Memphis: A Tale of Two Cities 

My paternal great-grandmother abandoned rural Mississippi in the 1960s in order to escape her husband, an abusive man who decided early in their marriage that he wanted a farmhand instead of a wife. My great-grandmother — affectionately called "Granny" by her great-grandchildren — survived assaults from men who wanted to claim her body, a wage-slavery system that wanted to claim her soul, and a concentrated dose of white supremacy that had no qualms about making a feast out of her bones as well.

In her old age, my Granny's favorite pastime was riding around the city to visit shopping malls and department stores, but she couldn't drive, so when one of her children or grandchildren was too busy to serve as chauffeur, we rode the bus. During the face-meltingly hot Memphis summers of the early 1990s, I was frequently her co-pilot and traveling companion. One of my fondest memories of her was a summertime bus ride where we rumbled past the Sears Crosstown tower on Cleveland, which by then had been long abandoned. As we passed the building, Granny looked up at it, cursed (she only cursed when she was mad), and sighed.

My Granny had given most of her life to affluent white Memphians who visited our house whenever they wished to slip silver dollars from behind our ears like stale magic, praising my Granny for her hardworking nature and her homespun wisdom even as they worked her to her grave. Her sigh that day as we passed Sears Crosstown wasn't wistful. She did not long for bygone days, and she was not lamenting lost fondness; my Granny had lived through so much pain at the hands of men, white-folks, and crushing poverty that she rarely ever seemed fond of anything other than her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

click to enlarge Crosstown - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Crosstown

I carried her memory and her history with me more than 10 years after that bus ride when I crossed Cleveland and stepped into the brand new Crosstown Concourse. I was there to witness firsthand the realization of a project purported to bring new life into central Memphis. New life, of course, because the old ones are less meaningful in the face of developments like this one.

I can't lie, the Crosstown Concourse is a nice building. The idea of a "vertical urban village" is a concept out of my futurist fantasies, and the Crosstown Concourse looks the part. The updated construction has managed to retain the massive look and feel of the building from my childhood while also making the new space feel fresh and modern. The public servant in me is impressed by the convergence of commercial and civic interests into a single public-use space.

But Memphis is full of disrespected dead, and their spirits still cry out for justice. On the afternoon of Saturday, August 12th, our city was at the crux of an interesting convergence: Less than three miles from the celebration of Crosstown's shining beacon, hundreds of protesters (many of whom are descendants of the slaves that kept Memphis living in high cotton) decided to use their bodies and lives to demand that our elected representatives stand on the correct side of history and remove hateful edifices from our taxpayer-funded parks. While the people who Memphis prioritizes bobbed their heads to performances from some of our most brilliant black artists, immigrant Memphians marched to defend themselves and their families from forces that threaten to rupture their families and destroy their livelihoods.

We are living in a literal tale of two cities.

I want to know: How can I be excited about the Crosstown Concourse when the grocery store inside of it is explicitly not marketed to the disenfranchised residents of Klondike and Smokey City? How can I be excited about the Crosstown Concourse when there are thousands of unemployed and underemployed Memphians in a two-mile radius of its doors? How can I be excited about the Crosstown Concourse when entire swaths of the city remain blighted and infested with vermin and waste? How can I be excited about the Crosstown Concourse when white supremacy, the system that makes Memphis great (for white residents) is still deeply ingrained in every facet of our city's operation, from the police to the politics to the food and employment deserts, and is still killing people in whatever way it deems best — just like it killed my Granny?

Just last week, I was visiting South Memphis, talking to residents in an area infamous for having lead soil contamination readings higher than 1,700 parts per million (the federal standard for lead soil contamination is 400 parts per million). One woman caught my eye — her resemblance to my Granny struck me so deeply that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.

She was hurt and disgusted. Everyone in Memphis seemed to be on the receiving end of such great developments. Her neighborhood had changed too, with new housing and freshly constructed green space, but she was still not impressed. Where were the opportunities for her children and grandchildren to escape the chains of poverty that had held her in place for generations? Where were the nearby jobs? The adequately funded schools? There isn't a full-service grocery story within three miles of her house. Those seem to be very basic requests, and I thought that Memphis was in the business of being brilliant at those. At one point during our conversation, she sighed and shook her head. For a moment, I was back on that bus with my Granny, my 10-year-old self finally understanding the weight of her sigh.

Time and again, our city's leadership proves to folks like me that it does not care about our poor black grannies, our immigrant friends and family, or anyone else who dares to speak up and demand that all of the edifices to hate and white supremacy — mounted or not — be removed from this place where we've planted our roots. In the face of all these past memories and current pain, tell me: Why should I, or any Memphians like me, be excited about these future developments?

Troy L. Wiggins is a Memphis writer whose work has appeared in the Memphis Noir anthology, Make Memphis, and The Memphis Flyer.

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