December 2011 Archives

Views of Memphis, 1887 to 2011, 'an unpredictable hodgepodge'

The Atlantic Cities has today a fascinating collection of side-by-side then-and-now photographs of Memphis, then being 1887, after the city had lost its charter in the wake of the yellow fever epidemics. There have been some constants over time, including Court Square, which the writer says "still serves as a simple and inviting public space in the center of its historic downtown." Changes for the worse include "consistently inconsistent building patterns" (hulking modern government buildings sandwiching historic Trinity Lutheran Church) and "isolated housing projects" "that fail to integrate themselves into the city's street grid."

Even as a mid-sized market, Memphis' downtown and inner city is unexpectedly small and lacking in density. The central business district has retained much of its building stock and has slowly built up over time. But as you move north, south, east or west, the change is dramatic.

Much of the city's downtown has evolved into an unpredictable hodgepodge of surface lots and low-density residential developments (a surprising proportion of it public housing). Memphis has maintained its economic importance thanks to its transportation infrastructure but its growth has failed to improve the urban condition of its core.

The promo spot came out today for a new Cooking Channel show called "Cheap Bites," starring chef and food writer Eddie Huang. The show premieres at 7 p.m. CST on Sunday, Jan. 1. Among locales Huang will visit on his quest is Memphis, according to a spiel that came from the network a few months ago:

NYC Chef and outspoken food writer Eddie Huang takes viewers on a road trip to find America's best food deals. From free pizza in NY, to donuts that only cost a quarter in Memphis, Tennessee, Eddie will show us where the best cheap bites are found.

Note that the promo clip doesn't use Cooking Channel's usual tagline construction, which in this case would be: "He's Eddie Huang, and he's always looking for new ways to stay cheap." Probably a good idea to try something new.

Some are pegging Huang as the new Anthony Bourdain, or Rachael Ray's "$40 a Day" with "more urban flair."
In a press release announcing the release of the new report "Impact 2011: Examining a Year of Catastrophes Through the Lens of Resiliency," the nonprofit advocacy group Federal Alliance for Safe Homes gave Memphis the poorest marks of four cities based on how quickly each would recover in the event of a severe earthquake. Earthquake-prone Los Angeles ranks first, and the other two are Seattle and Charleston.

In the modeled case study of these four cities, all located on major U.S. fault lines, Los Angeles (not the smaller cities) would fare the best on a relative basis because it's a better-built environment with stronger seismic building codes and practices. Conversely, Memphis, would experience average building damage ratios eight times larger* than that of LA, and would experience nearly eight times the rate of fatal injuries.

Why?  In natural disasters of any kind, it's all about resiliency or the ability of a community to survive and then bounce back from disaster --- and resiliency is directly related to the quality of the built environment, building codes and record of enforcement.

* Blogger's emphasis added.

Plasma torch toothbrush to be tested in Memphis

According to this item posted this afternoon on the Popular Science website, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis will be the site of clinical trials on a promising new dental device: the plasma torch toothbrush. It might sound scary -- plasma is a state of matter that includes stuff like the surface of the sun, lightning bolts and superhero energy beams -- but it needn't be. PopSci even has a picture of what it calls "the World's Bravest Dentist" firing a beam into his own mouth.

Some background, for anyone who doesn't subscribe to Dentistry Illustrated Weekly: the plasma brush isn't a toothbrush, but actually a tool dentists are hoping to use for two primary situations. The first is breaking up plaque; the plasma torch, though it's no hotter than room temperature, is excellent at breaking the bonds that adhere plaque to a tooth. The second is as a sort of primer for filling cavities.

On Andrew Sullivan's The View From Your Window: Downtown Memphis

In the ongoing The View From Your Window Contest on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Beast blog, a photo of a narrow skyscraper alongside a cobblestone-paved trolley line drew a number of incorrect guesses as to which city was pictured: Portland, Ore.? Nope. Charlotte? Nope. It's Memphis. The Main Street Trolley line and the D.T. Porter Building along Court Square are pictured in a shot taken from the sixth floor of the Sleep Inn.

view.jpg Read all the excerpts of user comments on Sullivan's post. People did remarkable work with search engines and Google Earth images to solve the riddle.

