If the city of Memphis had its way, my house would literally be an exit ramp right now. I have seen the map of the proposed path of I-40 through Midtown. Luckily that tragedy was averted, albeit narrowly. Instead, my house sits on a tree-shaded street in the part of the Evergreen district that was saved from a concrete destiny as part of our national highway system. As Wanda Rushing explained in her book Memphis and the Paradox of Place, a gaggle of ‘little old ladies in tennis shoes’ saved this jewel that is Midtown from becoming another exit on a cross-country interstate. The lot my house sits on was one of the hundreds near Overton Park that were cleared via the use of eminent domain back in the late 1960s for the proposed highway that would have bisected the park. Ironically, as I read Rushing’s chapter detailing this near-miss, I was sitting on my front porch swing enjoying the sights and sounds of my unique Midtown neighborhood.
When I moved to Memphis in 1987 I was confused by the large swath of empty lots just west of the park. When it was explained to me that an expressway had been expected to be erected there I thought Memphians must truly be crazy. In all five cities I had lived in prior to Memphis, no city had such a beautiful park as Overton, such pretty architecture as the homes that surrounded it, nor the eclectic flavor of an urban area such as Midtown has. I still find it astounding that Memphians at that time thought that destroying Overton Park and its environs would be a good thing for Memphis.
One of the lots on Overton Park Avenue once held a house that my grandmother grew up in around 1910.Two more houses she lived in during the early 1900s were also lost to ‘urban progress’! I-240 destroyed both of those houses, one on Waldran Avenue near Poplar, and the other on Minna Place, near Lamar. To think that every home her family lived in was destroyed by interstates is sad. The empty lots in Midtown were like scars on the landscape.
The lots near the park lay dormant for many years until they were finally released to developers in the 1990s. Now almost all have homes built on them, and families once more fill the lots with activity: children playing games in the front yards, husbands raking leaves, wives setting out Halloween pumpkins on the front porches. Thanks to a thoughtful person in the city’s zoning office, all new construction had to match the period architecture of the surrounding neighborhood. Newcomers to the area usually can not tell the difference between the original and the new homes, and thus the scar has healed.
From my living room I can hear the whistle from the kiddie train at the zoo, and if it is a clear day I can hear the monkeys screaming. My grandmother used to tell me she could hear the zoo’s lion roaring from her house on Overton Park Avenue, and although I often listen for him, I have not heard him yet. But thanks to those little old ladies in tennis shoes, I just may yet.