Strange Bedfellows

Compromise can change Memphis for the better.

Posted by John Branston on Thu, Jul 10, 2008 at 4:00 AM

"Common ground" is a feel-good phrase, but a common threat is more likely to bring different groups together as strange-bedfellow coalitions that carry the day.

The late Jesse Helms knew it. Republican political strategist Karl Rove knows it. And some people in Memphis with long memories know it. The threat of an interstate highway saved Overton Park. The threat of school desegregation spurred white flight and the growth of the suburbs. The threat of development "saved" Shelby Farms.

Today the threats are crime, high gas prices, and a recession. The stakes include the downtown entertainment district, the dwindling downtown business community, the suburban lifestyle, and our public schools and parks. If the vested interests can't find common ground, maybe they can respond to a common threat and nudge Memphis forward in these hard times. Here are five "for instances."

Beale Street: The business mix or the music mix or the management mix won't matter if tourists stop coming and locals don't start coming. The club owners know it, developer John Elkington knows it, and the Memphis police know it. Beale Street's neighbor, Peabody Place, is getting out of the movie and retail business above the first floor of the indoor mall. Read blogger Randy Haspell's story on memphisflyer.com last week about his stepson's Independence Day mugging in a Peabody Place parking garage.

Next step: Elkington and the city of Memphis need to make a deal to get him out soon, so that attention can shift to bigger problems.

Overton Park: Forty years ago, a coalition of old ladies in tennis shoes, lawyers, and environmentalists joined forces to stop the Federal Highway Administration from running Interstate 40 through Overton Park. Today the threats to the park are apathy and fear of violence.

The Memphis Zoo needs customers. It costs a family of four around $50 just for parking and admissions. No wonder the zoo's busiest day is not Saturday but Tuesday, when admission is free after 2 p.m. Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, formed 50 years ago, has reorganized to protect the Old Forest from zoo expansion. Not many Memphians, however, know about the Old Forest, and fewer walk through it. The city has grown away from Midtown, but fear isn't helping. As I finished a column last week about how attractive the park was on the Fourth of July, Memphis police were investigating a double shooting in the park's picnic area that afternoon.

Next step: The nonprofit Memphis Zoological Society should give board representation to Citizens to Preserve Overton Park and representatives of the Levitt Shell, which will probably need the zoo's parking lot for its upcoming concert series.

The riverfront: Whatever the future holds for Front Street, it isn't going to be new high-rise buildings like the ones in the master plan that spooked Friends For Our Riverfront a few years ago. If only there were that much interest in downtown office space. At the rate First Horizon, Regions Financial, and other bank stocks are falling, there will be even more vacancies in a few years.

Next step: Before downtown becomes a ghost town, the Overton heirs, Friends For Our Riverfront, and the Riverfront Development Corporation should reach an agreement on the Promenade that complements the University of Memphis law school's arrival next year.

Sustainable Shelby County: An unholy alliance of environmentalists, politicians, and developers ensured that the growth of Memphis would leapfrog over 4,500-acre Shelby Farms to Germantown Parkway 35 years ago. Bill Morris Parkway and other roads sealed the deal. Shelby County mayor A C Wharton has been talking about smart growth for six years, but $4 gas is more powerful than words.

Next step: An inconvenient truth. It will take a surge in actual riders, not critics, to bring MATA into the 21st century, and that may not happen until gas hits $6. The cost of commuting creates some incentive for infill development, but now banks aren't lending. Memphis isn't growing. And jobs, churches, and schools moved to the suburbs long ago.

Politics: It's not often that politics is an exemplary process, but consider the Shelby County Democratic Party. On paper, an alliance of poor, undereducated blacks and well-to-do, overeducated whites and blacks makes no sense. But the Democratic Party in Shelby County is resurgent, thanks to people like Steve Cohen, Harold Ford Jr., and Barack Obama. And, above all, George Bush.

Next step: Political activism follows through as social activism.

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