Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bob Levey's Memphis

A noted Washington D.C. writer offers his take on Memphis and the University.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 16, 2009 at 5:39 PM

From 1981 to 2004, Bob Levey wrote a column for The Washington Post called "Bob Levey's Washington." After taking early retirement, he came to Memphis in 2006 as the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism at the University of Memphis. He'll finish that assignment in May and move back to the Washington area. But not before I grabbed him this week for a driving tour of the campus and his adopted home of Midtown to see what this unusually observant and articulate "outsider" has to say about his three-year stay.

More accurately, three years of traveling back and forth between Memphis and Washington so often he's on a first-name basis with airport personnel -- and a lot of other people. When he was writing a column for an audience of more than one million readers, his specialty was burrowing into the city and its neighborhoods and businesses and getting people to open up. The man can talk as well as write.

We met at the Holiday Inn on Central and headed west, passing the little house Levey looked at but decided not to rent when the landlord said "you can have it if you will mow the lawn." We turned south on the evolving Highland Strip -- "the potential is enormous, with 18,000 students sick of eating on campus" -- to the railroad tracks and "insane intersections" that split the campus and leave visitors shaking their heads in wonder.

"I've seen kids belly flop to crawl under a stopped train in order to get to class," he said. "No tunnel, no bridge. I have never seen a more unsafe situation in my life. Somebody is going to get killed here."

We proceeded to a place where somebody was killed, albeit by a gun, not a train. The murder of student-athlete Taylor Bradford nearly two years ago is still memorialized with fresh flowers and mementoes spread around a tree.

"Half of the students have turned over since he died. People who say this is a commuter school and no one cares should come out and look at this."

Levey doesn't understand all the Memphis haters.

If I had a choice of Memphis or Cleveland or St. Louis it wouldn't be close. This city has sauce. If the enemy is white bread then this city has nothing to fear."

It was small kindnesses and quirky places that sold Levey on Memphis and the campus -- the ramshackle M.A. Lightman Bridge Club, breakfast at Brother Juniper's, the oil-change place that gave a discount if you got there at 7 a.m. sharp, the Laundromat where the attendant folded his clothes and called him by name and never gave him a claim check, the racial intermingling at the Tiger Den and in classes. What he never understood, however, was the green and woodsy South Campus, which is mainly the domain of minor sports.

"These old buildings could be knocked down in an hour and a half. The university could be half again as large with no pain. Most other urban universities like Chicago, Columbia, and Penn are landlocked."

Levey, who was a sportswriter for the Post before he became a columnist (he predicts the Grizzlies will move to Las Vegas), thinks the football stadium should be on the South Campus.

"I'm a fundraiser as well as a teacher, and what works is getting alumni back on campus. Ain't nobody went to school at the Liberty Bowl."

Another gripe: the lack of bus service on Central Avenue between UM and Midtown – "If that isn't a bus route I don't know what one is" -- and the untapped potential of Cooper-Young's restaurant district because of the lack of employers in walking distance.

Then there was the time he went to Raffe's Deli on Poplar to meet somebody. The proprietor threw him out after he had waited a while.

"He thought I looked like a hold-up man. I've got gray hair! I’d been accused of a lot of things in my life but never that."

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