Sometimes I just drive around. It's a life-long habit. I'll look at a map and explore a random street from one end to the other, just to see what I can see. Last Sunday, it was Chelsea Avenue, which carves a steady east-west course across the northern tier of the city.
I begin at the street's west end, where it emerges from Uptown, the slowly gentrifying neighborhood near St. Jude. Once you get onto Chelsea, the gentrifying stops, as you enter the New Chicago neighborhood. I detour north on Manassas Street, past the impressive new edifice of Manassas High School, which has, according to the google, 382 students, of which approximately 100 are grade-level proficient in reading.
North of the school, I turn on Firestone Avenue and pass the abandoned factory site with its lonely small brick building and massive smokestack, vertically emblazoned with the tire company's logo. At the Firestone Grocery & Deli, two men pass a paper bag and watch the world go by. The homes are small, some neatly kept, some falling down but inhabited, some blighted beyond repair.
Back on Chelsea, I pass through a dystopian world of auto repair services and junkyards — the graveyards of rusted automobiles that serve as a poor man's AutoZone. You go in looking for a driver's side mirror for your '98 Le Sabre or an alternator for your old F-150. You take your tools, and if you're lucky you come out with your part — and dirty hands.
I cross streets with familiar names — Watkins, McLean, Highland — but up here in North Memphis they look different than they do in Midtown. I venture onto Willett Street, north into a little neighborhood hard by the shores of Kilowatt Lake. There's a boat repair shop, an auto-painting business, various sketchy quonset huts, Dino's Sausage(!), and houses that shouldn't be lived in but are. It's a world apart, a different Memphis. Who lives here?
At Hollywood and Chelsea, things look a little more brisk. There's the Fashion Corner Men's Store, 2 Star JR Barbecue, a big thrift shop, warehouses, and a couple of factories, including Southern Cotton Oil.
I cross Warford and decide to drive by Douglass High School. Like Manassas, it's an impressive newish building, and like Manassas, it's underpopulated, with only 476 students. The surrounding neighborhood features the requisite small, boxy houses, many painted in lively colors. There are signs of pride — small statuary, a string of Christmas lights, a nice patio set on a porch. An elderly woman stands in her yard with a power cord in hand, arguing with an MLGW worker. The cord appears to be coming from a neighbor's window, a work-around for someone whose power has been cut off, I'm guessing. Another reminder that life can be cold.
Near Highland — another familiar street in unfamiliar country — I pass the Dixie Disinfectant Co. and Elegant Security Products. Small churches abound — The Upper Room, Sunset Church, and St. John MB Church near Pope Street, just before Chelsea veers under Jackson Avenue and into the Nutbush city limits, as Tina Turner once sang.
The store names begin to change: Especialitas, La Raza, Las Cazuelas, La Roca Tienda, Santa Maria Tires, Montero's, La Hacienda. The driveways are filled with more pickups than sedans. It's another Memphis universe. I pass two small pink houses as Chelsea narrows into a residential street paralleling a set of railroad tracks.
After a few blocks, near the elbow of the I-240 loop, Chelsea ends its eastward journey at Wells Station. There are large trees and a forested area between the neighborhood and the interstate. It's acreage where a landfill has been proposed — and is being fought fiercely by the neighborhood. For some reason, companies like to put landfills in neighborhoods with little pink houses and poor people. And in this case, they're wanting to put a landfill near Memphis hipsters' favorite treat shop — Jerry's Sno Cones. Maybe that will help the neighborhood's cause. I hope so.
I take these drives because they take me out of my comfort zone, and because they remind me how many of our fellow Memphians need decent housing, a good education, reliable transit, real jobs, and protection from corporate polluters.
At this time of year — at any time of year, really — it's good for all of us to consider what we can do to make our hometown a better place for our fellow citizens. Find an organization that's doing good work. Give your time or your money or both. Take a drive and see what you can see.