Sunday, January 10, 2010

Chris Peck: Save The Best Of The Past For Future

©photo courtesy of The W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Group
Revisionist History Or Heritage? Forrest's Equestrian Statue Faces South With 'Old Glory' (U.S. Flag) In Background...

By Chris Peck
Memphis Commercial Appeal

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Today the newspaper starts a week-long look back at the decade.

Publications all over the world will employ the reverse telescope this week. Editors ask the staff to look back, get some stories done in advance, so people can be off during the holidays when the news cycle slows down between Christmas and New Year's.

December 2009 offers a solid peg on which to hang these look backs. The decade odometer clicks over to a new 10 on Friday. This affords all of us an opportunity to take stock of where we've come from and where we've been these last 10 years.

Note to self: Clean out your closet and get rid of those early 2000 fashions. Recycle the big box computer down in the basement. It's not worth anything. Remember that your children are now 10 years older than they were in 2000 and need to be treated that way.

It's so Memphis -- this focus on looking back.

We're a city where the past not only lives large, but seemingly grows larger by the decade and by design.

In the first full week of January, the city will celebrate the 75th birthday of Elvis. Yeah, the King would be a geezer this year. Except in our Memphis minds he's still 21.

And the world is right there with us. Already, more than 40 international journalists have visited Memphis to prep for the birthday celebration. Downtown hotels are all but booked solid with visitors coming to the 75th birthday bash.

Old man Elvis is still making money and drawing tourists to the city. Daughter Lisa Marie and wife Priscilla will be in town to accept the city's proclamation of Elvis Presley Day on Jan. 8. Elvis fans will fill seats at a Memphis Grizzlies game that weekend. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra will play an Elvis Birthday Pops concert.

If truth were to be confronted, the record would show Elvis died in 1977. But that's a trifle, not reason enough to stop celebrating, remembering and planning for how the past can live vibrantly into the future.

Memphis is good at gussying up the past. It soothes the community 's psyche in a lot of ways.

The National Civil Rights Museum, which is built around the motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated 41 years ago, is getting a facelift beginning next year. An estimated $15 million will be spent sprucing up the exhibits and adding new electronic displays to the museum.

The city's first church, founded more than 180 years ago, burned down in 2006. The congregation at United First Methodist actually dwindled down to precious few years before that. No matter. The oldest church is being rebuilt on the same spot it has occupied since 1892. That's a Memphis thing -- even though the city has dozens of vacant or underutilized churches.

And you recall old coach Gene Bartow, right? He led the Memphis State Tigers to the Final Four -- more than 36 years ago. But it seemed like only yesterday to basketball fans who cheered wildly at the FedExForum the other night when Bartow, now 79 and battling cancer, got a well-deserved moment under the lights.

But here's a question Memphis needs to answer: Is all this building on the past, glorifying the past, recalling the past at every opportunity, actually preparing the city for the future?

It's kind of the Chick-fil-A question -- but on a bigger scale.

This past August, the Chick-fil-A fast food chain got major kudos for only tearing down 99 percent of the historic Cumberland Presbyterian Center on Union Avenue. They left 1 percent of the facade standing, and put chairs and tables beside it so that those dining on a chicken sandwich could still get a flavor of the old center's past.

But in fact, the center is gone, replaced by a fast food outlet. Memphis traded a religious center for a chicken sandwich.

Was this a good outcome? A bad one? A Memphis special?

The question of what to preserve from the past, and forget vexes Memphis all the time.

Some people get all worked up, honestly, about saving supposed icons that really aren't: Overton Square, the Mid-South Coliseum, the memorial to Nathan Bedford Forrest. These relics from earlier times don't give Memphis much to build on and don't have compelling aesthetic or historic value. OK, we can argue about Forrest.

At the same time, some of what truly is memorable about Memphis can't get a break and languishes year after year. The Sterrick Building; Victorian Village, a remake of the riverfront. OK, we can argue about that last one, too.

It's not just about what old buildings should, or shouldn't be saved. The challenge in Memphis is to think less sentimentally about all that is in the past, and begin to think much more strategically about the Memphis of the future.

Save the stuff that will have meaning in 50 years. Elvis. The Civil Rights Museum. Arguably, The Pyramid.

But don't get weighted down by the stuff that had it's time and needs to be improved, or simply let go.

Chris Peck is editor of The Commercial Appeal. Contact him at 901-529-2390 or at

See also...
The Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest Historical Society

For More Related Information On The Legacy of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest & The Forrest Park Controversy On W.E. A.L.L. B.E. News:

View W.E. A.L.L. B.E. TV Special...The Shame Of A City: The Forrest Park Controversy

An Artivist Remembers…The Grand Old School & The Grand Ol’ Wizard: Wash U. & Gen. Forrest

Monumental Battle: The Genesis Of The Forrest Park Controversy...

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