And To Think That I Saw It On Mullberry Street 

The gentrification of a historic downtown neighborhood arouses controversy.

Nearly everyone down at Wolf's Corner knew Robert Mason as "Cowboy" because of the hand-painted cowboy hat he often wears, the white straw one with glitter-enhanced greyhounds drawn on the crest. Others know him as "Sombrero Bob" because of the huge blue sombrero he wears all summer to combat the sun, when, with colorful cane in hand, the smiling octogenarian walks along the trolley line in sensible black shoes, navy knee-length shorts, and white knee-high socks. At Wolf's he would show off his less sensible hand-painted shoes for as long as anybody cared to sit and listen to his stories.

But those days are, as they say, history. Wolf's, the no-frills beer joint formerly at the corner of South Main and Calhoun, was a predominantly black, blue-collar watering hole that served three-egg breakfasts, turkey-neck lunches, buffalo fish dinners, and stacks of Stax on the jukebox till the wee small ones. But now, where pool balls once clicked nonstop and bad judgment was distributed 40 ounces at a time, a shop called Carnevale offers delicate vases of multicolored art glass and other swellish decorator trifles for the well-heeled urban modern.

Things change. It's an enduring epigram as trite as it is true. It is the stuff of comfort, menace, praise, and protest. Dr. Seuss' tongue-twisting children's book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, tells the tale of young Mario, a wide-eyed bundle of wonder and curiosity who watches an old-time horse and buggy magically morph into an elephant. It's a story of transformation. The changes that have occurred on Memphis' Mulberry Street, where Robert Mason has lived since the mid-1950s, have not been nearly as inspiring or inventive.

Over the decades the abbreviated street -- which runs from Linden to G.E. Patterson, where it becomes a red-brick alley that winds behind the Arcade restaurant and eventually terminates at Watson -- devolved from a vibrant, dynamic community into a skid row peopled with hookers, pushers, and assorted vagabonds. But that's all over now as well. With the renovation of Central Station, the coming of the trolley, and the burgeoning arts community, South Main has become hot. And as Main has prospered, so have its neighboring streets. The warehouses along Tennessee Street to the west, an area described in an early issue of the Flyer as "something out of Blade Runner," are, one by one, being converted into loft apartments. Huge suburban-style homes continue to sprout along the South Bluff, each a bit more done-up than the last. It was only a matter of time before the momentum spilled eastward to South Main's other neighbor -- Mulberry Street.

"We have had our problems reclaiming this area," says Ynette Newman, who now resides in the same shotgun shack where Robert Mason lived the better half of his 50 years on Mulberry. When restoration work on the shotguns commenced, Mason was relocated to the neighboring apartments at 384 Mulberry. Once restoration was complete, Newman moved in. She had lived on South Main but moved because the rent became too steep. Like Mason, her move was made out of necessity.

"I just couldn't afford a dollar a foot," she says of her admittedly lush, Jacuzzi-equipped spread on South Main. "They'll probably be able to get those prices here soon, but right now they don't get the kind of rent they could get because [Mulberry's] not as safe. That's my opinion, but that's what I believe. We had to call the police this week because there were crackheads hanging out between here and Raiford's [Hollywood Disco]." Of the increasing rents on South Main, she laments, "I hope that our artistic people can stay. There are so many galleries down here now. When I came here five years ago there weren't any. I opened the 509 Gallery and I couldn't make it back then. I could make it now."

Newman is not a native Memphian. Before moving to South Main, and eventually Mulberry, she was a working mother of three in Russellville, Kentucky. When her third child left for college she decided it was time for a change in both scenery and purpose. "When the youngest one went away to the University of Kentucky," Newman explains, "I said, 'Oh, please don't go, please don't go.' And he said, 'Oh, Mom, get a life. Not my life, but your life.' And I thought, You know, he's really right. I don't have a life." And so she began with great resolve to pursue the devil-may-care lifestyle of boho artist. After touring the South in search of urban digs she settled into what is now Memphis' official arts district.

"Moving from a town of 7,000 people I did have to acclimate," she says. "I had to learn to lock my car." Since moving to Mulberry she has had to learn a few other new tricks as well.

"It took me a little bit to distinguish who were the street people and who were the crackheads," she says. "At first I was afraid of all of them. There are the homeless who live around here and then there are those you need to stay away from. The homeless people beg and they want to go through your garbage. And I've learned to say, Get out of there! There ain't nothing but catshit in there. GET OUT OF THAT GARBAGE! Let me give you a sandwich but get out of that garbage. The crackheads are not going to do that. The crackheads holler at you. I've learned to say, GET AWAY FROM ME. And they go, 'You crazy,' and I say, You're right. We keep reclaiming [the area] one street at a time and bringing it up."