Cincinnati remembers 1865 Sultana disaster at Memphis

HO.jpg The Cincinnati Enquirer's website ran today an account of the 1865 explosion that sank the steamer Sultana. It turns out the Sultana had been built in Cincinnati, and that Ohioans accounted for the greatest number of dead, most of whom were Union soldiers returning home from the war.

Most of Cincinnati was sleeping at 2 a.m. April 27 - 18 days after Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va. That's when the Sultana, overloaded with soldiers returning home and steaming up the Mississippi River, exploded into flames and went down near Memphis.

No one is sure how many died that night, when the Sultana's overworked boilers exploded. But the U.S. Custom Service put the number at 1,547 - many of them emaciated and half-dead soldiers liberated from Confederate prison camps, and sick and wounded soldiers who came on board when the steamer stopped at Vicksburg, Miss.

It was - and still is - the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. The death toll surpassed even the 1912 tragedy of the Titantic, which struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic, when 1,517 passengers and crew died.

PICTURED: An illustration from Harper's Weekly shows the sinking of the steamboat Sultana on the MIssissippi River on April 27, 1865.

An appreciation of Scotty Moore, Elvis' guitarist and Sun Records icon

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran today a nice appreciation piece on Scotty Moore, the guitarist and producer whose tenure as sideman to Elvis Presley dates all the way back to the fateful "That's All Right Mama" session of 1954 that launched Elvis' career. Moore, a native of Gadsden in West Tennessee, turns 80 on Dec. 27. Roots-music expert Rich Kienzle writes:

A 2000 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Scotty, who worked in a Memphis dry cleaning shop and played guitar on the side in honky tonk band, connected with Presley wholly by accident.  His vibrant work on Elvis's Sun and early RCA recordings, blending Chet Atkins fingerstyle playing with slashing blues numbers, remains the fountainhead for many rock, country and rockabilly players.

Even Keith Richards, the ultimate devotee of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, considers his longtime pal Scotty a Holy Grail or sorts, and was long obsessed with Moore's solo on Elvis's Sun recording of "I'm Left,  You're Right, She's Gone."  Still active, Scotty has continued to perform and discuss his legacy--and that of Elvis.

Elvis thought so highly of Moore as a guitarist and friend that he insisted that Moore and the other original sidemen joined him on his 1968 comeback TV special. Read the whole article, and check out the many video clips of interviews as well as studio and live performances.

As he nears 80, and having outlived Elvis by generations, Moore continues to keep alive the raw, gritty legacy of Elvis, Sun Records and that old Memphis sound.

PICTURED: Scotty Moore performs on July 5, 2004, at the 50th anniversary celebration of Elvis' "That's All Right Mama."

Danielle from 'American Pickers' opens boutique, 4 Miles 2 Memphis

Best known to most of us as the office-bound tattooed rocker-chick foil to traveling antique dealers Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz on the History Channel's "American Pickers," Danielle Colby-Cushman also pursues interests ranging from roller derby and burlesque to painting and fashion design. For the latter, she has opened her own boutique, 4 Miles 2 Memphis, next door to the "Pickers" business, Antique Archaeology in LeClaire, Iowa. Those who can't make it up to the Quad Cities to check out Colby-Cushman's designs in person now can shop on her Etsy page. From the opening announcement:

4 Miles 2 memphis is the home of artful inspired green designs. Danielle has a passion for upcycling the vintage using whatever materials she can get her little hands on, going so far as to recycle plastic shopping bags and the like into sturdy textiles! The utmost care and attention to detail is taken in the making of your irresistable purchases. Many "4 Miles 2 Memphis" items are made with upcycled silk, satin, teffeta, lace etc. As well as the use of raw edges for a look that is both edgy and femenin. In light of this detail, please dryclean or spot clean only! Thank you for supporting our handmade movement.
Best-selling novelist John Grisham is the guest tonight on CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight," where he sounds off on the West Memphis 3 case, which played out almost like one of his huge-selling legal thrillers like "The Firm" or "A Time to Kill."

