Ellen Roberds, creative placemaker

High Ground News

March 27, 2014

ioby is the online “crowd-resourcing” platform that has been used to fund more than 280 projects nationwide with more than $700,000 since its launch in 2009. The successful Hampline funding in Memphis is one such success story; ioby collected over $75,000 to create a dedicated, protected bike lane in Binghampton.

The site has become a phenomenon of today’s virtual village, existing in cyberspace at the click or swipe of our fingertip. In Memphis, though, there is now a face to go with those pixels. Ellen Roberds is the only ioby “creative placemaker” in the country, working to inform the public and see that projects find enough traction to become success stories of their own.

The year-long, grant-funded position is in partnership with the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team, Livable Memphis and ioby. Roberds will seek out those with ideas and help to get those ideas clarified and onto the ioby website. Many may be in disadvantaged areas of the city, and those without the critical wi-fi or technological savvy to bring the idea to the public. The projects targeted will be limited to those of $3,000 or below.

“This is not a Hampline project,” Roberds says. “We’re looking for very small projects.”

This isn’t to say those with the grand ideas aren’t welcome, but ioby and Roberds preach baby steps. “Let’s say they want to turn a lot into a playground, but they don’t have the capacity at this point to raise $60,000, so you just kind of start with something small,” she says. “Why don’t we raise $100 and buy some soccer balls and some soccer goals, and a lawnmower to mow the lot and have a place to play outside of the street?”

Past performance shows that if you do well with a small project, that more money can be raised with ioby the second time around. The Hyde Foundation is one potential funder that might be looking at that performance, Roberds says  . . . (read more)


Myriad choices send dad home empty-handed

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

March 13, 2014

Myriad Choices send dad home empty-handed

Given the choice of grocery shopping or working, I’m lying on the couch right now with a legal pad and pencil, coffee by my side, and writing this column.

In the meantime, my wife is being faced with choices — paste or gel toothpaste, shampoo for body or curls or dryness, the small, medium or large jar of peanut butter, and round-top vs. whatever that other kind of bread is.

All of the choices make me crazy and indecisive, which is why I’m on the couch. It’s also why I’m given only limited access to Kroger. I can stand in front of 20 linear feet of lunch meat for a half-hour and leave empty-handed.

America is the land of choice. In this country, you can choose to be a surgeon or a house painter, a musician or CPA, Muslim or Catholic, live on the West Coast or East, write in cursive or print. The grocery store is like a tiny democracy with its myriad options and possibilities from the land of milk and butter, to the shores of poultry and pasta.

It is overwhelming. And more than our founding fathers, such choice is a testament to those who have chosen marketing as a profession. Ever since hometown hero Clarence Saunders opened the first Piggly Wiggly at 79 Jefferson in Downtown, putting the product at the fingertips of the customers, marketing geniuses have scrambled to help us choose which bottle of ketchup is better than the next (hint: They’re exactly the same inside; the only difference is which end you rest the bottle on — top or bottom).

When my kids were babies and up all night afflicted with mucous and fever, I would invariably be sent on a midnight errand to Walgreens for something liquid and pink and age-appropriate. I would invariably forget exactly what it was I’d been sent to retrieve. Those were long evenings spent reading the backs of bottles and boxes for anything that would trigger my memory.

I would return home with something purple and highly narcotic. Inundated with options, I’d chosen poorly. My wife and baby displeased with my choice, I spent the rest of those nights in a hazy fog of sleep brought on by whatever pediatric elixir I’d bought.

Could there be that much difference between this toothpaste and that? This bottle of shampoo with guava and that one with avocado? Probably not.

I have a brother-in-law who once refused to shop at a certain store because they carried only three types of grits. That’s not so far-fetched, though. One of the reasons we choose to live in the South is for its variety of grits.

It isn’t even limited to what goes into or on our bodies. Bathroom cleaners offer the same array of variances. Scrubbing bubbles or foam? Blue or clear? Pine scent or no scent at all? It makes no sense to me.

Packaging, pennies and peer pressure are what drives us at the store. I find the options silly most times, frustrating at others, yet it beats the alternative.

