Front St. Arts
Hunt for Steel
A Miracle Maker
Just a Girl
Get Her Done!
Not for Sale
Preface & Reader Response
Community organizing is the true responsibility. Officeholding is too often the mere appendix that traps and spotlights the corrupt seed.
Battle Years – 1970-1979: Where Were You?
WHEN WILL MEMPHIS HAVE EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP?
by Jerry Murley
Since 1980, when I moved to Middle Tennessee, the occasional visits to family, friends, and childhood places have often been a bit nostalgic – and sometimes like being dropped into a huge vat of molasses. The core of Memphis, by which I mean its downtown and midtown, don't seem to have altered essentially in the past 28 years, though there have been spectacular new developments downtown: Beale Street, two sports facilities, a mall-like Peabody complex, riverfront housing and parks, and a farmers market at the train station. Nevertheless, there is a yearly noticeable creep toward shabbiness in areas of the central city; it has proceeded for decades a thin layer at a time. The stateliness, or neatness, of old homes – favorite shops and restaurants – seem to vanish like trees in a fog.
I know my old Memphis very well, having lived there until I was thirty (except for two years in Houston, a summer in Santa Monica and a year abroad). I grew up in Frayser, went to high school living consecutively in two different locations in east Memphis at either end of White Station Road. I lived in midtown and near MSU during the last half of college and after college in three different midtown neighborhoods. And I owned a portion of a building on North Main Street in the Pinch district. I explored the wilds of Frayser and knew its fishing ponds; I spent summers by the tracks in Whitehaven and walked to a country store for soft drinks; I went for target practice with my BB gun in the fields that later became Baptist Hospital East and Christian Brothers High School. And through the early times, we shopped and went to carnival downtown. In high school, my favorite acquired pleasure (through the extra-point system of my White Station High School English teacher) was riding the bus to matinee performances at Front Street Theater.
I experienced much of Memphis in my work. I went to many venues in and around Memphis as a member of a rock/R&B band in high school and college, worked on a mixed-race crew cleaning ditches throughout the city for two summers at the end of high school, and worked, at separate times in college, at the telephone company in midtown, in metal fabrication on Presidents Island, and as a surveyor. As a surveyor I spent some dreary and some fine days in spring, during a hiatus in my college studies, in the wilderness of the Wolf River at Germantown Road, where nothing existed but trees, brush, water and snakes. (Cleaning debris from the Memphis open-air drainage system could not approach the shear tedium I faced working in an automobile assembly pit with speed-popping co-workers at Chrysler in L.A. in the summer of 1970.)
The years after Martin Luther King's death in 1968 were rough ones for Memphis. Memphis was seeking a new identity. Memphis, a sprawling area rich in diverse cultural potential, while obliterating vestiges of its unique past, was of all things striving to join the NFL. Memphis could not play ball: it wanted to import a team and an image that was not of the place. Its strengths, such as cohesive community sanity aimed at protecting its park, were seen as its liabilities. Memphis rejected local play and its local team and players, many of whom left in search of real community – also of foreign making – but perhaps less spiritually corrupt.
Having returned – broke – the spring of 1973 from a year traveling in Europe and Central America, I began to immerse myself in the issues of downtown redevelopment, after a stint as a summer framing carpenter and a South Main cabinet maker. Seeing the underutilized and understated Porter Building on Main Street at Court Square, for the first time with experienced eyes, may have been one catalyst that helped get me thinking about involvement in downtown renovation. In late 1973, at a time when few people in Memphis rode bicycles for long distances, I rode my 3-speed bike from east of Quince at White Station Road to the dedication of the new I-40 bridge over the Mississippi River, in part as a symbolic act of resistence to the domination of automobiles in the city. Unable to convince anyone to join me for the long, hazardous ride across the city and back, I began to realize that I might remain alone for long while in my desire for energetic engagement with the future of my native city.
When I started working for the Bureau of Policy Planning and Analysis in the winter of 1974, I didn't have the proper credentials (art, history, psychology, business – culture – were my study). But I did have energy, enthusiasm, a vivid imagination, the over-confidence of youth, the basic communication skills and artistic sensibility to articulate and sell a vision – and I had seen something of the world. I believed, and I still believe, in the power of propaganda, especially in propaganda that is timely, that benefits others, that is correct, that is relatively selfless, except for the pure joy of watching one's ideas realized for a good cause.
I offered ideas and collaborated on initial implementation. I helped assemble like-minded, spirited and talented people to help the best of bureaucrats. And I was within a year on the outside of city government, proding city government and organizations by communicating directly with the people who worked downtown by editing a downtown newspaper, Center City, which was at the time published by First Presbyterian Church and later by Front Street Arts, a non-profit organization that I helped found and direct. Later in the 1970s, I shifted my efforts from Center City to Pinch, which had a much more indirect orientation toward downtown development.
During my few months at City Hall, we had Memphis artists paint murals on buildings. We conducted a survey, with the help of Sally Hunt and Richard Owen, of downtown housing needs at a time when little housing existed and nothing much was thought of the possibility. I drafted the historic landmarks preservation ordinance, based on the Seattle model. We started a weekly classic film theater, the Lyceum Film Theater, at First National Bank (later named First Tennessee Bank) when no other such movie house or subscription series existed for downtown workers after hours. We pumped information to the Center City publication, then edited by Michael Lance. With the help of Beverly Cruthirds, the bureau's first graphic designer, we established a Court Square market. Along with the analysts at the bureau and Carol Coletta, through the indulgence of our mutual boss, the city CEO, we accomplished these and dozens of other small acts of highly visible but inexpensive improvements, all of which were given further permanence by the work of about a dozen task forces set up by the mayor, which included participants from business, the press and government – as well as participation by non-profit organization leaders and members.
I would be so bold as to say that these low-level activities, harnessed with the larger efforts of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, helped lay the groundwork for the improvements evident in downtown today. I am sure there are many non-governmental organizations doing similar things today in Memphis to motivate the involvement of people of all walks of life in the improvement of the city. For you young at heart, energetic or imaginative, be you young or near retirement, I tell you that as penniless and disappointing as those battle years were at times, they remain an era of much pride and a source of the unshakeable optimism that I have carried every day since.
I have mentioned some names of key participants in the context of my story. I would be negligent if I didn't mention others. None of us accomplished much on our own. The following were also members of the cabal for good government and creative cultural fun in the city at the time: David Bowman, Harold Day, Gail Dodson, Don Donati, Joyce Hulme, Jim Roper, and Pat Waters. Memphians, many of the urban qualities of life that you now enjoy are due in part to these people and countless others who remain nameless and unknown. (I would urge you to research your major newspaper for information about them and their work, but I know too well that you will find barely a word about how things really worked.)
After 40 years in the wilderness, the job is not done. Now, with a new dawn nationally, Memphis must critique with action its exisitng incompetent incumbents and agencies no matter what the racial composition. And Memphis must finally reach for fully integrated good government and a well-managed, safe and self-sacrificing city. There are plenty of good people with plenty of talent and goodwill to get done what should be done – what should have been done long ago. Go forth, debate and multiple – and act in concert with the spirit from within and the spirit of the greater community – and that means you, too, east Memphis. Community organizing is the true responsibility. Officeholding is too often the mere appendix that traps and spotlights the corrupt seed.