Wednesday, January 03, 2007

In Praise of Memphis

A great blog post about Memphis can be found here:

Here's an excerpt:

Sense of Place: Many mid-size cities feel like Anytown, USA, with no distinctive sense of place or history. Memphis positively oozes its sense of place from every pore of the city, from the juke joints and hole-in-the-wall BBQ restaurants and the National Civil Rights Museum to Burke's Bookstore showcasing Southern literature and the countless art galleries showcasing Southern folk art. The colors, the smells, the architecture - everything testifies to Memphis' soul, and pays allegiance to its history. The challenge, of course, is to pay allegiance to history in a way that is not hopelessly nostalgic and reactionary, but my sense is that Memphis is self-aware about the challenge and does a better job than many other cities of embracing its past, scars and warts and all. In Memphis, I can walk down the street and feel surrounded by ghosts and memories and struggles.

A Different Kind of Beauty: Finding the beautiful in Memphis forces us to reconceptualize beauty itself. No, the beauty won't come from an architecturally dazzling new contemporary arts museum or from rolling green hills. But it will come instead from the unknown bluesman on the corner (of which there really are many), the every-one-is-unique knobs on the gates to the National Ornamental Metal Museum, the faded signs on the sides of so many abandoned buildings, and even the quasi-existential sight of more cargo planes than you can imagine loading and unloading at the Memphis International Airport in a surreal spectacle of the inner cogs of a global economy laying themselves bare. People who can find beauty in this city are unusual, idiosyncratic, and have cultivated a different way of seeing from the ordinary modern American vision - these are people I want to know, and I want to learn to see like them.

The Times They Are A-Changing: For all my griping about the cosmetic nature of downtown revitalization and the poverty of vision (or concern) regarding the zip codes where tourists never tread, there is no doubt that Memphis has transformed rather dramatically and will continue to transform itself as the years go by. This is a fascinating process to watch - how neighborhoods are built, how demographic composition changes, how cities and developers and citizens interact and negotiate and wrestle over the details of this transformation. Memphis is therefore a city that sparks imagination and vision - knowing that downtown might look completely different in 5 years, provokes us all to imagine how it will look, what it should look like, who will be touched by these changes. A professor at the University of Memphis told me that when he arrived in Memphis nearly 15 years ago, there was basically nowhere to eat but fast-food restaurants, BBQ joints, and Chinese buffets. That is a remarkable transformation indeed, and I think not just cosmetic. Wanting to experience different cuisines marks a kind of cultural curiosity and creativity that is a good sign of things to come.

The True DIY Culture: Once upon a time, I was young, stupid, and really into punk rock. (Now I am older, hopefully slightly less stupid, and more enamored of post-punk - the more things change....) The buzz acronym at the time was D.I.Y. - Do It Yourself - start your own band, write your own zine, put together your own record label, sew your own clothes, organize your own protests, blah blah blah. But really, I don't mean to mock, because for all its adolescence and narcissism and naiveté, the DIY ethic is a commendable one. And in Memphis, where cultural creativity exists, where political dissent exists, where writers and readers and artists and musicians gather - the spirit is necessarily a DIY spirit, because unless you're William Eggleston (whom I adore, just to be clear), you won't be in the national spotlight, the cultural overseers won't deign to notice you, unless they do so in a moment of extreme condescension, and you certainly won't make big bucks in this river town. But I really do think that makes the creative, artistic, and intellectual communiites of Memphis unique - uniquely self-motivated and uniquely idealistic. I've been enormously impressed by some of the people I've met in this city, struggling for all the right reasons aganst a wall of ignorance, complacency, and oblivion. Their spirit reminds me of my old adolescent idols, people I've long ceased to think about - and I really appreciate Memphis for reinvigorating that part of me and reminding me of the struggles worth fighting.

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