In Memphis these days, on any given weekend, we have a choice of sporting events, outdoor festivals, music shows and places to gather. These are options unavailable decades ago. Even if those choices confuse and confound, and I end up lying on this couch all weekend because I just can’t make up my mind, it’s nice that those choices exist.

And you really can’t go wrong with a Grizzlies or Tigers game, with dinner at Local Gastropub or Tsunami, a stroll around the Memphis Zoo or the Memphis Botanic Garden. The wrong choice there doesn’t carry the same weight as, say, a gel toothpaste when your wife specifically said paste.

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What smart cities can learn from Memphis

High Ground

March 12, 2014

What smart cities can learn from Memphis

With recent successes in battling urban sprawl, Memphis is demonstrating creative ways to foster neighborhood revitalization. Memphis now has lessons to share with others on urban planning, neighborhood involvement and ‘bootstrapping.’

The story of sprawl in Memphis begins as early as the 1950s and with one of the first suburban shopping centers in the country, Poplar Plaza, built at the edge of the city’s eastern limit. The sprawl continued in earnest throughout the ‘70s, cutting into the surrounding county with the deliberateness and tenacity of a Mississippi River current as developers gobbled up land further and further east. An interstate loop was built around the city, then another. Eventually a third offshoot would break off to wend its way around single family homes, malls, soccer fields, movie multiplexes and car sale lots.

While the city hasn’t actively worked to abort the sprawl, the flow is beginning to abate as more and more entrepreneurs, planners, consumers, families and government itself looks inward, back to the city and its neighborhoods.

This is We mural on Broad Ave. Photo by Andrew J. Breig

This is We mural on Broad Ave.
Photo by Andrew J. Breig

The idea that other smart cities may have something to learn from Memphis is a new one, a radical one, yet completely plausible given recent successes.

The first such lesson is to not let the rigidity often associated with planning get in the way of progress.

“Local government here is learning to be flexible, learning to be nimble, learning to reorient and be able to respond more quickly to these neighborhood-driven efforts,” says Tommy Pacello, project manager for the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team. Incidentally, another lesson for cities might be to get yourself such a team. This one, funded by the Bloomberg Foundations beginning in 2012, has worked to reduce gun violence and restore economic vitality to core neighborhoods within the city.

Giving in to Community-Driven Growth

The neighborhood efforts Pacello references are epitomized by the creation of theBroad Avenue Arts District along a once-forgotten street in the nearly forgotten neighborhood of Binghampton in Midtown. The district is a half-mile revitalization project realized by a few key players in the neighborhood. Through a series of festivals, pop-up markets and the unwavering dedication of a handful of restauranteurs and retailers – and one gutsy action of citizens hand-painting bicycle lanes and head-in parking spaces along the street – the stakeholders proved to the city what could be done and made clear what it was they wanted to see in their neighborhood.

And, to its credit, the city listened. Not only listened but, with the adoption of the 500-page Unified Development Code in 2010, “there is now a codified process by which the neighborhood associations are brought into the discussion sooner and the goal is … that if we bring in the neighborhood sooner, then they can be more instrumental on the design of the project,” says Josh Whitehead, planning director for the Memphis & Shelby County Office of Planning and Development. “What they wanted it (the UDC) to be is more flexible to allow, and to make easier, redevelopment inside the city.”

“They’re thinking about creative placemaking, and thinking about this concept of lean urbanism, which is this whole idea essentially about how do we build great places out of baling wire and twine and not thinking about over-engineering projects,” says Pacello.

As counterintuitive as it may seem coming from a planner, long-range planning may not be in the best interest of a city. Whitehead, instead, makes the case for looser land use control and points to Portland, Oregon, as example. That progressive city has a state-implemented “urban growth boundary,” a line in the sand dictating that no development occurs outside that line until the density within reaches a certain threshold.

It is an effective impediment to urban sprawl. But in an older area of town, industrial makers and manufacturers are being encroached upon by residential and commercial retail concerns, Whitehead says. “Only the city of Portland can rezone your property and they do that comprehensively as a big neighborhood … it’s so restrictive.”

