A little more than a year after it opened, the Memphis Skate Park in Tobey Park is fulfilling the dream of its driving force, Aaron Shafer.
"This feels good," said Shafer, as he surveyed the scene Sunday afternoon when some 70 people — all of them male and most of them teenagers or younger — enjoyed the park that opened in November 2011. Shafer, a California transplant, pitched the idea to city officials and anyone else who would listen, including skeptical journalists and sports traditionalists.
The newest attraction is "the wave," a curling silver ramp 20 feet high in the shape of a breaking wave. Daredevils slap stickers on the highest points of the curve before pivoting midair and coasting back down.
I did not visit the skate park to play cop or scold. I was doing an interview at the school board on the other side of the parking lot when I saw the crowd and walked over. The polite, friendly kids whose picture I took should be in a skateboard video celebrating the sport's ethnic diversity.
Skateboarding suits my libertarian preferences. I often bike without a helmet and slam a small rubber ball around an indoor court without wearing safety glasses. And, let's face it, doing tricks in midair over a bowl of concrete is risky any way you look at it. The more extreme stunts call to mind Jerry Seinfeld's joke about skydiving — "the helmet is wearing you."
But the skate park is in plain view, and the only thing scarcer than helmets was girls. (Shafer and his son wore helmets.) Shortly after the park opened in 2011, a 12-year-old kid was handcuffed by a cop and put in a squad car for not wearing a helmet. After that, the Memphis City Council passed a helmet ordinance that subjects violators to a $50 fine. A sign says so, just as another says skate and bike at your own risk. This legalistic straddle is confusing at best and negligent at worst.
"It's definitely common sense to wear a helmet for those of us with common sense, but teenagers don't have that," said Derek Kelly, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Campbell Clinic and Le Bonheur Children's Hospital. "The simple stuff we can treat pretty successfully, but head injuries are permanent. I hate to shed a bad light on this, but at the same time we've got to protect kids."
So much for the lecture. The skate park is everything Little League baseball is not — no uniforms, coaches, teams, rules, or overprotective parents hanging around. These are break-the-rules sports that scream "Mine!" and "Bug off!" And, yes, "Death wish." The demographic and the rebel spirit have caught the attention of commercial sponsors and the Olympics, which had BMX racing in 2012 and is considering skateboarding in 2016.
The skate park was not an instant success, and there is no guarantee that its popularity will last or grow. But it's a nice addition to a budding Midtown sports complex that includes Tobey Fields, a rugby field, and the Fairgrounds within half a mile. Former Memphian and ex-big-league ballplayer Tim McCarver, 71, has pledged a donation for a baseball field or fields at the Fairgrounds.
His heart is in the right place, but the problem with inner-city baseball is not so much a lack of facilities as a lack of interest. The next sports wave could be the one old guys didn't see coming.
Jimmy Ogle is chairman of the Shelby County Historical Commission and a Memphis history buff. He has led thousands of visitors on walking tours of downtown and provides commentary on riverboat sightseeing trips. So he has a keen interest in the controversy over Forrest Park that flared up again this year.
What grates Ogle almost as much as the frequent theft of historical markers is the amount of myth and misinformation about not just the park but downtown history in general, particularly in regard to the Civil War and civil rights. With his help, I compiled this list of the Top 10 Myths about downtown history.
1. There is a granite block from which slaves were auctioned in Auction Park near the bridge to Mud Island: Ogle says trolley drivers, carriage drivers, and motor coach tour operators help perpetuate this myth. Auction Avenue, renamed A.W. Willis Avenue, does indeed have a granite marker, but it was not placed there until 1924 by the Colonial Dames. "I do not think that Memphis was active in slave trading in that year, do you?" Ogle said.
2. Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest was originally buried in Forrest Park: He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in 1877 and moved to the park in 1904, along with his wife. Moving him back to Elmwood would be problematic, Ogle says, because the family plot has no space. It is crowded by a large magnolia tree and the burial place of Memphis historian Shelby Foote.
3. Forrest is the most prominent Southerner from the Civil War so honored in downtown: Arguably, the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, is more prominent, as it stands on Front Street in Confederate Park in the heart of downtown. Another city park, Jefferson Davis Park, is just below that on Riverside Drive. Davis, who lived in Memphis after the war, has somehow remained largely unscathed in recent monument controversies.