Robert Mason says he doesn't feel much like talking anymore. Not even about the painted shoes he used to be so proud of. He moves a little slower now than he did in the Wolf's Corner days, and that wasn't very fast. "I just don't have any time to talk today at all," he says in his soft, raspy voice. It's the third attempted interview in a week. "I'm not as young as you are." He explains: "I have to get things ready to move in November. I need to get some rest." For unknown reasons, Mason thinks he has nothing to contribute to a story about the history of Mulberry Street. "[I] just go to work, [and] come home," he says.

The ”anchor for South Main.“
Mason was once a painter. "I used to work all around the trains down around the station," he says. "You probably remember some of my painting from when you were [small]." Mason is vague about Mulberry's darkest hour, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, not half a minute's walk from Mason's front door. He says he remembers the assassination but not the details. He complains about having to move again. "I don't know why anybody would do that with winter coming," Mason says. "You'd think they'd wait till spring. It's all in God's hands now," he says. Then, apologizing for not being more helpful, he suggests I need to speak with someone else: "Ask that woman," he says, closing the door. "She knows all about it."

"I discovered that they are afraid to talk," Jacqueline Smith says, commenting on Mason's uncharacteristic shyness and that of his upstairs neighbors. "They are just nervous-type people. It's one of those cases where the strong have to look after the weak," she says. "They are afraid they'll create more problems for themselves."

Smith is, of course, "that woman" Mason referred me to. Smith, whose tireless outdoor protest against the National Civil Rights Museum has made her something of a celebrity, has been a constant on Mulberry Street. Her 13-year vigil has earned her a number of supporters from around the globe. And, no doubt, an equal number of detractors, who think the one-time opera student and former resident and employee of the Lorraine Motel is a self-serving crackpot. Suffice it to say, she's no stranger to controversy.

"I just think it's so wrong that they shifted those people around," Smith says. She shows a photocopy of the letter from property owner Bill Mathis informing the tenants of the Mulberry Street Apartments that they would need to vacate the premises by early November. The letter was given to her by one of the tenants, who felt that he was being treated unfairly and hoped that Smith could somehow help. Smith took up her anonymous friend's fight by sending letters to local newspapers.

"There's no place left for African Americans on Mulberry Street," she says. The longer she speaks, the more formal her speech becomes. She begins to adopt a foreign, almost British-sounding accent.

"They are forcing people out of this area. And they are old people," she complains. "Right here at the Civil Rights Museum! [The administrators at the museum] has got their eyes closed. It's like they don't know what's going on. It's not right," she says with emphatic hopelessness.

Smith dismisses the fact that the tenants aren't exactly being tossed out into the cold. Mathis' letter states that comparable housing will be provided for comparable rent at 310 Dunlap. Those apartments are described as approximately the same size as the ones on Mulberry but with an extra room. It's hard to imagine they would not be an improvement over the decaying rooms on Mulberry.

"We tried to be sympathetic," Mathis says. "That was one thing we wanted to do, particularly with the people who have been here for a long time. Like Mr. Mason. He remembers me as a little kid."

Robert ”Cowboy“ Mason
"You know they aren't being moved someplace better," Smith counters. "And there is no reason to move them in the first place. You would think the [National Civil Rights] museum of all places would continue to work with Dr. King's principles, but it's simply not happening. Dr. King once addressed a college and told the students to take up a second career in addition to being doctors and lawyers or whatever -- a career of service to humanity. Therein lies my objection." Smith says a great opportunity is being missed: finding a way of improving the neighborhood without driving out the poor. "I think the neighborhood should remain a model community for all to emulate," she says. "It should remain integrated and affordable."

But despite Smith's contentions, Mulberry has not been anything near a model community for some time. Except for the small patch of apartments and houses near the corner of Talbot, it hasn't really been any kind of neighborhood at all.

Mulberry Street was laid out in 1840 by prominent attorney and businessman Robertson Topp, who also constructed the Gayoso House. It was only one of a number of nice residential streets in the blossoming toy-township of South Memphis, which was sort of the Germantown of its day. South Memphis merged with Memphis in 1849 and was zoned commercial in 1890 in conjunction with the construction of the Mississippi River bridge. At the turn of the 20th century Mulberry was an ethnically mixed, predominantly white, working- and merchant-class neighborhood. Walking along its granite sidewalks you might have encountered residents such as Tony Mascari on his way to work at Mascari Brothers' Fruits at 45 Beale.