His suggestion: “The language of code needs to be as freewheeling as possible.”

Thinking small in the beginning, starting off manageably with pop-up shops and temporary green spaces or street festivals, solidifies a neighborhood’s vested interest in its area of town. The analogy is of a parent and child. The child decides she wants to play trombone but, instead of rushing out and paying hundreds of dollars for an instrument that may be left behind in short order, the parent rents one. The budding musician gets a feel for the instrument, shows a willingness to practice and the responsibility of it. Once the parent is convinced, something more permanent is considered.

And once it’s considered, the parent – or city – must act quickly and in similar, responsible fashion. This may include reworking sewers, adding or doing away with street lights, or knitting those neighborhoods together through pedestrian and bike-friendly right of ways, as is the goal of the Mid-South Complete Streets and the Mid-South Regional Greenprint initiatives. Both work to, in essence, bring the city together through a network and patchwork of pedestrian-friendly streets, roadways, pathways and green spaces . . . (read more)


Burch, Porter & Johnson

“Foundations” in MBQ Magazine

February/March 2014

Striving to better the community through social and cultural endeavors

If the measure of a business is in its revenue and assets, output, production, and what it provides to consumers, then Memphis has had its fair share of successes throughout history. From cotton to lumber and the means to transport it all, the entrepreneurs and visionaries of this city have excelled.

But how does one measure the success of a law firm? Its assets are in the men and women who people its paneled offices and lively conference rooms, in the thousands of hours spent with law books and in hushed libraries, in the ideology and vision of its leaders. To this end, Memphis is rich with the likes of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz; Apperson Crump; and Wyatt Tarrant & Combs, to name just a few: all have storied pasts that stretch back more than half a century.

Another measure of a business’ success might be in how that company betters its community when it comes to social and cultural issues, and in this respect Burch, Porter & Johnson dots the timeline of Memphis history like few others.

Founded in 1904 by Clinton H. McKay, H.D. Minor, and Charles N. Burch, the firm has long had an active hand in progressive issues. McKay served in the Tennessee Legislature; Minor was president of the Lawyers Club of Memphis, the predecessor to the modern-day Memphis Bar Association, which was later founded by Burch among others.

In the 1940s, following the deaths of the three founders, the firm was run by Lucius E. Burch Jr. (nephew of Charles), John S. Porter, and Jesse E. Johnson. Today, overlooking Court Square from his office on the first level of the iconic turret of the Burch Porter building, Charlie Newman, an attorney with the firm since 1965, remarks that the namesakes of the firm looked upon the practice of law as a calling and “not primarily a business and pursuit of money.”

It was with these leaders that the ideology of the firm as it’s now known began to assert itself.

Edward H. Crump had been elected mayor in 1909, and, though he would serve only until 1915, he had a politically charged puppeteer’s reach. And though his accomplishments were legion — improving public health, beautifying the city to national acclaim, extending roadways east into burgeoning suburbs, and improving communications throughout the city — his ways were less than democratic.

Lucius Burch brought to Memphis from his hometown of Nashville a political connectedness and an unwavering sense of right and wrong. An enthusiastic outdoorsman with a passion for adventure, he hunted and hiked the mountains of the West and flew his own plane to work from his home in what was at the time the far outskirts of Memphis.

Member Charlie Newman. On the wall are portraits of Charles N. Burch (1868-1938) and H. D. Minor (1868-1947), founding partners of the firm. Photo by Brandon Dill

Member Charlie Newman. On the wall are portraits of Charles N. Burch (1868-1938) and H. D. Minor (1868-1947), founding partners of the firm.
Photo by Brandon Dill

Burch’s passion for social justice ran just as deep and wild. As the post-World War II generation began to question dictatorial leadership, whether an ocean away or in its own City Hall, the lawyer was able to rally prominent Memphians Ed Meeman, editor of the Press-Scimitar newspaper, and hardware magnate Edmund Orgill. The three were immediately viewed — and rightly so — as adversaries to political machines in general, and Crump’s in particular. The culmination of the men’s work was the 1956 election of Orgill as mayor, flying in the face of Crump’s own candidate and marshaling in the end of Crump’s nearly 50-year reign . . . (read more)