"If you look at what happened to those three defendants, it was mishandled from the very beginning," says Grisham. "They rely on bogus confessions. They rely on jailhouse snitches."

Grisham was living in the Memphis area when three young Cub Scouts were brutally murdered in 1993 in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teenage boys, who became known as the West Memphis 3, were convicted of the murders despite the lack of physical evidence. "There was this very sensational trial and the community wanted justice," says Grisham. "They had some bad confessions to work on and these three guys get convicted, and they spend 18 years in prison." The West Memphis 3 defendants were released in August.

The show airs at 8 p.m. CT on CNN.

Botched booking in Memphis led to Dale Watson's 'The Sun Sessions'

Country-Americana singer-songwriter Dale Watson tells CMT News the story of how his latest album, The Sun Sessions, came into being.

Longtime Texas musician Dale Watson always knew he wanted to make a record at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn. He just didn't expect it to be like this.

After his tour manager called ahead to confirm a tour date in Memphis, the club owner replied that the traditional country singer wasn't on the calendar. And to add insult to injury, the club had a dance DJ booked instead.

Rather than canceling the trip in frustration, Watson called Sun and booked the studio that night ... .

Wondering which club that was? From the promotional kit for The Sun Sessions:

"I didn't plan on this record," Dale says. "I was originally booked to play the Hi-Tone in Memphis the night I recorded this album, but after advancing the show on the way there from Austin, Texas, I was told by the Hi-Tone Lounge, 'No we have a DJ on Tuesdays, we do not have you booked.' After feeling awful that a music town with such history would rather have a dance DJ than live music, I thought, 'What the hell. I got lemons, let's make lemonade.'"
Two years ago, Opera Memphis mounted an ambitious production of "Treemonisha," a rarely performed opera composed by Scott Joplin. The Opera Memphis version was based on a new arrangement by ragtime expert Rick Benjamin, who scored the music for a small ensemble that would have been typical for Joplin's time. Now that Benjamin and his Paragon Ragtime Orchestra have just released a definitive recording of "Treemonisha," The Wall Street Journal just ran an essay that traces the evolving story of this obscure but culturally significant work:

Having closely studied all available musical and historical sources related to the opera--including Joplin's own instrumentation jottings in his personal copy of the piano score--Mr. Benjamin aimed to create a new, historically correct performing edition of the opera that would reflect the original musical character intended by Joplin. In 2003 Mr. Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and singers premiered this version semistaged in San Francisco, and gave subsequent performances in recent years at the historic Saenger Theater in Joplin's hometown of Texarkana, Texas, and at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania (America's oldest black college) among other venues. Mr. Benjamin notes that he has also "allowed my edition to be produced by Opera Memphis and several other opera companies."

... "'Treemonisha,'" says Mr. Benjamin, "is truly a rare artifact of a vanished culture: an opera about African-Americans of the Reconstruction era--created by a black man who actually lived through it. As a unique work of art, it doesn't fit the usual templates. It is the product of a great American genius, and we hope at least to help focus attention on what's truly wonderful about it."

2011 flood uncovered preserved cotton field in Coahoma County, Miss.

Via Western Farm Press ...

It turns out that the awesome power of the Mississippi River that was unleashed this past spring both gave and took away in the Mississippi Delta south of Memphis. An old cotton field in Coahoma County, Miss., that was buried under sediment in the Great Flood of 1927 was rediscovered after this year's historic flooding:

Fast forward to this past spring when floodwaters from the Great Flood of 2011 swept away the 5 feet of topsoil that the 1927 flood had deposited on the field. Like washing away a layer of mud from the bottom of an old pair of boots, the floodwaters revealed once again the treads of the old field, perfectly preserved sets of ancient mule tracks and old cotton rows.

