Memphis

February 20, 2018

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Tail end of my trip to the Delta was a short visit to Memphis, and the first stop was the National Civil Rights Museum, which incorporates the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered while he was there on a visit to support a strike by the Memphis sanitation workers.  I was very pleasantly surprised by the exceptionally high quality of the place:  I had expected a more standard, triumphalist, and celebratory exhibition that focused heavily on MLK, but instead I found a rich, creatively arranged multi-media exhibit that described the huge effort by many actors that made the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.  The museum did not shy from presenting information on the divisions that existed in the movement, and MLK, although clearly the great leader the movement needed, was not alone in his work.

Of course, since MLK stayed there, that area of South Memphis was the black side of town in those days.  Subsequently, it seems to have declined quite a bit, and today, in the numbing and depressing development cycle we call gentrification, it is being given new life.  The old buildings have coffee bars, galleries, and not-too-cheap condos, and some new building are plopped into spaces where old ones have been demolished.  The developers, having ignored the area for generations, are swooping in to make their kill as the grand march of capital moves into another “virgin” territory.  But as with the Spanish conquistadors, there were people there already, but now they are being squeezed out.  As it happens, on the drive up to Memphis, we heard this fantastic, but very depressing report on part of how this all happens today.

The pictures below were all taken in South Memphis, along the river, or Main Street.

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Condos, wine bar…gentrification

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Mural recalling the sanitation workers’ march down the street from the Civil Rights Museum

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As in so many cities, highway construction blighted the waterfront.

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The old riverbank in Memphis

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The so-called record flood of 2011 doesn’t seem all that high right here! 🙂

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Beautiful terra cotta work on this structure on Main Street, now largely a pedestrian mall.

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The oldest operating restaurant in Memphis

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An old fashioned storefront, c. 1940 I would guess, now defunct.

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That’s a flood wall!


Highway 61, Visited

February 19, 2018

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Since I love The Blues, and have always wanted to make a visit to the American South, and since I also find rivers and floods fascinating, it was time to finally make a trip to The Delta of Mississippi.  That’s not the Mississippi River delta, which is south of New Orleans, where the mighty river debouches into the Gulf of Mexico, but the oval-shaped region just south of Memphis, TN, alongside of Arkansas, with the Mississippi River separating them.
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The region is pancake-flat, and is bordered on the east by hills, on the west by the river.  The Mississippi has changed course over and inundated the region for millennia, and it is intensely fertile.  After the American Revolution, it became the site of some scandalous criminal land speculations, e.g. the Yazoo Strip Affair, and after the Civil War, clearing the hardwood forests and converting it to cotton farming proceeded at a rapid clip, with the support of Uncle Sam in the form of massive flood control works to protect the farming operations.  So much for Southern states’ resentment of federal intervention:  as long as the pork rolled in and nobody interfered with their “peculiar” institutions, e.g. slavery, and then Jim Crow, Washington D.C. was fine in their books.  You can read more about the how the river and the people interacted with the land in this interesting treatment.

Furthermore, I don’t just love The Blues:  I am very partial to the old fashioned, traditional, Delta Blues, the acoustic music that travelled north in the Great Migration, with people such as Muddy Waters, where it landed in Chicago and got electrified, eventually winning a huge audience in the UK, whose rock and roll invaders brought it back to us making it wildly popular among white audiences here too, at least for a while.  When The Beatles were interviewed at an airport upon their first arrival in the USA, a reporter asked who were their favorite American musicians, and among those volunteered by Lennon was Muddy Waters, unknown to the reporters.  “You don’t know who your famous people are,” quipped Lennon.

The two pictures below are from Stovall’s Farm, a plantation where McKinley Morganfield lived, worked, and played, before he got the confidence to up and leave for the North, as so many other black people had done.  His cabin stood on this site, but has been moved to a local museum:  ZZ Top (I don’t know their music, but they know their Blues61revisited!) made an electric guitar out of one of its planks, and used it to raise funds for the restoration of the cabin.  The state of Mississippi eventually got on board the Blues Train, and set up a Blues Trail, with historical markers up and down the region, especially along Highway 61, which Dylan “revisited” in his smash hit record.  (Highway 61 figures in quite a number of Blues songs, as it runs the length of the Delta, and beyond.)

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This cabin below is just next to the Muddy Waters site:  it wasn’t his cabin, but it looks as if it could have been!  As my wife remarked, it looks like “it’s right out of central casting!”IMG_0039

We based our visit to the Delta in Clarksdale, where there are lots of places to eat and hear music, great music, and in a relaxed, laid back environment that is wonderful.  We stayed in the very nice Delta Bohemian Guest House, where our comfortable room had a tub, plumbing fixtures, and tiled floor, that thrilled me.  (I understand that not everyone shares my enthusiasms.) IMG_0045

Needless to say, it is Mississippi after all, the area is rather economically depressed.  These shots in Shaw, MS, where I stumbled on the Blues Trail marker for Honeyboy Edwards, a favorite of mine, capture the atmosphere nicely.

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Further south is the not particularly interesting town of Greenville, MS, which was the center of a lot of literary activity as well as a devastated area during the momentous flood of 1927, the relief effort for which, incidentally, catapulted Herbert Hoover to the presidency.  The museum about the flood, the greatest natural disaster in US history, I believe, was closed, but I did manage a brief rain soaked stroll along the top of the levee.


Blast on the Levee

May 3, 2011

Last night, the Corps of Engineers blew a hole in the Birds Point Levee to allow the Mississippi to discharge into a huge, flat area of farmland.  The outlet is intended to cause the river level to drop, protecting the town of Cairo, IL, and relieving stress on downstream levees during this time of torrential Spring rains.

The image below shows the western levee (yellow line) that forms the boundary of the floodway area which extends eastwards from there to the Mississippi.  The dynamiting of the levee was part of a plan, used once before in the 1930s, after the floodway was constructed in response to the disastrous flood of 1927.

Naturally, the few hundred people who live and work in the floodway were not pleased with the decision of the Corps, and the plan was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.  Ahem…why were they living there?  The government had purchased flood easements from them.  As this blogger notes

… noted that state and local policy in Missouri, which somehow allowed about 100 houses to be built in the floodway, shares blame.  In the 1980’s I worked as a river scientist in Missouri.  I ran into strong Libertarian leanings, and some of the most hard-core of those folks farm land protected by big Federal levees.  Who want government to leave them alone.

Yes, the feds should spend millions to protect the land, pay for easements, but never, ever carry out a plan that is part of the original purpose of the levees in the first place.  Libertarian sentiment dovetails nicely with self-interest.

Photo by Jeff Roberson/Associated Press