Hitting a high note

“Foundations” in MBQ Magazine

December/January 2013

Amro and Memphis: In tune since 1921

It was 1921 and everywhere in Memphis was the sound of jazz and blues music mixing with the music of travel — train whistles and the riverboats’ calliope. Enter into this symphony Mil Averwater and Frank Moorman, passing through on the way from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. They must have heard it all, and seen the throngs of people shopping, working, eating, and playing downtown.

In a time when bigger began to be better — Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly chain of grocery stores was bagging revenues of $60 million — Averwater and Moorman had simpler dreams. They were musicians with an urge to teach others.

The partners opened Amro Studios — the “A” of Averwater and “M” of Moorman with an “RO” as a fill line — in October 1921 on the second floor of 166 South Main Street. On what is today’s Tri-State Bank’s parking lot at the corner of Main and Peabody Place, the two would open the windows wide to play piano and, when the inevitable passerby wandered in to see what was going on, they would offer a 30-lesson course.

C.J. & Nick Averwater Photo by Jonathan Postal

C.J. & Nick Averwater
Photo by Jonathan Postal

Business grew, built on diversification and immersion into the popular music of the day. Averwater wrote and copyrighted the book The Amro System of Popular Jazz in 1923. When WMC Radio went on the air that same year, he played and arranged talent for the city’s inaugural waveband.

When cotton prices plummeted in 1930, the Great Depression struck Memphis like a mallet. People did what they could to stay afloat as jobs were lost and families condensed into single, bulging households. Nonessentials were cut from budgets everywhere, and music lessons, it would seem, would be doomed. Frank Moorman had left the business early on to return to Cincinnati, but Averwater remained committed to the notion that music is good for the body and soul. Over much of those depressing years, he worked with a system of bartering. He traded a lesson in scales for a basket of eggs, a medley of standards for a gallon of milk.

In 1927, the big band leader Jimmie Lunce-ford came to Manassas High School and began what would become the first public school band program in the city. As the popularity of school bands grew, so did Amro’s business, and the two would meld when Averwater, who had begun offering instruments for sale, would eventually begin supplying those programs in the 1940s and ’50s.

The work consisted of putting boots on the ground then, with Mil and his staff traveling the dirt and gravel roads of Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Missouri. It was a familial industry, with the salesmen often staying overnight in the band directors’ homes.

Today, Amro supplies instruments to nearly all the schools within a 250-mile radius of Memphis, and the Averwaters are still conducting the show with Pat Averwater, Mil’s grandson, as president, and great-grandson CJ Averwater as vice president. Great-grandson Nick Averwater who recently graduated from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, has joined the business as well.

It’s a multi generational business serving a multigenerational clientele, CJ Averwater says. “One of the coolest experiences working the floor is when someone comes in and says, ‘I got my first instrument here.’ That’s touching, that lets you know you’re doing something that benefits the community.”

Over time, Amro has grown and contracted with the city. Locations have included Madison Avenue, Monroe, Union, Austin Peay, Elvis Presley Boulevard. and near the corner of Poplar and Highland where Buster’s Liquor now stands. In the 1970s, the operation was moved to its current location at 2918 Poplar, with an addition to the west of the original building in the ’90s doubling the space to its current 25,000 square feet. Housed within are showrooms, repairs workshops, executive and accounting offices, and an auditorium that seats a hundred.

“As business has grown, we’ve been more successful out of one location because a lot of our operation is not necessarily retail itself but in the service we provide outside of the city,” CJ says . . . (read more)


Calm seas ahead for ‘S.S. Hoarder’

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Feb. 27, 2014

Calm seas ahead for ‘S.S. Hoarder’

In my youth, I harbored dreams of sailing the world. It’s a dream that didn’t end with the birth of my first child when other responsibilities become so much more immediate. It didn’t sink with the birth of my second or third, nor when my fourth came aboard.

