May God bless Memphis, the noblest city on the face of the earth.
— Mark Twain

To visit Memphis, Tenn., is to visit a place that is slowly waking from a decades-long stupor. The things that define this city in the popular imagination — the glamorous life of Elvis Presley, the shocking assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — happened decades ago. Some of the young professionals the city would like to attract weren’t even born when Dr. King and The King ended their respective reigns. But in many ways, the city still lives through that past, both economically and culturally. And the tumult attached to those events — economic, racial, religious — still simmers at the surface.

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Photos: Sarah van Schagen and Katharine Wroth

As a result, Memphis is a city struggling to feel at home with itself, and to define its role in the 21st century. There are some who are working to reinvent the birthplace of the blues, to breathe new life into its streets and reinflate its self-esteem. Much has been accomplished in the last decade. I first visited Memphis in 1998, and the Memphis I saw in 2007 is not the same place. Major investments in the downtown include a new arena, a professional NBA team, a retail center, and a revitalized arts district.

Much of this progress has occurred under the leadership of Willie Herenton, who took office in 1991 as the city’s first African-American mayor. Herenton is a controversial figure whose claims to notoriety include fathering an illegitimate child with a woman 30 years his junior; being cited, but not tried, in a far-reaching corruption scandal; and, according to some, fanning the flames of racial tension during this fall’s mayoral campaign, which saw him win an unprecedented fifth term.

Eight years ago, Herenton made another move that proved controversial: He assembled the Riverfront Development Corporation, a private nonprofit that would work with the city government to make the riverfront an inviting, active place to live, work, and play.

Seems a sensible enough idea: turn the mighty Mississippi — once the economic backbone of this city when it was the cotton capital of the world — into a backbone again, a draw for tourists and residents alike.

But that’s where the trouble starts. Or rather, continues. The RDC’s plans — for a boat landing and retail/residential development — have met with fierce resistance from some prominent community members who would prefer to see open space along the river. An endless series of meetings, proposed lawsuits, master plans, newspaper articles, and blog attacks has unfolded, keeping these bitter rivals distracted from a simple truth: They all want to improve the area; they just can’t agree on how to do it.

And while the battle rages, a downtown riverfront largely defined by interstate ramps and parking garages falls far short of what it could be.

Founders’ Syndrome

Like everything in Memphis, the current controversy has deep roots in the city’s history. To understand the furor, it’s necessary to understand two local features: the cobblestones and the promenade. Both have the ring of genteel Southern living, conjuring images of leisurely strolls by parasol-wielding women and handlebar-mustached men. But in fact, a grittier history and reality belie the pretty names.

Unlike many cities along the Mississippi, the waterfront is not consumed by industrial behemoths or recovering brownfields. From its inception in the early 1800s, Memphis was a port first and foremost — a place for moving goods, not making them. The riverbank was lined with cobblestones that served as ballast for ships and a landing place for cargo. “The cobblestones were the center of commerce for Memphis,” explains John Conroy, a former city engineer who is vice president of project development for the RDC. “Everything that came into the city pretty much came by river and came up the cobblestones.” Today the cobblestones are a treasured historical landmark — so treasured, in fact, that their preservation must be considered in any plan for changing the riverfront.

Just uphill from the cobblestones lies the promenade, an area set aside by the city founders — a trio that included future President Andrew Jackson — for residents to enjoy. Nearly 200 years later, the promenade is still regarded as public space, although it has been treated roughly over the decades. Parking garages occupy some of it, and a concrete fire station squats at one end. A library and a former customs house and post office — soon to become the University of Memphis law school — are also on the site. The city doesn’t own the land, but has set its sights on leasing it to developers, a move the courts would have to approve.

Memphis has something else that most Mississippi towns don’t: public parkland on the riverfront. One hundred and fifty acres of it, to be exact. “We are lucky because we own park space, where other cities have had to buy riverfront park space,” says June West of Memphis Heritage, the area’s preservation association.

Veteran Memphis riverboat captain James Gilmer on what
the Mississippi means to visitors.

Yet another feature distinguishes this city from its counterparts: It sits on a slack-water harbor, nothing like the raging channels that pass by St. Louis or the lock-and-dammed recreational depths farther north. It is, wrote Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi, “a beautiful city, nobly situated on a commanding bluff overlooking the river.”

But the beautiful city, says historian West, “turned its back on the river. It was not seen as an attraction; it was seen as something that was there that was muddy and dirty, and it was used for barges. Not until 15 to 17 years ago did people start really realizing that it’s a beautiful view.”

