Opinion » The Rant

The “G” Word

Let’s not confuse “revitalize” with “gentrify.”

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Sears Crosstown rendering
  • Sears Crosstown rendering

Last week was a busy one for Midtown news. To recap: Parkway Grill and those delicious chicken pitas are history, hopefully not for good. YoLo is moving west to make room for a restaurant at the southeast corner of Madison and Cooper. Crosstown Concourse's apartment units, the "Parcels," are available for pre-lease and will be ready in December. And the Greensward debate might finally be settled? I'll believe that one when I see it.

More changes are on the way. Some seem exciting, others just "ehhhh." I'm not sure all of them are good ideas, but I'm willing to wait and see. I've heard reactions to the Overton Square and Crosstown news that were far less measured, with terms like "overpriced" and "bullshit" and even the dreaded "G word" bandied about.

Whoa there. I had no idea y'all were so passionate about your frozen yogurt. You'd think Pho Binh was being replaced with an artisan mayonnaise boutique or something, the way some people were carrying on. Now THAT would be a crisis.

Let's not conflate revitalization with gentrification. Not while we're trying to compensate for a half-century of population loss and alleviate poverty in the poorest metro in the country.

We need Midtown, and Memphis as a whole, to thrive. Yes, authenticity is important. We strive to support and uplift local businesses. We also need safety and good schools and other public goods that cost money. These needs are hard to fulfill in a city that's full of renters but relies on property taxes. Memphis the metropolitan area spans three states, but Memphis the city only collects sales taxes in one of them (Think about that when you drive to the outlet mall).

I digress. Go to smartcitymemphis.com — they explain this stuff better than I can.

I used to think Midtown was so much more fun when I was in my 20s. Really, my nostalgia was more for the plot of my 20s than the setting. I do miss Square Foods, when it was in the space the Bayou now occupies. I miss the old Hi-Tone. I miss seeing bands at the Deli. I miss the Republic Coffee that was on Madison. Everything else I loved is still around, though. Some things have moved or improved. Some are harder to get to, but that's because the empty and abandoned places have been replaced by other nice things for all kinds of people to enjoy. Yes, "all kinds" should — and does — include people who live outside of zip code 38104.

Rent was $500, split two ways, for the 2BR/1BA duplex near the Piggly Wiggly (better known to y'all new-to-town folks as "Cash Saver") where I used to live in the early 2000s. It was much bigger than the entry-level Crosstown Parcel, which is $874. Unlike a Crosstown Parcel, it didn't include wifi or a washer and dryer or a gym membership or a functioning stove. Like most things that are cheap, it was that way for a reason. The place was falling apart. Literally crumbling. What it lacked in amenities, it made up in "quirks" and experiences that would hopefully inspire a novel or at least an interesting chapter or two in my memoir.

Nearly every element of old-house charm had been painted over or sealed off to exempt the landlord from having to maintain it. I had to screw plywood boards to my window air conditioning unit so it would fit in the one window that opened. The hardwood floors were probably gorgeous at some point, before they were painted black.

The downstairs neighbors were a family of four hearing-impaired insomniacs who hated each other's guts. Their favorite activities were yelling at each other and watching network television at top volume; often they did both at once. Vonage was running that commercial with The 5.6.7.8's "Woo Hoo," and I swear it aired 100 times a day, double that on my days off. To this day I clench my teeth and fists whenever I hear that song.

The house was boarded up not long after we moved out. It's still there, probably waiting for a fire or perhaps a strong gust of wind to put it out of its misery.

The character of Midtown hasn't changed much, but little improvements like "not letting that entertainment district wither away completely" and "finally doing something about that dormant 1.5 million square foot building" seem to be working out OK so far. Housing demand is increasing as more people want to move in than to leave. New apartments are being built for the first time in years, and the market will decide whether the prices are right. Meanwhile, let's hold off on throwing around words like "gentrification" — at least until the mayonnaise store opens.

Jen Clarke is an unapologetic Memphian and a digital marketing specialist.

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