From the relative safety of landlocked Memphis, I was able to let my sails fill with the far-fetched idea that I, and my crew of four, would someday visit the sandy beaches and protected bays of Portugal, Fiji, the Maldives or any number of Caribbean islands.

The only alteration in my plan over the years involved the increasing size of the imagined boat. Not by much — a foot here, a foot there. One more berth, an extra life jacket.

Never mind the fact that I don’t sail. Not in practice, anyway. In theory, in my imagination, I’m setting a course by the North Star, cutting my jib and trimming my sails. But it’s a dream, and dreams are rarely practical.

Yet recently, pragmatism became the very anchor to stall the S.S. Imagination. We moved to a new house. It wasn’t a move to the blue water of Antigua or even onto a 42-foot sloop. It wasn’t three time zones, but a mere three streets away. And yet, despite such a short jaunt, the physical means necessary to move this family of six half a mile might have taken an armada.

We have too much stuff.

Like so many in today’s society, we consume, and we keep, and casting off what is unnecessary becomes unthinkable. We cleared out closets and then moved on to cabinets. We scavenged under beds and in the attic, rifled desk drawers and tackled whole rooms. We found Davy Jones’ locker, a dead man’s chest and a bottle of rum.

The idea of ever paring down our lives enough to fit it all on a single boat became laughable. A wicked pirate sort of laugh that devolved into a salty sob carried away on the wind with my dreams.

The act of clearing out what we didn’t want or no longer used was cathartic. The Salvation Army and Goodwill received boatloads of goods that will hopefully be put to better use. But it felt like deck chairs thrown from the Titanic.

We have way too much stuff.

Amidst our mess, though, we did uncover some buried treasure: photo albums, childhood toys that had provided my children with security, art projects made by tiny hands and mementos gone missing. These things are the lifelines of parenthood, the flotation devices to help buoy us when the seas of parenthood become rocky and threatening. These were good omens, our red skies at night.

The new house is slowly becoming shipshape. While it may not move at 20 knots, boxes are still being unpacked and stowed, the purge is ongoing, and the S.S. Hoarder is floating lighter than before. With all hands on deck, we’re weighing anchor and setting a course for the island chain of Less-Is-More.

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Dad tells the ‘moles’ to forgetaboutit

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Feb. 13, 2014

Dad tells the ‘moles’ to forgetaboutit

As parents, how many of your conversations with other adults are peppered with your children asking “What?” when they don’t catch the thread of a conversation or miss an aside? My kids have a knack for inserting themselves into any conversation, rapt with attention as though the topic might revolve around them.

Everything revolves around them, though, doesn’t it? Our daughters and sons are the suns of our universe. That’s according to their understanding of science, and they aren’t all that good at science.

I’ve had to start scheduling a meeting with my wife for time alone to discuss the issues of the day — finances, kids’ behavior and subsequent punishment, social matters. Without a closed-door meeting, our business becomes part of the public discourse.

Short of a conference booked days in advance, our conversations sound more like those from gangster films, both fictional and law enforcement surveillance. We fall into “Goodfellas” speak: “Remember that thing we talked about last week?” “The money thing?” “Yeah, that.” “The house thing or the car thing?” “The grocery thing.” “Yeah, yeah, I made that happen already, it’s taken care of.”

We’re being watched and overheard, and there have been occasions when, a lá “The Godfather,” I’ve turned to my daughter and said, “I’m going to speak Italian to your mother.”

We don’t speak Italian, but my daughter doesn’t know that.

Our kids look at us, confused and left out. “What?” they ask. “Forget about it,” we answer.

It isn’t that we’re talking about them. Not necessarily. Not all the time. It’s that there should be some expectation of privacy even with four children underfoot. We talk around them, we resort to e-mail and text messaging — often from within the house, even across the room — to impart information.

This is the age of information. My children’s generation may be the one with the most access to available knowledge. At the touch of one of their sticky fingertips, they have Google, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, YouTube and an infinite number of media outlets. At the merest thought or curiosity, the answer will appear before them, in the palm of their grungy palms.

