I mentioned in my last post that there are a lot of complicating factors involved in decisions about what to do with the riverfront in Memphis, Tenn. Yet another complex issue here, though, is the undeniable racial tension.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, Memphis went through a major decline, with many people leaving the downtown area and moving to the suburbs, and downtown businesses crumbling as a result. The current population of the city area is primarily black while the suburbs are mostly white, and the two don’t often mix.
But embracing the river could change that.
Tom Jones of Smart City Consulting (and not "It’s Not Unusual") told us that Memphis will be in the next few years the first majority African-American metro area — a fact that, he says, Memphians are slow to embrace.
"Memphis is built on African-American culture and the river culture," Jones said. "Strip everything else away and those are the two things that mattered then and matter now. And somehow we need to focus on both of them and quit pretending like each of those factors is a problem."
One way to do that is to connect more people with the river, says Riverfront Development Corporation’s John Conroy, who describes the Mississippi as "an asset that is equally appreciated by both the white and black community," bringing a mix of people together that you don’t find other places in the city.
"The river seems to serve as something that appeals across that boundary. And because it does, it’s a tremendous opportunity that 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 to now, that goes a long way toward getting those two groups together and maybe helping getting past racial issues that have abounded in Memphis."
It’s interesting to think that a river that once served as the dividing line between a slave state and a free one (it was crossed via the Underground Railroad near St. Louis) could be the uniting force that brings people together. But after spending this week exploring the Mississippi and seeing how powerful it is for so many people, I don’t doubt it.