Front St. Arts
Hunt for Steel
Preface & Reader Response
Where country collided with city: in summer 1974, an abiding apprehension enclosed Beale Street in a bucolic quiet and stillness.
Buried in Time, Out of Bounds
by Jerry Murley
After returning to Memphis from Europe in December 1972, I was keen on architecture and diversified, vibrant communities. I wanted to find the antique and interesting in my hometown. Having taken photographs as a hobby since high school, I began shooting black and white photographs of downtown Memphis and processing the film at home. Occasionally, after developing and drying the negative strips, I set up an old enlarger in a bathroom or a darkened kitchen and made prints. None of my prints turned out very well, and more often than not I spotted or scratched many of my insufficiently exposed negatives. Still, the activity was rewarding enough for me to keep at it.
At this late age in life, I am happy that I did not stop taking pictures. I could easily have done so. The continuing frustration of never coming close to creating perfect negatives and making perfect prints was discouraging, but I persisted as much from habit, curiosity and faith than anything else. Today, as I digitally scan and doctor my flawed negatives, skewed framing and so-so compositions, I am transported back with a new understanding – an understanding that I don't remember having at the time of the shots or articulating at any time since. I understand more of what I liked then and how it connects to my preferences and fondnesses now. It is surprising to me which photographs are most personally engaging now as compared to when I first looked at the clusters of tiny proof images on contact prints that I made in my make-do darkroom forty years ago. 
After exploring and photographing the river bluff, the train station, Beale Street and dilapidated structures along Wagner, Vance and Linden in the winter of 1973, I left Memphis for a three-month tour of Central America with a friend. I returned to do framing carpentry in the summer of 1973. Due to my interest in the buildings downtown and in carpentry, my father helped me get a sort of apprenticeship position at a cabinet-making firm off of South Main. I also got the job because I had started painting oil portraits and this particular firm made cabinets and painted mannikins for department stores. I didn't paint many mannikin eyes: it was a little too creepy and the proprietor didn't particularly like my style. One of the best parts of the job, though, besides learning carpentry skills, was walking down South Main early every morning from the bus stop on Union Avenue near the Peabody Hotel. The walk back north to Union was not as leisurely: as dark approached, there was much more of a watchful thrill in the exercise. I enjoyed seeing the warehouses, the building details above the closed storefronts, and the Adler and Chisca hotels at twilight. Often cold and wet, it was a solitary, exhilarating, and surreal experience.
My father knew the mayor of Memphis at the time, because of work they had done together for the March of Dimes. He told the mayor about my many emerging, and for Memphis unusual, interests and asked if there might be something that would appeal to me that would make use of my few skills while serving to entice me to return to college to finally graduate. The mayor got me an interview with the director of the Policy Planning and Analysis Bureau. What I lacked in credentials, I apparently made up for in enthusiasm, quirkiness, and a timely flow of initiatives that I was willing to undertake myself. At the time, the city was officially embarked on implementation of a long-term plan to revitalize downtown Memphis. Oddly the bureaucrats and I were a perfect fit. The director offered me a six-month internship working with his handful of capable and upright young deputies.
When I explored downtown Memphis in the winter and fall of 1973, I became more and more excited about what could happen there. I wanted to see people living and working in the handsome, currently abandoned buildings. I wanted to see communities of office workers and tradesmen, with a few artists and craftsmen sprinkled among the populous.  I wanted to shop in open-air street-level markets. In short, I wanted to replicate some of what I had grown to love in Italy and England. I wanted to reside in a place not chained to the automobile. I longed to live downtown in an old refurbished building. And I could not wait to do so. My enthusiasm meshed perfectly with the interests of city hall and the Chamber of Commerce – up to a point – but we were not near to reaching that point for several months yet.
It turned out, as it usually does, that I was not that unique in my interests in downtown. I just was a little more fortunate than others to have had the time, the variety of interests, the intensity of imagination and energy, and the shameless audacity that I had at that age of youth. I found myself in the perfect position to have some impact on the future of an area that I had, with fresh eyes, so quickly come to adore.
I wrote a fevered letter to the editor of some publication about my vision of the future: of walking, biking, working, and living in downtown. Replete with hackneyed phrases, it was an open letter to one of the city daily papers or the downtown weekly or my workplace monthly newsletter, gushing about my passion for living in a reconstituted downtown, one that was more like what I had known in Europe and Central America and one unlike the divisive pretenses and corrupt practices of former Memphis. That florid, impassioned letter, apparently read by some of my co-workers and redevelopment leaders, helped open entirely new alleyways for me.
As official Memphis was interested in the same things but lacked the evidence to prove that there was an interest sooner rather than later – and because official Memphis had restraining scruples as regards proselytizing and lacked acceptable channels to generate an authentic grassroots marketing machine for that purpose, I was enlisted to assist in the task. But to be truthful about mid-level officialdom, they saw the task ahead as a scientific undertaking; I saw it a little differently. I wanted to stoke a general activist fervor like I was experiencing in every fiber of my young being.