Mulberry ran all the way to Beale Street then and many of its residents worked on or around that famous musical avenue. David Thomas of D.D. Thomas and Son general contractors resided at 118 Mulberry. Duke Machine Works occupied the corner of Mulberry and Huling, and Devorkin Brothers maintained a steady business at 115 Mulberry. (The Devorkins' profession is flatteringly described in the 1903 City Guide as "junk.")

Fannie Houston, one of four African Americans living on the street, peddled coal. By 1923 Mulberry was roughly 50 percent African-American. Half of that population lived in an apartment complex at 384. These apartments appear as a bright pink rectangle on the 1928 maps. The color-coding reveals that the apartments were brick with wood-frame construction. Only two words are penciled in the rectangle describing the building: "Negro Tenements."

The 1943 City Guide lists the same apartments as Mulberry Flats. By then the area had become even more commercial, with Memphis Sheet Metal, Oaklawn Furniture, Luckyheart Laboratories, and Rawlings Printing joining the business mix. The Black Cat Café at 202 Mulberry, just up the street from the Black Cat Lunchroom at 206, served up steaming platters of Southern cooking for guests of the Marquette Hotel. Joseph Hyter, who lived and operated a barbershop at 200 Mulberry, could give them a shave and a shine.

According to Judith Johnson, director of Memphis Heritage, during the time of Jim Crow, Mulberry Street became for African-American travelers arriving at Central Station what Main Street was for whites. "There were hotels, shops, and restaurants," she says, "and other things." By other things she means the 1885 Eureka Hotel, a rare Gothic-revival building which has recently been restored by its owner, Bernard Lansky. An ad for the Eureka in the Negro Yearbook and Directory of 1943 describes it as "Memphis' oldest and best colored hotel: Clean, modern and sanitary, every room supplied with radio, gas, electric fan." The Eureka, whose motto was "catering to the traveling public," proudly boasted "Always Open." Just as the Hotel Pontotoc became the hopping bordello for whites, the Eureka provided similar services for gentlemen of color. One can only hope that sizzling jazz accompanied the Eureka's singing bedsprings when musical giants like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington were checked in only a few blocks away at the Lorraine.

Johnson thinks Mulberry's steep decline generally began in the wake of Dr. King's assassination. By then, other than the apartments at 384 and the trio of neighboring houses, there was virtually no residential property on Mulberry. All of downtown was in a massive slide in the wake of King's death, and Mulberry was poised to slip even faster.

"I'm just about ready to get out of the construction business and back into the business of managing properties," Bill Mathis says, wiping a bead of sweat from his forehead. He and his wife Carol have been painstakingly renovating his properties on Mulberry since 1998. When they're finished working on the one-time "Negro Tenements" there will be six 800-square-foot market-rate apartments in each of the two buildings, instead of twelve 400-square-foot rooms. With two bedrooms and a large kitchen, the units promise to be every bit as nice as the three neighboring shotguns that won the Mathises The Mayor's This Old House Award for excellence in the restoration of a historic property from Memphis Heritage.

"Tour buses come by and people give us the thumbs up. That gave us encouragement," Mathis says. The encouragement that led him to begin the restoration was of another kind entirely, however. Code officials told him that some of his properties, particularly one of the shotguns, had fallen into such disrepair that they had to be restored or torn down.

"It [was] real questionable, because of the cost of the project, if I would have tried to do this thing had [Memphis Heritage] not been there to say, Hey, wait a second. There are these [financial] opportunities [for restoring historical properties]. And that's what kind of saved the three houses."

Mathis has worked in the area since he was a teenager in the 1960s. In addition to the properties on Mulberry his father owned and operated the Ambassador Hotel on South Main. Mathis worked the switchboard on weekends and his memories of the area at that time are not flattering. "Dealing with some of the rough element that used to be in this area, you get your eyes opened to the fact that the world's not white picket fences for everybody."

"Suburbia started happening and everything [downtown] just started to fold up," Mathis says. "And here's my father who owns this little hotel on South Main and all of the big hotels are closing around him. He had an opportunity to buy the Peabody; he had an opportunity to buy the Claridge, the King Cotton. And if he'd been in more of a corporate situation, who knows? But we were a mom-and-pop operation. It was too much. And there was no reason to come downtown except for the Rendezvous."

In the 1970s Judge D'Army Bailey, then an attorney, came to Mulberry Street hoping to obtain the Lorraine Motel in order to convert the property into a memorial to Martin Luther King and a center for the continuation of the civil rights struggle. South Main and Mulberry Street had deteriorated even further.