Bowen Flowers and Pete Hunter, two Coahoma County cotton producers, were lucky enough to have seen the field while hunting this spring. Flowers took a few pictures on his iPhone. "You can actually see where the mule tracks were when they were rowing it up," said Flowers, who is serving as the president of the Delta Council this year. "It was like they were petrified."

The buried field avoided much damage from devastating flood of 1937, unlike Memphis up the river:

Those improvements in the 1930s helped confine the 1937 flood to a smaller area than the 1927 flood, according to Camillo. "We had to operate Birds Point that year (1937), but once you got down to the mouth of the Arkansas River, the flood kind of petered out because of the channel realignment, which had lowered flood stages by 10 to 12 feet. Most of the damage from the 1937 flood was limited to between Cairo, Ill., and Memphis."

Since last spring, work to repair broken levees and subsequent rains washed away forever what was left of that tough cotton field in Coahoma County, Miss.

Why Memphis' 'sad,' 'miserable' city rankings get it all wrong

If you're tired of all those city rankings that always seem to find Memphis somewhere near the worst of the worst -- here are a couple of recent ones -- then check out this piece from Salon in which the author calls out blogs and websites for peddling "foolproof click-bait."

Hey, Memphis: Are you happy? Are you sure? Because Men's Health magazine isn't so certain.

Last week, in a list of the "saddest U.S. cities," Men's Health ranked Memphis, with its subtropical climate and legendary music scene, as the third-saddest city in the country. Clearly the place has taken a dive since February, when Forbes reported that Memphis is the sixth-happiest city to work in. Memphis is apparently a little slice of heaven -- as long as you're sitting at the office.


But for some some reason, these lists never seem to quite mesh with reality. Financial Times writer Edwin Heathcote pointed out recently that many of the places that top the "most livable cities" lists are places no one really wants to live -- it's always (no offense, guys) Provo, Utah, and Ann Arbor, Mich., and Manchester, N.H. "What, you might ask, no New York? No London? No L.A. or H.K.?" asked Heathcote. To reduce a city to metrics "is to strip out all the complexity, all the friction and buzz that make big cities what they are."

Sleep drug gives new hope to family of brain-damaged Memphis man

A story from this coming Sunday's The New York Times Magazine called "A Drug That Wakes the Near Dead" is built around the story of a Memphis-area couple and their brain-damaged adult son -- and a new avenue of hope for patients stuck in a state of minimal consciousness.

"First they asked us to let them pull the plug," Judy recalled one recent afternoon, as we sat in the living room of the Coxes' house in a Memphis suburb. "Then they tried getting us to sign a do-not-resuscitate order." Without one, the doctor explained, hospital staff would be forced to revive Chris each time he started slipping away, which could mean cracking his ribs and shocking him with electricity. Even if they managed to keep his body alive, what was left of his brain would surely die in the days ahead.

Wayne and Judy refused to sign. "This is not some dog we're talking about putting down," Wayne shouted. "This is our son."

Some recent reports have suggested that the prescription sleep aids Ambien and zolpidem can suddently awaken people who have spent years in a vegetative state. The trick to pursuing an avenue with a patient like Chris Cox is figuring out which responses -- whether physical or merely detectable via electrical brain activity -- constitute consciousness and which are merely concidence. Also complicated and painful for families and caregivers is when to decide that the patient has recovered all he or she can:

"Once a patient progresses to minimal consciousness, we can't predict what's going to happen," says Dr. Joseph J. Fins, chief of medical ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College and author of a coming book, "Rights Come to Mind: Brain Injury, Ethics and the Struggle for Consciousness." Some patients have recovered full consciousness, but many more remain stuck in limbo. The only way to know the outcome is to give the patient time.

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