Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Guest Editorial: RDC disregards our heritage

Commercial Appeal

Guest columnist John E. Harkins is author of "Metropolis of the American Nile: An Illustrated History of Memphis and Shelby County" and a history teacher at Memphis University School.

Our environment and our history do define Memphis and Memphians. Why then has no in-depth sense of our city's history been factored into the debate over the future of the riverfront?

In the Riverfront Development Corp.'s plan to develop a four-block section of the promenade property, there is no evidence that the RDC has ever sought input from professional historians versed in local lore. Nor has the RDC requested advice or support from leading local history groups.Several years ago, long before three skyscrapers became part of its plan for the portion of Front Street between Union and Adams avenues, RDC president Benny Lendermon told the Shelby County Historical Commission that the proposed redevelopment's watchword would be "authenticity."

But his presentation demonstrated that the RDC was giving virtually no consideration to Memphis's past, and not one of the 30-odd members of the commission expressed anything other than disdain for the plan. Earlier this year, the commission voted unanimously to oppose the RDC's proposal.

Memphis Heritage, the city's major historic preservation group, also is on record as opposing much of the plan. The West Tennessee Historical Society and the Descendants of Early Settlers of Shelby County both have resolved to resist what they view as the RDC's blatant disregard for our heritage.

Those three groups alone far outnumber the 300 citizens who the RDC boasts have attended its public hearings on the promenade proposal. I am confident that if historians had been consulted, the RDC would have received strong recommendations that no imposing modern structures should be built on the promenade; certainly, it would be unthinkable for any historian of competence and conscience to endorse the construction of three skyscrapers there.

Much of our city's history is associated with the promenade property that occupies the area between Front and Riverside Drive.

Before Memphis's proprietors donated the riverfront easement, a trading post and blockhouse stood there during the Revolutionary War. In the mid-1790s, portions of Spain's Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas, the first permanent settlement on the site of Memphis, extended across the promenade. The city's first business buildings appear atop the bluff in Charles-Alexandre Lesueur's 1828 drawings.

In the 1850s and '60s, thousands of Memphians flocked to the promenade to observe the "marriage of the waters" ceremony that marked the opening of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad and the Civil War's naval Battle of Memphis.

In the battle's aftermath, Federal troops occupied the city and began the systematic freeing of the area's enslaved African-Americans.

Black Memphians contributed mightily to the city's economy by working on the promenade as draymen and roustabouts. They transported, loaded and unloaded steamboat cargoes. More important for the city's survival, black militiamen encamped on promenade land while they preserved order through the city's worst yellow fever epidemic in 1878.

The Cossitt family's gift of a library gave Memphis its cultural heart and later, in the 1920s, provided an intellectual stimulus for noted black novelist Richard Wright.

Many Memphians, black and white, observed the 1892 opening of the Frisco Bridge from the promenade. Several national reunions of Confederate veterans were held at what later became Confederate and Jefferson Davis parks. Casey Jones began his immortal journey from the railroad station at Poplar Avenue and Front.

Of course, listing these few events barely touches the surface of the promenade's historic importance.

The RDC argues that private development of the public promenade is warranted because the area has become blighted and because construction of existing buildings has set a precedent for violating the terms of its donation to the citizens.

This position begs two questions: Who allowed the area to become so rundown? Who pushed through construction of the post office, library, fire station and two parking garages? In both instances, the answer is city government.

Further, all such encroachments on the land took place before the end of the Crump regime, when plain citizens had almost no say in civic affairs. Do we really want that condescending, plantation mentality to govern Memphis in the 21st Century?

Memphis politicos and blue-ribbon commissions seem to believe that some sort of large-scale construction project is our best solution for every problem. Often it is not. Our history demonstrates that many grandiose schemes have stuck taxpayers with financing a veritable herd of white elephants.

This brief historical review does not even broach several practical considerations that also should concern us. Along with its esthetics, the RDC's proposal raises issues of law, economics, engineering and environmental effects that need full exploration. They should be weighed against the more modest enhancements proposed for the public promenade in two 1980s studies, including the 1987 Center City Development Plan that has been adopted by Friends for Our Riverfront. Either of those proposals would cost only a fraction of the amount required for the RDC's redevelopment plan.

And in the unlikely possibility that the RDC's proposals could deliver everything the agency hopes for, shouldn't Memphis citizens be allowed to decide the issue? Considering the RDC's claims of public support for such an expensive proposal of such dubious merit, it should favor putting the plan up for a referendum on the November election ballot.

John E. Harkins is a former archivist for Memphis and Shelby County, a former member of the Shelby County Historical Commission, and former president of the West Tennessee Historical Society and the Descendants of Early Settlers of Shelby County.

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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