"By that time, blacks who were traveling didn't have to go to black hotels, so you didn't have that steady feed of middle-class black travelers and upper-lower-class black travelers that you had during the earlier period," Bailey says. "By that time, prostitutes were much more visible. You didn't see that before: women just walking up and down the street. Particularly in the area around the Lorraine, Mr. Bailey [the Lorraine's owner] was catering to the prostitutes there and to the pimps, and they would hang out on the street and in the lobby. And there were drug dealers down there. When we closed the Lorraine in order to begin the renovation we had jail inmates cleaning the place out for us and they came across all sorts of drug paraphernalia and stuff."

The reclaiming of Mulberry Street began in full when the Lorraine Motel reopened as the National Civil Rights Museum in September 1991.

Which brings us back to Jacqueline Smith.

Ynette Newman
The core of Smith's argument has always been that the time and money put into the museum could have been better spent helping the disenfranchised. She is particularly put out by the museum's $10 million expansion onto Main Street and into the building from which James Earl Ray fired his rifle. It's a move, she says, designed to capitalize on sensationalism and the American fascination with the macabre. She maintains that the money spent on this project could have been used to make sure that people like Robert Mason weren't forced from their homes. "To do anything less with Dr. King's legacy is a disgrace to him," she says. On this point, Smith would seem to have an unlikely ally in her old ideological adversary, Judge Bailey.

"This is not an endorsement," Bailey says of Smith. "But over the years there have come to be some areas where we disagree less." While Bailey judiciously claims to see both sides of the gentrification issue, he also believes that the Civil Rights Museum routinely misses opportunities to participate in activities that would further the principles of the civil rights movement. Before he resigned from the museum's board in 1992 -- shortly after a panel ousted him from the office of president -- Bailey hoped the tourist site could also become a center for the study and advancement of the civil rights movement, not what he calls "history under glass." His vision was to "freeze in time the spirit and energy of the movement; bring it here, put it at [the Lorraine], and then unleash it anew.

"It's gotten out of hand and out of control in terms of the concept of mission," Bailey continues. "What are we here for? Are we simply Graceland with a civil rights theme? [The museum] has been embraced and in some ways co-opted by the legitimizing factors of the corporate structure that now underwrites it. Just as it has with some of our civil rights organizations, which is why our organizations are no longer energized and challenging of the corporations."

"I knew the museum, the Lorraine, was going to be the linchpin of revitalization," Bailey says of Mulberry Street. "I'm a little bit surprised it all hasn't happened faster than it has. These neighborhoods can and must be preserved. It is very important to save these historic properties and to rehabilitate them. But the question is: At what price? What do you do about the old folks who are being forced out? What do you do about the boarding house?"

Like Smith, Bailey thinks the museum could have played a more active role in its neighborhood. "If there were true movement people at the core of this museum," he says, "they would see the challenge of blending the strength that we have with the needs represented by the people being displaced, so that we can create new modes of responding and use this as an urban experiment that can be exported to other cities around America facing the same crisis."

Gwen Harmon, director of marketing and public relations for the National Civil Rights Museum, does not have an official opinion about the changes taking place on Mulberry. "I don't know the history and I'm not comfortable responding," she says. Harmon adds that the museum is a repository for reference information concerning the civil rights movement, and its impact on the community has been nothing but positive.

"We are like the anchor for South Main," she says. "Other businesses relocate here because they know we aren't going anywhere."

Though attendance has dropped by as much as 30 percent since the September 11th attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, in 2000 the museum attracted over 150,000 visitors. Noting the number of art galleries and boutiques in the area, Harmon says she doesn't think it will be long before the whole district is teeming with "bistros and coffee shops."

"I think the plans are to make South Main an area with heavy foot traffic," Harmon says. "And once the expansion is complete it will directly affect traffic on Main. People will be able to enter the museum directly from Main by way of a courtyard we are constructing."

The expansion's exhibits will, according to Harmon, "pick up [on the history of the movement] from that fateful day of April 4th, 1968." Harmon explains that objects such as James Earl Ray's rifle and Dr. King's bloodstained clothing "will be presented as evidence. We leave the question of [Ray's] guilt up to the visitor."

"Things will change," Jacqueline Smith says as a horse-drawn buggy filled with tourists takes a turn down Mulberry Street. She is confident she will one day be victorious in her struggle against gentrification. The buggy never turns into an elephant. "But change takes time," she continues. "It's like the Prodigal Son. We'll say, What did we do? Where did we go wrong? And we'll go back."

Like the Prodigal Son, Mulberry seems to be returning to its more reputable roots. The South Main area is becoming as fashionable now as it was when Robertson Topp planned Mulberry Street 160 years ago.

You can e-mail Chris Davis at

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