Tuesday, November 30, 2010


The Church of the Immaculate Conception, at Belvedere and Central.

As I've said many times before, one thing Memphis has going for it is beautiful architecture, a lot of which is in pretty bad shape (which is very captivating in its own way), but much of which has also been lovingly preserved. Some of the most striking and inspiring buildings in the city happen to be churches (at least one good byproduct of being such a Jesus Freaky city).

In my quest to document the extremes of Memphis's built environment (both the blight and the beauty), churches have to have a place. I went out on an absolutely gorgeous fall Sunday this past weekend to photograph an extremely small sampling of what Memphis has to offer. The churches I took pictures of are all in a very small area of Midtown, mostly in Central Gardens and the immediately surrounding streets. All these churches are within a mile and a half of my house, so I get to see them all the time.

Idlewild Presbyterian, corner of Union and Evergreen, my favorite of the bunch. It's also about a block from my office.

Close-up of the Church of the Immaculate Conception

Grace St. Luke's Episcopal at Belvedere and Peabody.

Union Avenue Methodist, Union and Cooper, soon to be demolished to make way for a CVS. I will refrain from editorializing.

The arches at Idlewild Presbyterian

And, as always, more pictures (and more churches) are here!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

And About

Inspired by an event in Oak Cliff, Dallas last year, where a young man convinced a bunch of people to come to a decrepit and crumbling block and imagine its possibilities, a friend of mine made a similar thing happen this weekend in Memphis. Broad Avenue, about one block east of where Midtown ends, is a gold mine waiting to happen. Home to a few art galleries, one bar, which happens to be one of my favorites in Memphis, and a couple of restaurants, it's primarily full of empty warehouses that border an ugly industrial area. At night it gets very dark indeed.

A New Face for an Old Broad brought together people from all over the city, including already well-established restaurants and cafes to transform Broad Avenue into a thriving urban street full of retail, galleries, music, cafes, bike lanes, people, and life. At least for a weekend. The idea is to get people to see a mostly abandoned area's potential to support business and encourage street life. Apparently so far it's been very successful. My friend who originally got the ball rolling on this endeavor is already eyeing other strips of crumbling eyesores around Midtown to get the makeover treatment.

Tom with our friends John and Michael. Aren't they cute?

I am loving Memphis right now. The air is so clean and fresh. The temperatures are perfect. The trees are bursting urgently with luminous colors. Everyone is in such a good mood. I also went to the Memphis College of Art's holiday bazaar this morning. Naturally I couldn't afford anything there, but it was super fun to go browse. I did buy one dry-mounted photograph from a series a guy did of an abandoned falling-down theater somewhere in the city. Not sure where it was, but the pictures were beautiful.

After Broad Avenue, I went running with John and Michael on the Memphis Greenline to continue to take advantage of the perfect day. There were so many people out. And I ran 6 miles without stopping!! So far (in my life) my record has been about 4. And it wasn't even that hard. I really like having some running buddies who won't let me quit when I start complaining that my legs are hurting. It felt like an accomplishment, and one that I didn't even set out to do.

Tonight we're going to a birthday party, and tomorrow I'm leaving first thing for Nashville for the Tennessee Counselor's Association annual conference. I'm really looking forward to that!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Memphis Blight pt 2 (Hickory Hill)

My friend Dmitry and I decided today to go out and take some photographs of Memphis. I don't think we necessarily intended to go photograph a bunch of apocalyptic blight, but that's how it turned out. We spent about 2 hours in Hickory Hill, in southeast Memphis.

Hickory Hill has about 65,000 residents and was once its own independent city. In the late 90's it got incorporated into Memphis, and as history has shown over and over in this city, that caused a great deal of white flight, and the neighborhoods, and subsequently the city, went downhill. Its demographics now echo, pretty closely, the rest of Memphis, with the African American population there about 60%. Supposedly it also has the highest Hispanic population of any neighborhood in the city.

Never having been there, it felt pretty solidly middle class and suburban to me. Most of the streets we drove down reminded me of the ranch-style, 1980's-era homes of the neighborhoods in my hometown. Most striking, though, were enormous apartment complexes that had been lost to fire or simple abandonment, often sitting there rotting in the middle of otherwise perfectly benign suburban streets. I've attached some pictures here. Many more can be found at my Flickr site in my Memphis set which I hope to be adding to on a pretty regular basis. With nice stuff too, not just ugly blight.

Habitat For Humanity is building a huge subdivision next door to this acres-wide eyesore.

You see a lot of these on abandoned buildings in Memphis.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Yummy Soup

I've taken lately to reading the blog Poor Girl Eats Well, which I really appreciate the ingenuity of, but it also seems like she uses a lot of moderately poor and processed ingredients in her recipes. They also tend to be heavily meat-based, thereby eliminating many of them right away, as Tom is a vegetarian. Sometimes, though, I'll stumble across one that is extremely delicious, like this one, for a spicy, white bean and beef soup.

Tom and I made it tonight, replacing the beef with Yves Meatless Ground Round, which is probably not especially good for you, but once in awhile it's fine. We also added considerably more kale than she calls for (1 cup; we put in a whole plateful), and replaced the amaranth with quinoa, since neither of us even knew what amaranth was, and naturally our grocery store didn't have any anyway. But the quinoa was fine, and I love quinoa anyway and have been trying to incorporate more of it into my diet.

