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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Will the Real Memphis Please Stand Up?

There’s an abomination crouching on the riverbluff near downtown Memphis. The “thing” is a 32-story, stainless steel pyramid. Unfortunately, the shiny eyesore can be seen for miles in the rearview mirror as one crosses the I-40 bridge into Arkansas.

The pyramid was built as an “arena,” a venue for U/Mem basketball, concerts, trade shows, etc. There was supposed to be a Hard Rock Café at the top of the thing and shops galore everywhere. The hulking giant has more than a half million square feet of “usable” space. The footprint is larger than six football fields. Seating capacity is about 20,000.

The pyramid was the concept of an out-of-towner (carpet bagger) whose name I won’t print here, but it rhymes with city slicker. Memphians will tell you that there was a lot of shady business associated with decisions to build this thing, and a lot of money changed hands. One questionable move was that after the prime location had been identified, the site was changed to a piece of land (the current location) which happened to be owned by some city councilmen who gladly sold it for the development plus, I'm sure, a tidy sum. Where are political watchdog groups when you need them?

But the story gets better. Memphis got an opportunity for a pro basketball team, the Grizzlies. Those folks took a look at the pyramid and said "thank you very much, but we'll only come to Memphis if you build us another place to play." They found the pyramid inadequate. Perhaps the knees-to-chest seating at the highest level had something to do with it.

The Grizzlies came here and played at the pyramid while the wonderful FedEx Forum was being constructed. As soon as possible, they deserted the pyramid for the better venue. Shortly thereafter, the U/Mem Tigers said “me, too” and switched to the Forum.

About those proposed concerts. Turned out that the pyramid had rotten acoustics. So the city spent a bundle more to attempt correcting that, but the big concerts they’d anticipated go to the Forum.

The pyramid has now sat empty for three years, just a big, ugly money pit for the city. A large national company that has to do with fishing (can’t name that either) has been teasing the city for at least two years with possible interest in locating at the pyramid. And so it goes on that no one does anything, and the behemoth-on-the-riverbank is still a financial drain and doesn’t get any prettier.

The Real Problem

Here’s the part that really bugs me. I think the pyramid is the most visible evidence of Memphis’ schizophrenia. The city has never defined its own personality.

Memphis on the Mississippi was named for Memphis, Egypt situated on the Nile River. OK, fine. The renovation of the Memphis zoo paid homage to that link with a beautiful entrance and central plaza. They did a beautiful, tasteful job. The Egyptian style of the plaza buildings with columns and statues situated around a large, reflecting pool are prime photo op material. They did a great job. But, honestly, there’s already a Memphis, Egypt.

The renovation of Beale Street, home of the blues, was clearly a take-off on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. Many of Beale Street’s restaurants brag about their red beans & rice – a traditional New Orleans dish. I love red beans & rice and I can make a pretty good pot of it, but it’s not Memphis. I should add that you can find some good barbecue on Beale and bbq IS Memphis.

Memphis is a beautiful, historic Southern city. Seems to me that at some time, city leaders should have put their heads together to decide just what Memphis is about and used that X factor to promote the city.

Memphis is the largest inland cotton spot market in the world. There was a time when King Cotton was the overriding theme, and everyone looked forward to Cotton Carnival in the spring. But along came polyester and the cotton fabric lost some of its footing. It was also felt that there were some politically incorrect connotations to cotton growing – plantations and such. Cotton Carnival has been replaced by Memphis in May which has some great events.

So, what is it that Memphis has that no other city has? What’s its defining difference? Music

Home of the Blues

Starting with composer W.C. Handy and the other bluesmen who migrated to Memphis, this city has been a hub of the music industry. Musicians know about the heritage and talent and still come to Sun and Stax to record. The Memphis establishment, however, has only recently begun to acknowledge the importance of this city to the music field.

Why? Apparently, it’s because the music that was being produced wasn’t viewed as “suitable.” The early rock stars who came out of Sun Records were rebellious and were making music with strange, new sounds. Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins didn’t fit into the mainstream mold. Perkins alone was so influential on musicians who followed that George Harrison flew over to attend his funeral.

In 1982 when Graceland was first opened to the public, the ceremony was snubbed by both the city and county mayors. It took them a while to understand how much revenue would be brought to the city by pilgrimages of devoted Elvis fans.

Most Memphians of the time were also unwilling to claim the music coming from Stax Studio. The musicians working and recording there were integrated. I guess that wasn’t something the city wanted to boast about.

Remember the Detroit sound? Motown music? A lot of that was recorded right here in Memphis, but Memphis never took credit. Here are just a couple of examples of artists and hits that came from here:
Sam & Dave – Soul Man; Hold On, I’m Comin’
Wilson Pickett – Mustang Sally; Wait Til the Midnight Hour

For the sake of fairness, I should say that there are those who find the pyramid attractive. I don’t. I think it’s a ghastly symbol to welcome visitors. I dislike, as do most, the money pit that it represents. And, primarily, I dislike it as a representation of the heart and soul of Memphis.

Gee, looks like I got up on my soapbox again.

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