4. Confederate Park has an identity crisis: This one is true but still confusing. Civil War cannons were removed from the park during a scrap effort during World War II. In 1947, they were replaced with World War II cannons. Those cannons were replaced with Civil War replicas during the sesquicentennial commemoration last year for the Naval Battle of Memphis.
5. Memphis was a Southern stronghold during the Civil War: In fact, Memphis was occupied by the Union Army for most of the war and served as a strategic outpost for generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.
6. Union Avenue gets its name from the Civil War: This is an Ogle favorite. "The name had nothing to do with the Civil War Union occupation nor the merger with South Memphis in 1850," he said. Our city's original street names, including Union, are on the original survey and map of 1819 — more than 40 years before the onset of the Civil War. The main east-west streets honor the first five presidents and Memphis founders Andrew Jackson, James Winchester, and John Overton.
7. Forrest and Davis are the only segregationists with a prominent public landmark named for them: The Clifford Davis Federal Building is named for KKK-member Davis, a city judge from 1923 to 1927, vice mayor 1928-1940, and congressman 1940-1962. The building was co-named for African-American federal judge Odell Horton in 2007.
8. Clayborn Temple across from FedExForum was the site of Martin Luther King's "I've Been to the Mountain Top" speech: King gave that speech at Mason Temple, which is about a mile south of Clayborn Temple. King led a march in 1968 from Clayborn Temple. In 2012, a segment of Linden Avenue was renamed to honor King.
9. The Pyramid was Sidney Shlenker's idea and he sold it to Memphis "hook, line, and Shlenker": The Texas promoter came on the scene to try, unsuccessfully, to develop the Pyramid after it was built. Memphis businessman John Tigrett was the driving force behind the Pyramid.
10. Hernando DeSoto discovered the Mississippi River in Memphis: A plaque in Chickasaw Heritage Park next to the National Ornamental Metal Museum says DeSoto "viewed" the river "in the area" in 1541. Note the careful hedging. Historians believe the more likely point of discovery was about 100 miles south, in Mississippi.
Now you know. What's more, Mud Island is not an island, the Pinch was first settled by "pinched-gut" Irish refugees from the potato famine, and downtown Memphis was not flooded in 2011, unless you count Riverside Drive. As ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer said then, all we can do is pray.
Scary story last Sunday on 60 Minutes about all the things robots can do in manufacturing plants.
The little buggers were scooting like cockroaches all over the floor of a warehouse, faultlessly navigating traffic while carrying racks of stuff to humans who packed it into boxes to be shipped who knows where, maybe through Memphis.
A couple of smart guys from MIT and the head of the company that makes the robots told reporter Steve Kroft this could bring manufacturing back to the United States from overseas, because the robots "make" about $3.40 an hour, comparable to workers in Asia. A robot, one of them noted, has already kicked some Harvard and MIT ass on Jeopardy.
Great. Just when Memphis joins the manufacturing party, humanoid employees take it on the chin from C-3PO. Tuesday was the media event at the new Electrolux plant on Presidents Island. Good news, for now at least: The humans are winning, but Nike and FedEx and Electrolux and all those warehouses off Lamar are the stage for this battle of the 21st century. I worked in warehouses for a couple weeks several years ago and can't remember a thing I did that could not have been done just as well by a machine.
The road from downtown and Interstate 55 to Electrolux takes you past the smokestacks of the steam plant, the signs for "Project 21," which is Mitsubishi Electric's future local offering, the fart smell of Ensley Bottoms, the yeasty olfactory relief of the grain operations, more smokestacks, then the gates of the Electrolux plant. The sprawling, low-slung buildings and parking lots (humans!) will be home to hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in investment.
Product starts rolling out in May. About 90 employees are already working, with 160 more to come later this year. Many of them came to the ceremony in their blue shirts and khakis to hear the good news. Something was cooking in the Electrolux ovens — rolls and sausages maybe? Anyway, it was the best-smelling media event of the year.
There were the obligatory introductions and remarks by politicos, including Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey from distant Bristol. The similarity to the automobile manufacturing process — a Southern business and manufacturing party at which Memphis and Shelby County are conspicuously absent — was mentioned at least half a dozen times. Then Jack Truong, CEO of Electrolux Major Appliances North America, and plant manager George Robbins took over for the tour.
"Electrolux is leading the revolution toward manufacturing in Memphis," Robbins said.
The equipment is highly automated, high-tech, and highly monitored to assure a level of consistency and reliability that is as desirable in your household appliances as it is in your car.
At Stops One and Two, the giant yellow robotic arms and hands put on a little show for us.
