Navigating the cobblestones on the Mississippi River bank makes most people look like drunken deckhands returning from shore leave.
The field of uneven and awkward stone makes for an uncomfortable walk and is completely inaccessible for those in wheelchairs. But historians say Memphis would not be the city it is today without those stones, and for that reason, preservationists say they must be kept.
A plan is now moving, albeit slowly, to not only keep the cobblestone landing but to improve it. The project will cost roughly $6 million, and it will give Memphis Landing (the formal name for the cobblestone landing) an overlook, historical markers, a sidewalk for a smoother walk, and possibly a small boat ramp for canoes and kayaks. But Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corporation, said to not expect big changes.
"What you're basically doing is restoring and saving a historic resource," Lendermon said. "Yes, there will be some nice improvements, which will allow people to walk in some areas, but at the end of the day, the money is going to be spent on a historic resource."
The latest move forward for the cobblestone project was an approval of the new sidewalk plan by the Memphis Landmarks Commission (MLC). That plan would create the Cobblestone Landing Accessible Trail, a sidewalk that will run along the wall below Riverside Drive. It will stretch from Court to Monroe with handicap-accessible ramps on both sides. The walk will feature two bump-outs for viewing and will be even with the cobblestones in the center.
"So, if you're in a wheelchair, you could lean over and pat [the cobblestones]," Nancy Jane Baker, MLC manager, told the commission last month. "If you're a child, you can walk on them and not get too far away from your parents, who don't want to chase you all over the cobblestones."
The new plan will also put a large mat at the bottom of the stone field that will shore up the field where it meets the river. The mat, unlike the stones, will move with the river. But it will be "yucky muddy," Baker said, when the river is low and the mat can be seen, which will be about 20 percent of the time.
The area will also be cleaned, and some patches of concrete on the field will be replaced with reclaimed or new cobblestones. The area will remain the home for Memphis Riverboats, though some of the boats may begin docking at Beale Street Landing.
Lendermon said the project could include the creation of a small boat ramp at the north end of the landing, close to Mississippi River Park, for small, non-motorized watercraft, like canoes and kayaks.
A contractor will likely be selected for the project this year, Lendermon said, and the project could be completed as early as next year. The city and the Tennessee Department of Transportation are finalizing another plan to make the area safer for cars and pedestrians, especially over and around the trolley tracks that run along Riverside.
This new plan for the cobblestones basically began three decades ago. In the summer of 1994, the city built a foundation at the foot of Beale Street to be used for the relocation of the Tom Lee monument, according to a 1996 study from Memphis-based Garrow & Associates. Crews removed a large section of cobblestones, and the project was halted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for historic preservation.
A number of government agencies have piled onto the cobblestone project over the years. But in all that time, the cobblestones have largely remained untouched.