Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Hard Life

Now that I'm livin' in Memphis, I know I have enough street cred' to say it like it is: Life Is Hard. Just look around ya:

But, in plain language, here it is: I'm going through an adjustment disorder. Not sleeping well, feeling weak and insecure and having a hard time focusing on much of anything....Worked on my resume this week, will send it out to the local engineering firms next week. I'm sure time and patience will cure my ills.

So, yeah, I'm taking it slow. Baby steps- one in front of the other. But I still have my priorities straight- I refuse to let my followers down, because- my peeps- I do need to bring you this town for your consideration. So consider:

1. People are friendly here, and it means a lot to me. This past weekend Robert, a new friend, and I were walking around downtown late at night, down South Main, a picturesque old street of mostly two and three story humble brick buildings, in the thick of gentrification (slowly moving ahead despite the economy), and currently the center of arts and alt-culture in the downtown area:

We walked by a bar with outdoor seating on the sidewalk and one of the young ladies (sitting at a table with several other guys and galls) called out a greeting to us. No biggie', but it happens all the time here. Later on that night, we were walking back to the car, and another lady, this one walking with her boyfriend, turned to us and said: "You guys are walking around late tonight." I find this truly endearing and heartwarming (especially in a town so known for crime, where everyone is telling you to be careful, lock your doors...), but for all that- people are trusting and open.

2. Folk art, creative reuse, and Is Memphis Green?

Folk art is alive and well here and gives Memphis a whole lot of color and charm. Every day, and all over, I see examples of hand decorated interiors, furniture, and even infrastructure.

It give's the city a sweet and low-down quality. (see large photos below) It also makes me think about our efforts back in the SF Bay Area to re-use and re-purpose materials in our designs. Well here it is a way of life, partly out of economic necessity of course- IKEA prices can't compete with a flea market, but partly out of tradition, a culture of humility, and nostalgia (and even, I would argue a lack of emphasis on the material world, see #3 below). In my jogs north (through some of the most affluent of the older neighborhoods) I've seen low residential retaining walls made of sawcut chunks of concrete slabs stacked like bricks. These weren't fancy, almost an afterthought. But although the houses are immaculatelty preserved and part of the National Historic Neighborhood, I believe these low-cost repurposed walls are completely accepted here.

By the way, this quality of course extends to entire buildings, not just the ubiquitous conversion of old downtown buildings to new uses. But conversion of whole single-family residential streets here in Midtown to retail, office, restaurants and bars, sometimes marked only by the addition of a sign and/or small awning in the front- and the (suddenly useful!) large front lawn converted to parking.

Does this make memphis green? This piece of the puzzle is pretty strong. The rest is somewhat awful: dizzying sprawl and generally horrible city planning [e.g. selling out to developers]- such that whole chunks of the city are blighted and underused, and- my pet peeve- original single pane windows on all of the old homes- in 105 degree heat! I've only seen one solar panel here so far (although there is a local solar cell manufacturer...)  I was jogging south- and it was for an automatic switch on one of the myriad of railroad tracks in the south-central part of the city.
3. Religion and race - initial impressions- I've heard Memphis called the 'buckle on the bible belt'. Yes, there are signs (literally!)- big (a megachurch in the suburbs) and small-'He Is Risen' (just a few houses away from us). But other than the occasionally offputting yard signs and bumper stickers, it hasn't been a problem. Surprisingly, no one has of yet asked me what church I belong to or mentioned god to me. Why? I'll have to come back to this.

Final note: last weekend- a few music (great jazz, blues, jams!) festivals downtown- we took a walk down by the riverbank and there was another festival in that park. Bright stage, soulful, rousing music, vending trucks lined up selling fried catfish and chicken; BBQ (big billows of smoke rising from long, rusty charcoal broilers); oh, and crepes too, not bad! It took us a while to realize that we were the only white people around. We walked over to one of the food vendors, and stood for a moment trying to decipher the scrawly hand written menu. I didn't see beer on it, but expecting to, I asked about it- 'It's gospel festival - church groups'. Wow- a dry soul music and BBQ festival in Memphis! So we sat around and enjoyed the excellent tender and tangy beef BBQ served with ultra greasy supermarket sides of cole slaw, potato salad, and wonder bread. We looked toward the stage with the orange sun setting beyond it into the fields of Arkansas on the other side of the Mississippi. We listened to the fervent moralizing and great musicianship of the performers, and looked around us at the people enjoying and sharing the holiday- the people of our new home town.

On the way out we walked up the bluff (Bluff City- no flooding!) and took this photo:


  1. Hey, you are making Memphis sound good. I hope you realize it! :) I do have to say that the music festivals went a long way toward endearing me to this place. And my students are really awesome so far!

  2. This is a great perspective on Memphis, thanks for writing it.

    Speaking of street cred, If you haven't seen the movie Hustle and Flow, its one of my favorites. I was made by Craig Brewer, and is a classic story life for a rapper in the hood in Memphis. Its hard, and makes no apology for it.