I don't know if it was my idea or a bureau eureka moment – or a direct challenge to the off-the-top-of-my-head assertions about the immediate state of need for more housing downtown, but I was unleashed on downtown with a handful of additional temporary assistants to construct and conduct a housing survey. That meant developing a questionnaire, publicizing it, distributing it, collecting it, processing it, analyzing it – and making sure that the right groups of people learned of the results. My team was to determine the existing demand: the wants and needs of downtown workers regarding amenities and the prospects of expanded downtown housing. It also meant that I could freely roam the streets of downtown Memphis looking at existing buildings and amenities. With the calling card of the good offices of the City of Memphis, I gained access to buildings that had long been in disrepair and long closed to the public. This glorious duty was granted greater cache because I had also been tasked with writing the first draft of a landmarks preservation ordinance for the city. That was forwarded in large part with gracious assistance from the office of the mayor of Seattle. Thus, I had a tacit green light to also survey the supply of worthy structures that stood neglected and often vacant in the downtown area. 
It was a dream world that surprised me and my friends. In the months that followed, I made new acquaintances and friends due to my workplace and by virtue of attendance upon numerous task forces that the mayor appointed to pursue a dozen related aspects of downtown redevelopment in need of grassroots and entrepreneurial involvement. From the task forces so many new relationships and projects bloomed that I could justifiably deceive myself that I was witnessing a renaissance in Memphis. Soon my friends and I launched a weekly subscription film series downtown and helped develop a weekly church newsletter into a community-based communication organ that would take thinking about downtown farther afield from the formal plans of the City of Memphis and the Chamber of Commerce. Of course as always, in the end the big guns win and get their way, but I like to think that they could not have done it nearly so well and quickly without the enthusiasm and sacrifices of those who just cared about a better life in Memphis and the restoration of downtown as a genuine community.
For those of us who cultivated a passion for the ideal of city life and glorious buildings, it was not a matter of building careers but rather a matter of building a new kind of city after the upheavals of the previous decade. It would be years before many of us earned an adequate living. There was no reason to fly east of the heart of Memphis. The river and tall stone windows with magnificent views beckoned us back. Our city needed us to heal – to rebuild.
My Memphis immersion was a heady time. Had I not had the confidence, inside information, and freedom afforded by the busy bureau leadership, the ear of the energetic assistant to the CEO of the city (who would eventually become the marketing director of the Center City Commission to oversee the daily evolution of downtown redevelopment from the street level of Main Street), the admission tickets of first the city and second the editorship and publishership of the downtown weekly paper entitled Center City, a handful of loyal, similarly interested old and new friends, and a dynamic devotion to thoroughly mining it all with nothing much to lose other than my livelihood and reputation, I would have gone nowhere with the lunacy. Had I (and my father) not possessed the temper and ingenuity to notice and connect assets, I would not have gone far. As it was, it was all amazing good luck – in the right place at the right time, in circumstances that fitted my moment. I had all the ingredients except real power and success. But it was success enough for me.
From out of nowhere, dropped into a maelstrom, one could say I ended up nowhere. But I don't see it that way. Within five years I pursued a conventional life, struggling to build a family, a home, join a new community, and explore a career. In 1980, I moved with my wife to the country, a seeming contradiction in contrast to what came before, but in reality the chance to explore the other side of my fantasies about gardens, craft, rural community, architecture, history, and education. I constructed and inhabited a system of acceptable continuity with what passed before. Pleasure in the daily rewards of traditional tasks was a consistency that has not faded. Upon arrival in rural Williamson County, I immediately began building a bridge over an old, well-established stream, connecting one side with another where neither had been connected before.
For me, it was as if I owned downtown Memphis for six to twenty-four months. Delusions are often costly and excessive, but they are no less rewarding, elating, productive, and long lasting for being so.
The demand for housing in downtown was proven. But there was no ready supply, save those discarded elegant towers standing above shabby storefronts, a mark of the triumph and failure of generations of Memphians.
* * *
1. Until the advent of fast computers and photo-correction software, desktop scanning devices for slides, negatives and prints, and the Internet, these photos and drawings languished in storage for nearly forty years. Only with the Web did I find an easy and inexpensive way to exhibit these objects and tell the story of their origins and meaning.
In truth, I was a bit embarrassed and disheartened that I had botched the perspectives, the exposures, or the negative processing – sometimes accomplishing all three of these feats of poor photography at once. Add to those potential weaknesses the fact that I never approach the skill or accoutrements of a professional, possessing only second-hand equipment operated from a closet or a bathroom, and it's easy to conclude that the term "botched" is not nearly a speculative assessment – and perhaps a tad tame to boot.