With that realization came a renewed sense of protectiveness for the features that had so long gone unloved. In a sense, of course, these features — the parks, the cobblestones, the promenade — are strengths. But they are also obstacles to progress. “It’s like we’re stuck in a 1920s movie and we can’t change anything,” says Tom Jones, an urban-planning consultant who lives and works downtown and is involved in the riverfront fight. “This is the stage set we were given and we’re not supposed to do anything.”

For Memphis to become the vibrant city it imagines, something might have to give. But at the moment, no one’s giving an inch.

Double Vision

Here’s a boiled-down version of what the RDC wants to do: build Beale Street Landing, a floating dock that would give visiting ships a place to tie up and tourists and residents a place to eat, drink, and enjoy the river; develop the promenade into a combination of retail and residential development; and restore the cobblestones.

“Many river cities have a problem with public access to their riverfront — it’s almost all privately owned,” says Conroy. “We have exactly the opposite problem: We have virtually total public ownership of the riverfront, but we have nothing going on down there. We tell people we’ve got a 5-mile riverfront, you can’t buy a Coke, can’t buy a bottle of water, can’t buy a snack.”

Here’s what the other side, led by a group called Friends for Our Riverfront, wants to see: conversion of the promenade almost entirely to greenway, with space for food vendors, outdoor movies, and art exhibits; and refurbishment of abandoned downtown buildings to meet any demand for other services.

“Most Memphians would agree that the Mississippi River is our city’s greatest natural resource and the riverbluff, with its magnificent vistas, our most unique feature,” says the Friends website. (Friends did not return calls seeking comment for this story.) “So you would think we would capitalize on those strengths when we plan for our riverfront … But the current RDC plan fails the test and instead proposes allowing private developers to build high-rise apartments, hotels, offices, shops, and restaurants on the most strategically located section of our public riverfront. It proposes exchanging our right to a green river-bluff for a paved walkway and shops in private buildings.”

And what do the citizens of Memphis, a bustling metropolis of 670,000, think of all this? For the most part, says Jones, not much: “Most people aren’t even plugged in.”

A weary Conroy echoes that assessment: “I could easily tell you everybody else loves us, but I think a more honest answer is most of the public doesn’t know what’s going on.” He adds that RDC has presented its plan to nearly 200 organizations, and still hopes for the best. “We think that if we can do some of the things that we’ve talked about, we can walk away and say this is a far better place to live and play and have fun than it was before we started.”

A Chance to Heal

The riverfront battle is not just about space — it’s also about race. The population of Memphis is 60 percent African-American, and the city “is built on African-American culture and the river culture,” says urban-planning consultant Jones. “Strip everything else away, those are the two things that mattered then and matter now.”

But that truth is too often overlooked by the white community, he says, and that’s no less true in this current battle: “By and large, the African-American community sees this as some big discussion the white community is having, and [wonders] how does it affect me.”

Still, some of the key players say a restored riverfront could be one way to help heal the wounds in this racially divisive city.

“The river is an asset that is equally appreciated by both the white and black community,” says Conroy. “If you go down to Tom Lee Park on a Sunday afternoon, there’ll be bunches of people there, and a really good racial mix. There’s a lot of places around here where you won’t see that, but the river seems to serve as something that appeals across that boundary, and because it does, it’s a tremendous opportunity … if you can get more activity down there and draw more people down there and draw the racial mix that it seems to draw up ’til now, that goes a long way toward getting those two groups together, and getting past or helping get past the racial issues that have abounded in Memphis.”

Memphis native and riverboat crew member Teddy Kirksey on
how the city has changed.

His opponents might roll their eyes at such a sentiment — since when does a retired city bureaucrat give a hoot about racial relations — but Conroy seems sincere. And that’s the saddest thing about the Memphis situation: There are no clearly defined good guys and bad guys. There are just two sides with their heels stuck firmly in the Mississippi mud.

Tourists still come to see the mighty Mississippi, to take a tour on a riverboat or visit the river museum at Mud Island, a fading waterfront attraction that opened in the early 1980s. And occasionally residents come down to the water too, usually when they have guests in town. This river is a draw, there’s no doubt; the question is, who will make it more of a draw — and how. There’s one thing everyone agrees on: it’s got to happen soon. The future of this history-soaked city depends on it.

“The reason we’re here is because of the river, the reason the economy grew in the beginning was all about the river, we have a very river culture,” says Jones. “And there’s a lot written about how if you really want to get down into Memphis music, it’s in tune with the current of the river. That pulse of the river is felt all about us.”