Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Preservationists: Women on a Mission

Posted By on Wed, Jan 27, 2010 at 9:03 PM

Virginia McLean (center)
  • Virginia McLean (center)
Preservation is about persistence and patience in this city that stopped Interstate 40 from going through Overton Park.

Like the women activists who led that fight that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court in 1971 and was not resolved until ten years later, Virginia McLean and June West have plenty of both, as Memphians who have been following the riverfront and Overton Square stories know. McLean is head of Friends for Our Riverfront. West is executive director of Memphis Heritage. Like them or not, those are organizations to be reckoned with.

So who are they?

Virginia McLean is 62 years old, married to attorney Hite McLean. They are parents of two grown children. She graduated from Hutchison School, a private school for girls, and Vanderbilt University, and she has a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Virginia. She once worked as a columnist for Newsday while living in Washington D. C. in the 1970s and has written a guide book on Memphis.

Born and raised in Memphis, McLean is sometimes referred to as an "Overton heir," a term she doesn't like because "it makes you sound like some rich kid." She prefers the term "Overton descendant" for her fifth-generation connection to city cofounder John Overton, a law partner of President Andrew Jackson 180 years ago. There are more Overtons in Nashville who are her kin. She describes them as "the ones who want to make money off the Promenade, not keep it a public park." Getting the Overtons to agree among themselves, much less with the city or proposed developers, has so far been impossible.

The promenade is the west side of Front Street downtown along the Mississippi River, dedicated to public use by the city founders, including Judge Overton. McLean got her unpaid job as head of Friends for Our Riverfront in 2003 when the Riverfront Development Corporation floated a plan for private development of the Promenade to finance public improvements along the river. Friends and the RDC have been at odds ever since, with websites with similar names but opposing views.

"Friends needed a poster child, and I was too stupid to say no and I had standing in court," she says. "The descendants have no control over the property other than to protect it. The city is the trustee. I would like to see it set up in a conservancy."

Despite her historical pedigree, she said the house she grew up in near Poplar and Highland did not have hoary pictures of the judge hanging on the walls. When she shows up at public meetings, McLean is usually dressed casually in an outdoorsy way. Her son has worked as a Nantahala River guide. She's always up for a beer or hunting an obscure restaurant.

But there's iron in her veins, too, as the RDC and its board have learned. Her insistence of keeping the Promenade public has galvanized preservationists and frustrated would-be developers. She occasionally gets lambasted in letters to the editor of the newspapers.

"I'd never been attacked before, and I don't like it," she says.

She says Friends has a list of 3,000 names in its data base, thanks to the aborted land bridge idea that rallied opposition six years ago. When I asked her if most preservationists are women, she agreed. She also believes there is a strain of sexism in the criticism of preservationists.

"I am beginning to learn that I need to take a man with me to public meetings," she says. "They listen to me, but they don't really listen."

June West
  • June West
June West does not agree that most preservationists are women. She cites the late architect Jack Tucker, Memphis Heritage board chairman Marty Gorman, and attorney Charlie Newman as supporters. West has been the paid executive director of Memphis Heritage since 2002. She has one part-time assistant and a budget of $110,000. According to the most recent available tax form, the nonprofit paid about $60,000 in salaries.

West, 58, was born in Arkansas but grew up in Memphis and graduated from Lausanne private school. She attended Memphis State University for three years before dropping out to pursue her interest in riding, training, and grooming horses.

"I was a hippie," she says. "I grew up in a very conservative family, and I consider myself very liberal."

Her father, a farmer, was a close friend of segregationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, famous for his role in the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957.

She went back to college and earned a degree in sculpture and art history from the University of Arkansas.

"I went into art out of rebellion, not talent," she says.

Most of her career has been in social work, specializing in services for senior citizens, with stints at St. Peter's Manor, the Memphis Park Commission, Kirby Oaks Guest House for Assisted Living, and working as a consultant for government and nonprofit services for Alzheimer's patients. She lives in Midtown with her two Jack Russell terriers. Both her home and office are within walking distance of Overton Square. She recommended McLean for the leadership of Friends for Our Riverfront.

"I'm a networker," she says. "I'm a community organizer. It's what it takes to move things forward in this city, and I'm sure I drive a lot of people crazy."

Memphis Heritage claims 400 members, and West says Facebook and other social networking websites, along with the publicity generated by Overton Square, "has been a tremendous benefit to us."

Just as Virginia McLean doesn't like the term "Overton heir," West resents the charge that Memphis Heritage only cares about boarded-up buildings. She notes that warehousing historic buildings can pay off over time, as in the case of South Main District downtown, but agrees that it can also result in stagnation, such as the Sterrick Building, an empty skyscraper built nearly 80 years ago.

"We pick our battles," she says. "We don't try to save every building. If somebody meets me and talks to me they realize I'm grounded. I'm not nuts, and I'm not a brick-hugger."

Her "dream job," she says, would be working for a think tank to come up with solutions to problems. She said she would be opposed to the current plan to redevelop Overton Square with a grocery store and other new buildings even if some catastrophe leveled the empty buildings on the south side of Madison.

"If you buy property high, then you have got to build cheap," she says, confident that a better plan will come along if opponents stand firm.

The owner of the property has said it is ending talks with the grocery store.

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