of Engineers had received funding to stabilize the bluff, which they did. The project also resulted in a beautiful overlook of the swamps and Mississippi River at a distance, and there’s no better place to park the car and shoot some photos, or just enjoy some peace and quiet. At the highest point of the bluff, I also found that the historic and beautiful Fulton County Courthouse was still standing and in good condition. But down the bluff in the old downtown, things had changed only for the worse. There was no trace of the old bar and grill where I had eaten back in 1987, and nearly every storefront which remained on Clinton Street was vacant. Many vacant lots were places that I seemed to have recalled being buildings when I was last there, and at least one wall was crumbling into a pile of bricks. There were two abandoned law offices, one with legal books still scattered all over the room visible through the windows, a City of Hickman redevelopment office which seemed something of a cruel joke (for it seemed to need redeveloping itself), and an intriguing building called the LaClede Building, big enough to be a hotel, and with a bizarre keyhole-shaped front entrance that I had never seen on any other building. At the convenience store on the outskirts of town, I tried to ask the young man at the cash register what had happened to Hickman, particularly the downtown area. His answer was simply, “There’s never been much here. We’re a poor city, you know.” I left feeling that more needed to be investigated. The next town of any size upriver is Cairo, Illinois, and the conventional wisdom about Cairo is that it was decimated by the racial war and the Black boycott of businesses between 1969 and 1972, but the similar condition of Hickman, Kentucky, where there was (as far as we know) no dramatic racial conflict or rioting suggests that the decline of river towns might have been inevitable and unpreventable rather than something caused by extraordinary events like those Cairo experienced. At any rate, Hickman is rapidly crumbling, and deserves a better fate. With Clinton Street properly restored, Hickman could become a popular stop on the riverboat vacations, and also a tourist destination, but it will require both vision and money, and Hickman seems to be short on both.

Walking The Riverwalk: Untapped Potential in Morgan City

Photography, Travel

I could have driven the more prosaic way from New Orleans to Lafayette, but I decided instead to go the back way from the West Bank of New Orleans by way of Morgan City into New Iberia and then Lafayette. I reasoned that there would be better scenery, and I had always wanted to better explore Morgan City, an island city which is best known for being threatened by hurricanes. Morgan City proved to be interesting indeed. I stopped first at DJ’s Music, which proved to be a car stereo shop as well as a record store, and I bought a hip-hop mix CD there before heading on to downtown Morgan City, whose main street ran parallel to the Atchafalaya River and was called Front Street.
Front Street was lined with old and historic buildings, many of them painted bright pastel colors. Although the river view was blocked by a large seawall, the balconies of many of the buildings were high enough to have a view of the water, but on closer inspection, many of the buildings appeared to be empty. Aside from one fairly upscale restaurant called Cafe Jojo’s, there was no place to eat along the street, and few of the shops seemed to be open. One of the buildings had been a department store which looked as if it had been out of business for many years, yet all the clothes still hung on racks inside, as if it was just left after its last day of business. The two historic-looking buildings at the far southern end of Front Street proved to be part of a food-service company that specializes in providing food to the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. North Railroad Street around the corner had a handful of rather seedy-looking lounges. A walk around the downtown area revealed a few historic buildings and an old church, a shady park, and the classic City Hall with its decorative palm trees. But Front Street has a look of tired desolation and missed opportunities, a street that with the right planning and vision could become a tourist and entertainment attraction, a street of restaurants, night clubs, boutique hotels, condominiums and art galleries. I found Morgan City both beautiful but also a little depressing.

