Volume 74, Number 24 | Octuber 13 - 19 , 2004

Talking Point

Goin’ back to Memphis, a new downtown embryo

By Andrei Codrescu

Memphis has one of those embryonic downtowns that will make investors rich in 10 years. New townhouses overlook the Mississippi River and the trademark Pyramid, and there are high-rise condos where single professionals or retired suburbanites-come-back-to-the-city can admire sunsets through a cocktail glass or face the sunrise with honest hangovers. There is a streetcar that takes people to their jobs in the morning and brings them home in the evening. Most of the week in the daytime they just rattle around empty waiting for the future. On weekends the city puts on festivals with crafts, music and food. The homeless feel threatened by tourists so they don’t come out anymore until Monday morning when it’s their town again. Eventually, Memphis will go back 70 years when its downtown was glorious and cultural, and that’s when the future will begin to pay off like a slot machine.

Downtown Baton Rouge is trying something along those lines. So is Tacoma, Wash. So is Milwaukee, Wisc. So are dozens of other municipalities in the U.S. There are differences between them, but here are the similarities: they are all trying to return to the golden age of their best undemolished buildings; they are all turning back to the river or the lake and dreaming of public promenades and boardwalks; they all see festivals as essential to bringing people back from their ex-urban caves; they are all betting on the young and the old who need density, culture and public transportation.

In the past, many cities failed to revive their wasted downtowns, but they are learning. In Memphis, the first riverfront townhouses were offered at incredibly cheap prices. In Milwaukee a breathtakingly beautiful new art museum magnetizes the whole lakefront. Add to that public transportation, several grocery stores and pharmacies, art galleries and one ill-lit street zoned for all-night entertainment, and you can have your city back. All it takes is faith and cash. I’m no genius at business, but making a fortune in embryonic downtowns is a no-brainer if you’ve got a decade or so.

Codrescu wrote “Wakefield,” a novel


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