The project began with an intent to inventory appealing, existing under-utilized buildings in and around downtown Memphis is 1974 that held some potential for refurbishment as residential housing. It was not until Beverly Cruthirds made line drawings from a few of these photographs that the project showed some promise. It was evident from the simplified drawings that the lines and proportions of the buildings were attractive. Still Beverly was hindered by the perspective afforded by up-close snapshots of tall buildings captured through poor lenses by a clumsy photographer.
An inventory of existing building stock, deemed worth preserving by conversion to small offices or housing, seemed a timely endeavor at the time. There was little housing, but a recent survey of downtown workers (read above) showed a spirited interest in the prospect of living downtown. Beverly's drawings, by abstracting the building lines from the degradation of the surroundings and the desecration of 1960s-era first-story storefronts that were completely incompatible with the materials and aesthetic principles of the main structures, proved the merit, if not the practicability, of reviving these old buildings.
Alas, the project proposal went no further than these early ventures at exploring and re-seeing what had been before our eyes our entire lives. Partly due to my photographic ineptitude and processing mishaps – and chiefly due to the lack of interest on the part of any institution to backing such a study by novices not tied to the grand plans already adopted by the city government in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce – the project fizzled. Yet housing did take root in downtown Memphis in refurbished old buildings and new buildings as well. Our effort was but a sign of the times and was shared partially with movers and shakers in Center City.
[Not all of the negatives of photographs that Beverly and I took together (and separately) of buildings in and around downtown Memphis were equally marred. Beverly has reminded me that one night in 1974 we developed negatives in the graphics department darkroom at Memphis State University. That would account for the fact that several rolls of black and white film finished consistently cleaner and with better gradations of density.]
2. For about eight years, I shared ownership, with my friend Don, of the second-floor street side of 357 North Main. We had one large room with high ceilings and wooden floors, furnished with hand-me-down furniture donated by a local savings and loan bank. During the late 1970s, it doubled as a personal studio and offices for Front Street Arts, a non-profit organization that assumed publication of Center City and ran the Lyceum Film Theater in partnership with another prominent bank. Ten years after we sold our portion back to the building's co-owner, Francis Ford Coppola put Danny DeVito's office in our former office for the movie The Rainmaker. He even used the cheesy red leather couch with chrome arms that we left behind in the building when we sold it.
3. Obviously, at the time I did not actually know how tedious it would be to live enveloped in a community of craftsmen and artists. I soon learned that lesson from association with eager (or reluctant) writers and would-be artists. Self-acknowledged average people with common sense and a variety of moderate interests and talents, I eventually learned, make much better company: less moody, less abstractly absorbed, and less possessed of a palpable regard (or disregard) and promotion of personal worth and accomplishment, a trait made necessary for artistic types by the insular culture of Memphis at the time. It's no wonder that I didn't recognize those debatable artistic attributes at the time: except for the moody characteristic, they were mine – however I appeared, and actually was, more other-directed when it came to downtown and my everyday work.
4. Unknown to me in 1974, when I was intent on preserving the Porter Building, among others, from the reckless designs of government and Chamber of Commerce planners, my grandfather once had ties to the Porter Building. Many years before, he maintained an office on the second floor of the Porter Building overlooking Main Street. My father, who is now 82, fondly recalls watching parades down Main Street from those same second-story windows. For about a year, Fronts Street Arts (read above) had a small donated office in the Exchange Building on Court Square with a view onto the back of the Porter Building. From those windows in an upper story office of the Exchange Building, we watched Fourth of July fireworks blossoming high above the Mississippi River.
Center City published several commentaries and stories about the Porter Building. The drumbeat to revive the structure continued for years. Here are links to two such issues: an extract from page three of Center City, Vol. I, No. 39 (October 2, 1974) and the front page of Center City, Vol. III, No. 22 (October 28, 1976).
5. On July 24, 1975, almost a year to the day that I left the employment of city hall, Center City (Vol. II, No. 29), under my editorship, published a story announcing the passage of the Memphis Landmarks Ordinance, creating a Landmarks Commission and a Memphis Landmarks Register. In addition, a Memphis Landmarks Fund was created, receiving an initial grant of $375,000 from the city's Community Development program to support repairs for designated landmarks. To accompany this news, in a separate story, I included an old and a recent photograph of the Porter Building.
6. The slightly fuzzy lines and light gray tint incorporated into Beverly's crisp, clean line drawings are not properties of the originals – which I have yet to find. They are the direct result of having been produced by scanning contact copies of the originals made some thirty years ago on black-line paper using an ammonia-based print-transfer process typically employed to duplicate architectural plans drawn on translucent or clear film. While playing with the computer tweaking tools now available to me, I have nudged the perspective to ease conflicts desired by the eye and relieve the constraints under which Beverly labored due to the distortions of the photographs from which they were drawn.