A Window on Memphis’ Past at Undercurrent @ the SkyBar

entertainment, events, Memphis, Night Clubs

When I read that the first Undercurrent event of the new year was to be held at something called the SkyBar in the 100 North Main building, I was thrilled. I vaguely remembered the old Top of the 100 club from my youth, and imagined that the view from the top would be amazing. Also, at least I thought, the announcement indicated that somebody was finally doing something with the long-vacant club, which in its heyday rotated once every hour. Sadly, I was to be disappointed.
The idea behind Undercurrent, is cool enough. Free parties are held monthly at different places around the city, aimed at Memphis’ young innovators, and the idea of having one 38 stories above downtown Memphis was very cool indeed. Unfortunately, there is no SkyBar, that’s just the name the Undercurrent people came up with when they rented the venue, which fully appears as if it hasn’t been used since Christmas 1982 (there were still Christmas decorations up everywhere from the last time it was used). While the view over the city was indeed fantastic, the decor and furnishings were vintage 1977, and there was even a 1970’s-era cash register still in its place. Nothing at the bar had worked in many years, and everything had to be brought in in taps and coolers. Of course there was great music from a DJ, good food, and lots of laughter and conversation. But the club’s appearance as if time had stopped back in the early 1980’s was just another reminder of a city that seems to be dying despite our best efforts. And apparently nobody has any plans for the SkyBar aside from a few event rentals.

Failed and Forgotten Dreams on Jackson’s Farish Street

History, music, Night Clubs, Photography, Restaurants

Every Southern city had at least one “pleasure street” in its Black community, where there were night clubs, restaurants and large arenas for public gatherings. Memphis’ Beale Street was the most famous, perhaps, but Shreveport had Fannin Street, New Orleans had Dryades Street (now Oretha Haley Boulevard), and Jackson, Mississippi had Farish Street.
There has been some sort of talk about redeveloping Farish Street since 1983, so it was absolutely disheartening to see the sorry state of the street here in 2013. “Redevelopment” seems to have consisted of fencing off the first block of the street and placing gates at either end. The one new business on the street, F. Jones’ Corner, is a booming and going concern, but it was opened by private initiative a few years ago. Aside from a few new historic markers, the rest of the street is rapidly collapsing, and soon there will be nothing left to redevelop.
One large building on the right-hand side of the street as I faced north had a faint painted sign still visible near its roof which read “Palace Auditorium.” The man sitting on the bench in front of it explained to me that it had once been “Caesar’s Palace Auditorium”, but that when city officials had discovered that the owner Caesar was Black, they made him remove his name from it. The man with whom I was speaking told me that he was the proprietor of Dennis Brothers Shoe Service across the street, one of only three Black-owned businesses which remain in the historic district. “The redevelopment is just an effort to get us out of here so that the white folks can take over,” he said. “They need to tear it all down. They’ve waited too late.” Indeed many of the buildings show signs of roof damage, or in some cases, total roof collapse.
Walking with him over to a large concrete marker that read “Brown’s Circle”, I asked him about it. He said that there had been a residential area on the next street over, known as Young’s Alley, and that Brown’s Circle was a street leading to it, and that it also had a residential area.
Aside from some Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity members who were having a function at the Alamo Theater, and the handful of people inside Peaches’ Restaurant, Farish Street was largely devoid of people on a Saturday afternoon. Up the street at a club called the Krystal Palace, people were setting up for a outdoor crawfish festival and music performance, but that area was outside the historic district. And even there, the street was more abandoned than occupied.
As for what has gone wrong, nobody is in agreement. The developer blames the recession and the difficulty of getting financing from banks. The first club that was to have opened, a B. B. King’s location, found that the building they intended to occupy had no foundation, adding millions of dollars to the cost of renovations. For my part, I am beginning to question the wisdom of city-driven initiatives to create entertainment districts. They either seem to lead to fake, touristy travesties like 4th Street Live in Louisville or Beale Street in Memphis, or they lead to costly, abandoned failures like Shreveport’s John Elkington-designed Texas Street. (Elkington was briefly the lead developer on Farish Street). One wonders what would happen if cities restricted their involvement to zoning, tax breaks and longer operating hours for restaurants and bars, and left the rest to private enterprise. Memphis’ most booming redevelopments such as Cooper-Young, Overton Square, South Main Arts District and Broad Avenue Arts District have largely been accomplished by local and private initiative. The city did not feel the need to acquire the buildings, choose a developer, etc. Perhaps it is time for Jackson to put the buildings on Farish Street up for sale (historic designation prevents the risk of demolition) and allow private interests to redevelop the street. The city could use appearance guidelines and ordinances to tweak the direction of redevelopment without the inevitable boondoggle of direct control. But as the photos I took indicate, time is rapidly running out.

