Monday, March 19, 2007

From: at home she feels like a tourist

What should fill those empty buildings?

Since I live in downtown Memphis, I watch the developments and changes in that part of Memphis with particular interest. Sometimes I actually feel vaguely guilty about this; I realize that downtown is where the money is, where the expensive condos are, where the tourists are, where the boutiques and upscale restaurants and shiny beautiful people are. And the reflexively guttersnipe part of me (the Clash once sang that the truth is only known by guttersnipes, after all) wants to scoff at much of this, at this shiny veneer that Memphis hopes to present to its tourists while ignoring the desperation, despair, and decrepitude of its less desirable zip codes. Nonetheless, earlier today, yet again I found myself giddily excited over the latest addition announced to downtown: a pastry and coffee shop in the core of downtown.

So if I may be allowed to indulge my downtown-ism for a minute: for all the talk of revitalization, much of downtown Memphis remains abandoned and empty. The overgrown lots and warehouses testify to nature's inevitable revenge against everything artificial and manmade in her midst. While I find urban decay oddly beautiful in its own right, particularly when armed with a camera, my desire for bustling streets and welcoming storefronts typically outweighs my romanticization of decay. But still, I worry that our eagerness for something, anything to occupy those buildings will overwhelm our critical reception of new developments.

For example: the development of downtown, apart from residential development, has consisted predominantly of new restaurants and bars; retail lags behind. Does this mean we should dream of Gaps and Banana Republics and Hot Topics and Blockbusters and Foot Lockers filling the streets of downtown Memphis? When I pose the question like this, the answer seems so obvious: of course not. Naturally I favor independent businesses and local entrepreneurs and establishments with some genuine connection to the city and the neighborhood. Yet given the vastness of decay and abandonment, and the achingly slow development of retail in downtown, would I necessarily oppose the arrival of some predictable but reliably popular chain store in downtown Memphis? That is a tougher question to answer. In SF, I certainly would have opposed almost any chain store that set its sights on a well-travelled corner in one of my favorite old neighborhoods. But one can easily afford the luxury of opposing chain stores in a place like SF with a thriving street life and a thriving independent business culture. Can we afford the same luxury in a struggling and scarred city like Memphis?

Apart from Peabody Place, the world's most useless mall, with all 3.2 of its shops, and the American Apparel down in South Main, downtown Memphis does retain a certain independent charm. No doubt this is the independence of necessity rather than the independence of a defiant anti-chain spirit, but all the same, when I walk from one end of downtown Memphis to the other, I pass very few of the Usual Suspects, and that helps downtown Memphis to maintain a distinctive sense of place. Can a genuinely revitalized downtown Memphis maintain that independence? Can we support retail coming to downtown Memphis without homogenizing it via the Usual Suspects? What should - and what shouldn't - fill all those empty buildings?

posted by fearlessvk

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