But are they the most curious generation?

My kids seem to be. And they’re most interested in what it is that their parents are up to, what we’re talking about, what it is we’re planning. So they lurk, and they hover, and they question us about our conversations.

At a reading hosted by Burke’s Book Store last week for novelist, physicist and MIT professor Alan Lightman, the author asserted that within the next 100 years people will probably have microchips embedded in their brains for the sending and receiving of information. My children are getting a jump on that, such is their need to know. They’ve bored into my brain, stepped up their surveillance game, and eavesdrop with the resourcefulness of a 21st century federal agent.

I can’t be the only one out there who has fathered a family of moles. If you’re in the same situation, meet me at Louis’ Restaurant in the Bronx to discuss it. But come alone, and don’t mention that other thing. You never know who might be listening.

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Jasper Newton Smith

Elmwood Cemetery


Jan. 6, 2014

It’s one of the first markers seen after crossing Morgan Bridge. This isn’t the original entrance to Elmwood Cemetery, that was off of Walker Ave., on the south side of the 80 acres. This newer passageway is narrow, confining, yet once traversed it gives the visitor a feeling, of all things, of openness and a sense of space; to cross over is to be delivered.

Straight ahead, slightly to the right, is a grave that isn’t. There is no one buried there but, instead, a monument stands to the memory of a man and it is his likeness, in profile to the visitor there at the intersection of Page Ave. and Morgan’s Grand Tour. The statue of a lion, as is custom when there is no body within, watches over that memory.

Jasper Newton Smith was poor when he came to Memphis from Giles County, Tenn., in the late 19th century. He soon went to work for Mary Moore, described in later accounts as an “eccentric widow.” Smith worked at odd jobs and acted as her caretaker. The two became close and were wed in 1878, a year that would see thousands in Memphis perish from Yellow Fever.

Mary was born in Missouri in 1837, and died of pneumonia on Feb. 19, 1897. Jasper inherited her money and property, amassing some 100 properties throughout Memphis with others in St. Louis, Baltimore and Mayfield, Kentucky.

Two years after his wife’s death, Jasper would go missing. He never returned and his body was never recovered. In his fifties at the time, with graying hair, a moustache and “a small bunch of whiskers on his chin,” wrote a reporter for The Commercial Appeal, he was last seen the night of May 26, 1899.

Jasper dressed plainly, though, at the time, his fortune was said to be worth $200,000 (almost $5.5 million in today’s money). Indeed, accounts claim he had been in the habit of carrying large sums of money and that “he had a tobacco sack full of greenbacks” on him the day before he disappeared and displayed some gold to his niece, Ida Smith, who lived with him at his home at 392 Madison St.

Those close to him believe Jasper was a victim of foul play as he was a man of habit and had not mentioned going abroad. He was a drinking man, but did not drink heavily, yet one of the last places he was seen was at Whiskey Chute Alley, a blocks-long string of saloons, oyster bars and gambling houses stretching from Madison to Court, and from Front to Main St. Renamed Park Alley in 1942, it was a gathering place for businessmen and Jasper had been seen there with a nephew before he disappeared. Another report puts him at the Montgomery Park horse racing track on East Parkway the night before with that same nephew . . . (read more)


Library Foundation celebrates past, looks toward future

The Commercial Appeal

Jan. 6, 2014

The Memphis Library Foundation is taking a look back and ahead this week as it celebrates its 20th anniversary with a luncheon Thursday to honor longtime board members and a renewed push to complete its $1.5 million campaign for a digital teen learning lab at the Central Library.

“Libraries are one of the most important things in the city,” says longtime foundation board member Honey Scheidt. “There’s something for everybody; it’s the most democratic institution for rich or for poor.”

Scheidt will be honored at the luncheon at The Peabody, along with board members Leslie Dale, Dunbar Abston, Jack Belz, Mike Cody, John Paul Jones and the late Charles Leonard.

The foundation started with a group of concerned citizens who were rallied together by then-library system director Judith Drescher to raise funds for a new central library.