"You can see them running through their paces," Robbins said.
At Stop Three, more yellow robot arms were doing their thing in a cage. A humanoid with a pole was standing outside the cage. If that thing escapes, I thought, you're gonna need a bigger pole, buddy.
Stop Four, the assembly line, is not yet operational. The massive space is where most of the 1,200 U.S. employees will work when the plant reaches full production in five years. It is lit by skylights for their good health. So are the cafeteria, meeting rooms, and offices. The robots presumably couldn't care less.
I asked Robbins how many robots will be working on the line.
"None," he said. "The products are put together by people. We don't rule out robotics in the future, in sub-assembly especially."
Stop Five was quality control, where a sample of finished products will be put through hundreds of tests to make sure humans and robots have performed their tasks well.
Excellent news all around. Jobs and return on investment coming our way. If we can keep the robots from taking over our factories and warehouses, maybe we enlist a few of them to invade Nashville and bring us some more business.
When I visited him in his office this week, Dr. James Eason was dressed all in black, which pretty much matched his mood.
His holidays were fine. What had him down was the news he got in December that the Methodist University Transplant Institute had lost another and probably final round to Nashville and Vanderbilt University over an organ-sharing agreement.
"This is very disappointing," he said. "Now people in Memphis and the Mid-South have access to only 25 percent of the organs from the state of Tennessee. We had been able to save an average of 11 patients a month through liver transplants because of the statewide agreement. Since December 5th we have been limited to four donors. That's what we're going to be dealing with."
Eason, director of the center, did a life-saving liver transplant for Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in 2009 that extended his life two-and-a-half years. It was one of roughly 120 such transplants the center did each year under the old statewide organ-sharing agreement. When the Jobs story finally trickled out, it gave Methodist, the transplant center, and Memphis some bragging rights, especially against Nashville, which happens about as often as the University of Memphis rules the state in football.
In December, however, Eason was notified that the new sharing agreement, supported by the Department of Health and Human Services, Vanderbilt, and the Memphis-based Mid-South Transplant Foundation, was final.
"I believe a political decision was made, not an evidence-based decision," he said.
Meaning what? I asked.
"I will leave it at that. People in Nashville won at the expense of people in Memphis and West Tennessee. There was misinformation that confused and prevented the groundswell of community support."
Eason estimates that the number of liver transplants performed here each year will fall to 60 or less. Methodist and affiliated Le Bonheur Children's Hospital have been one of the top 10 transplant programs in the country for 40 years. That status, Eason says, is likely to end. The December fall-off is likely to continue. Meanwhile, Tennessee Donor Services based in Nashville had 14 liver donors. Nine of those went to Vanderbilt and five went out of state. In the past, Methodist would have split those with Vanderbilt.
"We have a young man, an adolescent, waiting at Le Bonheur since December 13th with the highest [eligibility] score in the state, but he can't get access to those organs unless they are turned down by Vanderbilt, which does not have a pediatric liver transplant program."
Eason was born at Baptist Memorial Hospital in downtown Memphis and grew up in Jackson, Tennessee. He looks like an actor that television producers would cast in the role of the chief doctor in a hospital drama. As the public face of the transplant center, he is not a self-promoter. I (and others) have tried for more than a year to get him to tell the Steve Jobs story in depth, but he won't do it.
Looking back on it, Eason said the Jobs story had mixed consequences because of perceptions that the wealthy Californian jumped the line.
"We are a center of excellence, and people who have a choice choose excellence," Eason said. "I think his transplant was used by some people to overshadow the fact that over 90 percent of our patients are from the Mid-South."
The doctor and his famous patient, whose stay in Memphis was cloaked in secrecy, formed an unusual bond. After the operation, Eason bought the house in Midtown where Jobs stayed.
"That's an old story," he said. "I still live there. I bought that house."
I asked him if he plans to stay in Memphis. Overachievers, whether they be entrepreneurs, doctors, or coaches, tend to go where the most action is.
"I have been approached by other programs," he said. "I am a native West Tennessean, but I also have to look at every option and opportunity where I can do the most good. Right now, my main consideration is providing transplants to the people we have here."
The Memphis center does liver, kidney, and pancreas transplants. The team includes five surgeons and 10 doctors in all, as well as support personnel.
"Everybody in the center is more experienced, from surgeons to nurses to allied health providers," he said. "And it is easier to recruit the best and brightest to a program that is doing a lot of transplants."