Bringing The Curtain Down On Beale Street Once And For All


     The recent revival of a proposal to charge a fee to enter Beale Street is no better an idea now than it was a year or two ago when first proposed. We do not need to guess how such a fee would impact Beale Street, since Shreveport enacted a $5 fee on their John Elkington-designed Texas Street entertainment district some years ago. The impact of the fee along with weapons and ID checks led to Texas Street being a completely abandoned district. By contrast, Bossier City’s Louisiana Boardwalk across the Red River is booming, and although there is security and a dress code, there are neither cover charges nor ID and weapons checks.

     The fee proposal will offer little in the way of improvement for Beale Street, since the facts are that those fighting have largely been adults, not youths. They generally have been fighting after being kicked out of a Beale Street venue (which means they had the money to pay and were willing to pay the cover charge). Assuming that they were drunk (a likely assumption given their behavior) they also had plenty of money to purchase alcoholic beverages. Also, none of this keeps in mind the minor nature of the incidents involved. Out of thousands of visitors, four or five get to fighting.

     Kevin Kane clearly misunderstands the precarious nature of Beale. The fact is, no establishments of any kind have worked on the end of Beale nearest Fourth Street. The area has been vacant for many years now, and if business is so great that we can afford to discourage patrons from coming onto the street, why are no businesses waiting in line to occupy the extensive amount of vacant space at the east end of Beale? The former Pat O’Brien’s/Ground Zero remained vacant for well over a year before finally reopening as Dancing Jimmy’s.

     Furthermore, visitors to Beale Street are already discouraged from coming onto the street by barricades, checks for weapons, ID requirements, waiting lines and a heavy uniformed police presence, including police on horseback. Tourists undoubtedly fear for their safety when they see the police overkill, and wonder if they are entering a prison camp rather than an entertainment district. Do Beale Street merchants do such a great amount of business that they can afford to run business away?

     There are answers to the difficulties on Beale Street, but they require a direction for the street that neither the business owners nor the elected officials of Memphis seem to want to take. Here is what could be done to get Beale Street back to where it should be as a world-class destination for locals and tourists alike.

#1. Return Beale Street to a street. Barricade it on weekend nights of course, or during special events, but let it be a street. 

#2. Abolish the weapons bans (remember, it’s a street), and ID checks, and let people walk onto the street freely. If this seems insane, realize that this is how most cities run their entertainment districts. It’s the usual state of affairs on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis, President Clinton Avenue in Little Rock or Lower Broadway in Nashville.

#3. Restrict liquor to the patios and decks of each establishment or within Handy Park. Remind establishments that selling alcoholic beverages to already-intoxicated patrons is a crime.

#4. Allow street performers to set up and play freely along Beale, as they used to be able to do when the street first opened in the 1980’s.

#5. Have more special events on the street, including parading bands on weekend evenings.

#6. Diversify the kinds of businesses on Beale. The persistent vacancies of the east end buildings suggest that there is a limit to how many night clubs and bars the district can support. These spaces could become more family-oriented restaurants, museums or retail stores. When the only purpose of Beale Street is perceived as alcohol, it’s no wonder that there is disorderly behavior and fighting.

#7. Put the focus of Beale Street on music, not liquor. This is not to say that establishments shouldn’t sell liquor, but surely an effort can be made to change the street’s culture, so that people say “Let’s go to Beale Street to hear some music”, not “Let’s go to Beale Street to get wasted.”

#8. Consider extending the district eastward to Danny Thomas Boulevard, and perhaps south along Hernando as well.

#9. Anchor the area with appropriate rehabilitation and reuse of the Universal Life Insurance Building on Danny Thomas and the Claiborne Temple Church on Hernando. These historic African-American sites could perhaps be museums.

    The emphasis on alcohol and the militaristic police-state atmosphere are primarily what has caused the problems on Beale Street. As strange as it may seem, the solution will not come from more restrictions, or cover charges, which would only serve to empty out the street once and for all. The answer will come from greater freedom, and a reconceiving of the street’s purpose. Let’s hope our leaders realize it before it’s too late.