Dale, retired manager for Bellsouth’s West Tennessee region, recalls that “the old library on Peabody was just worn out. It was so heavily used and just a worn-out old building that had to be replaced.”

The foundation reached the campaign goal of $21.5 million and, with it, the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, a 330,000-square-foot citadel of glass and steel, opened in 2001. Situated in the heart of the city, the building — and the free access to information and services that libraries everywhere represent — symbolically bridged the affluent Chickasaw Gardens neighborhood with the struggling Binghamton community.

The foundation today supports all 18 branches of the library, which received $1.4 million from the city this fiscal year. In addition to yearly contributions, the board has identified four significant areas to focus on: author events, early literacy, history and teenage users. These have been addressed through increased author readings, systemwide computers for

early childhood literacy that was funded last year, and special attention to the Central Library’s Memphis & Shelby County Room, a vast reservoir of historical documents for the region.

“The board is amazing. These folks have raised an incredible amount of money to ensure that the city of Memphis had a world- class library that the city and county couldn’t afford alone,” said Memphis director of libraries Keenon McCloy.

A visitor to the Central Library will notice the colorful representation of trees welcoming guests into an open and airy children’s section furnished with appropriately sized chairs and tables. What has been missing, though, is a space for teenagers . . . (read  more)


Parents should nurture children’s seeds of talent

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Jan. 30, 2014

Let kids make art; great ones all start somewhere

I was a chauffeur for a limousine service in Panama City Beach, Fla., in the mid-1990s. One day I got the call to pick up a film crew at the private airport and escort them around town as they scouted locations. The client turned out to be director Ridley Scott and his team looking at possible sites for what would become the movie “G.I. Jane.”

What struck me as we drove along the beach and toured a nearby Navy facility was how Scott and crew bandied about scenarios as if they were making the story up right there in that 15-passenger van. If you’ve seen the movie, you might conclude they were.

My oldest son, Calvin, and his friends recently had the assignment to produce Act III, Scene III of William Shakespeare’s “Othello” on video for their pre-AP English class at White Station High School. They spent weeks on it, the production time alone deserves an A-plus, and their parents deserve credit as wardrobe consultants, craft services, location scouts, funding and transportation.

One blustery day, as I drove them to Elmwood Cemetery, they were wrapped up in Shakespeare’s tale, dissecting the scene for the drama of it, for camera angles and effects. It was great to see such devotion to a single project. Would they show the same gusto for chemistry or algebra? Probably not. But there very well might be lessons in time management and collaboration learned from hours of planning and discussion that will benefit them in those classes and beyond.

The arts have the ability to elasticize the mind and shake loose the binds from so much focus on schedules, policy and standardized testing.

Prolific author Neil Gaiman, in a 2012 commencement address given at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, implored its graduates to “make good art.” It was a simple request, and quite obvious considering the audience, yet it resonates.

Kids should make art. Whether in school or out, they should make art.

Shelby County Schools announced last week that it would offer every child every meal every day. The healthy development of our children is society’s responsibility, and we should feed their bodies food just as we should feed their minds with math, and we should see that their souls are fed with art.

The 28-minute Othello scene (with gag reel) is immensely entertaining with fine acting and clever camera work. The soundtrack — just as Shakespeare must have intended — is by the likes of Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and Rupert Holmes.

I’m sure the opening weekend box office was a smash; I know I watched it twice on YouTube.

Driving the production team of Calvin, Ben, Quinn, Austen and Isaac was quite different from chauffeuring Ridley Scott. The high school students couldn’t afford to buy my lunch as Scott had, nor were any of them smoking the size cigar that he was.

But you have to start somewhere, and that start, more often than not, is in school. The seeds of talent sprout at an early age, and we as parents should try to be aware of it and nurture it and facilitate our kids’ interests any way we can.

Sometimes it means making sure they’re stocked with pencils, paints and paper, and sometimes it means providing a substantial meal. It might mean driving a team of nascent filmmakers across town, or just encouraging them to “make good art.”

Permanent link to The Commercial Appeal