But the soup is incredibly easy to prepare, cooks quickly, even with the grains, and is DELICIOUS!! It's very thick and hearty, and with just enough spice to have a really nice kick, but not make it impossible to eat. Soup usually doesn't do it for me, and I have to supplement it with some heavy carbs or a giant dessert. Some crusty bread would be great with this soup, but we didn't have any on hand, so some Trader Joe's Whole Grain and Flaxseed crackers went splendidly with it, as we did have those in the pantry. It would be enough by itself, though.

I heartily recommend this warm, satisfying, easy, very nutritious soup. And the portions in the recipe make a gigantic pot. I'll definitely be able to take this to lunch the next 2 days.

Ours looked even more delicious than this one!

Monday, November 08, 2010

I thought I was someone new, someone good

Lou Reed directed the video for Susan Boyle's version of "Perfect Day." That is one of my very favorite songs of all time, and while I don't love the Boyle version, I do think the video is pretty spectacular. Really fits well with the sort of ethereal take on the song, too.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Memphis Blight

Memphis has an estimated 8,000 vacant and abandoned properties within the city limits. Most of these are homes (or apartment buildings) that are unsecured, crumbling, have overgrown lots, and naturally, are magnets for crime. These things keep neighborhoods oppressed (what businesses or people are going to move next door to something like the above, in Midtown Memphis?), property values down, and crime high. Blight is a major factor in inhibiting Memphis's growth, including by keeping crime at ridiculous levels.

New Memphis mayor AC Wharton has a plan. For the last year he has been working with Memphis's top attorneys to bring Memphis back as a true city of destination. Memphis loses, on average, 5 people with college degrees every day. One of the first things he did was appoint a Bike Czar, and pledged to build 60 miles of bike lanes all over the city in the next 2 years, many of which have already started appearing around the University of Memphis neighborhoods. He has lobbied for and received millions in federal grant money to boost public transit availability in the inner city, which now pretty much stands at third-world levels. As opposed to focusing on "regionalism" and the erroneous belief that investing in the region makes the inner city grow (when in fact it is just the opposite: investing in the inner city makes the region grow. You can't have healthy suburbs without a healthy city), he is wholly focused on Memphis, and Midtown in particular.

Last week he announced a very ambitious plan to combat blight, by a first-wave rollout of hundreds of lawsuits to property owners who have let their buildings and lots deteriorate. The Memphis Flyer has an excellent article this week on his efforts. Many of those are lobbied against Wells Fargo, which owns hundreds of properties around the city due to foreclosures and has left them completely neglected, as well as not paid thousands and thousands of back taxes on any of them, depriving the city of much-needed (and deserved) tax revenue.

Though it didn't see the kind of price spikes that occurred in cities in the so-called sand states of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida, Memphis has been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis. The city has filed suit against Wells Fargo, claiming that the lending giant engaged in predatory practices against African Americans and damaged the city's property-tax income.

The foreclosure crisis, combined with the economic downturn and negligent owners, has led to blighted properties all over the city. In the last 10 years, more than 80,000 foreclosure notices have been served in Memphis, with maybe half of those resulting in actual foreclosures. There are 8,000 vacant properties in the city, as well as 13,000 vacant lots.

In the mostly African-American neighborhood of Frayser, in North Memphis, the foreclosure crisis has hit very hard. Entire city blocks up there have been abandoned and left to rot, and consequently crime has skyrocketed in that part of town. My own landlord is Executive Director of Frayser CDC, which buys foreclosed properties and flips them (my own current rental home is a foreclosed property, though it's in Cooper-Young) is quoted in the article:

Steve Lockwood, executive director of the Frayser CDC, buys foreclosed properties with the hope that he can get to them before they fall into total disrepair.

"We do foreclosure counseling to try to keep people in their houses. We're absolutely adamant about that," Lockwood said. "But once they come up empty, they've got to be dealt with."

And more empty homes means more blight. As the number of foreclosed homes has increased, the Frayser CDC has had to keep pace. According to Lockwood, they've redeveloped as many houses in the past year as they have in the last seven years.

In his quest to move dispossessed families back into homes, Lockwood often struggles to identify the legal owners of property.

"We've just done one really nice house, and there's a comparable house right next to it that is empty and in foreclosure," he said. "But we can't find anybody who claims to be the owner. In the meantime, we've got an abandoned place that is unsecured, and the yard is waist high. We've got a nice little house next door that we've put a lease-purchase person in. It's a problem."

Over the next year, Mayor Wharton plans to serve hundreds more lawsuits to individual owners (many of which live out of state) and to Wells Fargo. Thank god. Having only been in Memphis a short time, so far it has impressed upon me as being a city with a lot of problems, and is often very scary and intimidating. But it's also a city I've already grown to become very fond of, and it seems to have a lot of potential. Midtown Memphis, where I live, is composed almost entirely of historic neighborhoods, with so much beautiful old brick architecture, and homes, and wide, tree-lined boulevards. The people are so nice and accomodating, and if this city could only retain and attract more young people willing to invest in its long-term livability, I really think Memphis could become a world-class city again. I truly believe that. There is enough diversity, culture and history here to make it attractive to all kinds of people. And as of now, at least, the cost of living is astonishingly low (especially after living in Austin and Portland).

I will write more soon on some of the other grass-roots efforts around the city to make it simply a nicer and more progressive place to live and be. I also want to start a little photo-blog to showcase some of Memphis's more beautiful architecture and design, so much of which is mid-century art deco, and old, early century southern architecture. (For more on this, my friend Dmitry, who just moved here from San Francisco, has some interesting posts, also from the perspective of a non-Southerner who'd never even been to the South before. Check out his blog: true grit.)