The Economist: The whims of the fathers
By Suzi Parker
When you have a great big brawling river like the Mississippi running past your town, it is only sensible to make something of it. So when John Overton, Andrew Jackson (the country's seventh president) and James Winchester founded Memphis, Tennessee, in the early 19th century, they proclaimed that development along the banks should never impede free access to a panoramic view of the river. And they even said that changes along a designated promenade could not be made without their heirs' approval.
City officials these days find these stipulations quaint. The founding fathers of Memphis obviously had no idea how much the city would need to grow and how much it would want, eventually, to have a vibrant riverfront like those in St Louis and New Orleans. Already, the Memphis promenade has shrunk to about half its original size because of unstructured development. What is not garages or ugly slapped-up buildings is often just a stretch of muddy grass with graffiti-covered litter bins.
Now the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), a non-profit organisation, has voted to approve a new plan, which would re-open some of this land and return stunning views of the river to water-lovers. It would also feature new 30-storey buildings, with flats and boutiques, that will inevitably block some views of the river that the founders wanted to conserve. Still, as the RDC points out, revitalisation breeds consumers, who will enjoy the river all the more while sipping on a gourmet coffee and chatting with friends.
The plan has split the city. Preservationists worry that once dollars start pouring into the project, development will know no bounds. Instead of grass and mud, the river area will become a concrete wonderland; and those glorious sunsets, looking over the river to sprawling Arkansas, will be seen on postcards only. Virginia McLean, the leader of a preservation group called Friends for Our Riverfront, believes open green space better suits Memphis's future than yet more concrete and steel; and, as an Overton heir, she will have a big say in what happens. But other members of the family, who live in Nashville, think more modern buildings are just what Memphis needs.
The Memphis city council casts its votes on the plan this month. Whatever happens, it will probably end up in court, and legal arguments are likely to rage over the actual meaning in the founding fathers' minds of the word "promenade". In fact, when the trio bestowed an easement to the land in 1828, they made sure that the land should be public for "such use only as the word 'promenade' imports".
Perhaps they knew all too well the changeable minds of Memphis citizens. A stroll away from the embattled promenade stands the 13-year-old, $65m Pyramid, built in homage to the Egyptian variety, which was meant to be the region's main sports and concert arena. Now its future is in doubt; attention has shifted to new multi-million-dollar sporting and music facilities only a few blocks away, in another revitalised part of town, where historic buildings have been razed to make room for the new. There is every chance that, in another ten years, the RDC's sparkling apartments and shops overlooking the Mississippi will face the same bleak future as the once-loved Pyramid.
Copyright 2004, The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.
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