MEMPHIS, Tenn.—Danny Thomas Boulevard is technically State Highway One which runs the full breadth of Tennessee and cuts a deep north/south trench through Memphis. Highways are important. They connect towns and cities and facilitate commerce and all the rest. We need them. But in the center of a city they can be designed well or poorly. Danny Thomas isn’t great. I’m being kind here. It’s actually a death trap and I almost died crossing it on foot.
Now, I’m going to skip ahead for a moment to the larger issue here. Almost no one cares about this stuff. Not in Memphis. Not in Tennessee. Not in 99 percent of North America. It’s just not on most people’s radar. Almost everyone drives everywhere nearly all the time and there’s very little thought given to how to get around any other way. The people in this landscape who aren’t in cars are… inconsequential. And even the smallest attempts to create safer more convenient accommodations for pedestrians and cyclists are met with a chorus of complaints about the war on private vehicles and social engineering. So why bother bringing up the subject?
I was attending a professional gathering that was focused on how to revitalize a collection of half dead neighborhoods that were right on the edge of downtown Memphis just on the other side of Danny Thomas. It’s a simple formula. Neither the aspiring working class nor the comfortably middle class will choose to live in this part of the city in its present condition. It needs a lot of love. And the kind of neighborhood that it once was (and might be again) isn’t about green lawns and tidy suburban cul-de-sacs. Any attempt to make it so will fail. Right now most of Memphis is a formerly livable place that’s been bulldozed into submission. Genuinely desirable suburbs exist farther out, but Memphis proper can’t compete in that regard even if it wanted to.
For decades whole chunks of Memphis were removed and replaced with grass and parking lots. The state and federal government provided generous funding to build new highways and the city chose routes that erased the oldest, poorest, and most blighted neighborhoods. It made sense at the time. And additional demolition efforts continued block by block until large sections of Memphis came to resemble abandoned rural villages. That was the plan. But greening up the ghetto had some unanticipated side effects. Grass and parking lots don’t pay taxes or employ people. The city now finds itself in need of jobs and revenue and its most valuable untapped resource is vacant land near the urban core.
In order to successfully reinvent itself Memphis needs to appeal to the portion of the population that actually likes living downtown. The percentage of people who want to live in an urban environment may be small, but there are so few really good options in the larger region that Memphis could draw in a serious number of people. Good urbanism is about building wealth for the city and the people who inhabit it. But the neighborhoods need to provide genuinely good urbanism. That doesn’t include playing Frogger to cross Danny Thomas.
I want to take you back to my walk. This aerial view provides perspective. Danny Thomas is essentially a limited access divided highway with a series of on and off ramps and high speed flyovers. I’m going to use Google street view images to demonstrate my route as a pedestrian.
This is the moment when the regular sidewalk of the older neighborhood morphed into a highway on ramp. The obvious safe route was to follow the sidewalk down, not try and cross the road onto the grassy median amid high speed cars.
There’s an oddly placed set of stairs and handicap accessible ramps on the side of a landscaped berm between roadways that lead to an incongruously located light rail stop. This might have made sense to engineers in a distant office building during the planning phase. But on the ground it’s the least welcoming or pragmatic spot for transit and the most expensive infrastructure for badly accommodating humans. No one who ever walks anywhere would design an arrangement like this. It’s just a collection of disconnected items off a list of requirements from the Department of Transportation textbooks. When I see things like this I tend to agree with the folks who reject public transit as a waste of money. It doesn’t have to be, but when it’s done this poorly it’s worse than no transit at all.
Further down the sidewalk things simply end. There’s no way to cross the highway without risking your life.
Only after I walked down to the edge of the highway did I see the pedestrian bridge, but there was no way to reach it from the road. The bridge connected one desolate landscaped parking lot to another desolate landscaped parking lot. The engineering brief for this project must have read something like this:
Make it physically possible to walk over the highway even if the path is completely obscure and pedestrians need to walk half a mile out of their way on each side of the road. Make it really unpleasant for old ladies carrying grocery bags and parents with little kids and strollers. And as an added bonus, try and make women feel threatened at night.
I noticed bike lanes were installed on the sides of Danny Thomas. But… really? WTF? This is the worst imaginable place to be a cyclist. Again, no one who rides a bike would ever consider putting bike lanes here. It makes no sense. As a culture we’ve lost our ability to create high functioning, beautiful, rewarding urban environments. Even when an effort is made in Memphis it’s just … wrong.
There was a time when Memphis knew how to build great urban places. There are vestiges that survive to show the way. My hope is that Memphis can revive the lost art of city making. The market exists for the right kind of quality urban environment. Private capital is ready to be deployed. There are people who would love to live in the best parts of what’s left of old Memphis if the gaps and bare patches are filled in properly. But if the usual suspects are left in charge it’s just going to be easier for folks to move to a different city that does this sort of thing better. No one in Germantown, Cordova, or Whitehaven will care if downtown disappears entirely. They’ll keep driving by along Danny Thomas on the way to someplace else.
John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. He blogs at Granola Shotgun, where this post originally appeared. Johnny provides additional coverage of Memphis, including “the flowering of some of [the city’s] historic neighborhoods.”