Saturday, June 16, 2012

Lamar Avenue - More Tops

The last time I posted about a Tops Bar-B-Q a friend asked if I'd ordered pork rinds. I assumed he meant prepackaged Brim's pork rinds since Tops carries Brim’s products. But he said that on a visit to the Tops on Union he saw someone in line ahead of him order fresh pork rinds, which caused him to order some for himself.

After hearing about this I naturally asked about pork rinds when I visited the Tops on Lamar for lunch on Thursday. I was disappointed to hear they didn’t have any. My friend said the workers on Union told him they aren’t listed on the menu specifically because they already sell out so quickly. As a business owner I’d like to suggest that if you have a product you are keeping quasi-secret from your customers because it sells out so quickly it’s time to double the price and market it.  

What I did get on my visit was a pork shoulder plate. It was as solidly good as I expect from Tops, although the meat was oddly sliced into long strips. Thanks to the somewhat random ebb and flow of customers that is common at restaurants, when I first arrived I had to wait in line for a while but by the time I finished my meal I was the only customer in the store.

While I was the only customer in the store a bum wandered in off the street and tried to “get $1.50 for the bus” from the manager. She had been friendly with all the customers and started off friendly with him while asking him to leave but he kept persisting until she did the head and neck roll black women use to signify they have had all the foolishness they can handle and launched into an impressive tirade on the hard work involved in managing a Tops location, her mortgage, and her general lack of sympathy for grown men who “smoke their money then come in talking about wanting me to buy them a sandwich or give them money for the bus.” The bum quickly realized he’d pushed things too far and scurried out of the building.

Like most big cities, Memphis has its share of bums. It also has a reputation for being more dangerous than it actually is for the average person. Per capita violent crime numbers are heavily skewed by violence involving rival gangs, drug deals, robberies of people known to have drug money and other avoidable hood drama. Another part of the bad reputation comes from the appearance of streets like Lamar. Because Lamar is so heavily-traveled it gets seen by a large number of people; locals and tourists alike. And what they see is ugly. 

The problem with unchecked commercial development is that without an underlying design plan a haphazardly sprawling collection of buildings lacks the kind of intrinsic value that makes people want to put money into them as they age. Instead businesses move to new developments that are still terrible looking from a design standpoint but at least have the visual benefit of being newer, like the heavily congested sections of Goodman Road and Germantown Parkway.
I noticed one of the vacant spaces on Lamar used to house a restaurant named Q's Soul Food across the street from Tops. I wish I'd had a chance to try it.

I recently wrote about the blight along Broadway in West Memphis, AR. But the buildings that line the sidewalks there still have a unified and often historical look to them that makes it easy to envision what the street could look like with some money pumped into it. It’s the same kind of visual appeal that led to redevelopment in local areas like Cooper-Young and South Main, and it helps explain why even in its current state most of Broadway’s buildings are occupied.
When you look at Lamar you don’t find yourself thinking the numerous empty buildings need a good rehab and new tenants. You find yourself thinking that they need bulldozers. Local municipalities that routinely rubber stamp new development in the assumption that growth is always good need to send their officials on a tour of Lamar to see just how big of a drain commercial properties can end up being on tax revenues. Overaggressive growth inevitably leads to vacant properties. When a property goes vacant it doesn’t just decrease in value. It decreases the value of buildings around it, even ones that are still occupied. Meanwhile vacant properties actually increase the need for police and fire protection, which adds to the cost for local government.

People in the suburbs outside Memphis will sometimes boast that they've gotten away from "crooked Memphis politicians." The naive assumption underlying that belief is the idea that corrupt developers who showered politicians with money and gifts in Memphis, then did the same thing in the rest of Shelby County, will suddenly start to behave ethically in places like Fayette County, TN, or DeSoto County, MS. The recent corruption charges against Southaven, MS, mayor Greg Davis underline the fact that as long as government-subsidized outward development continues to spread unchecked throughout the Mid-South it will continue to bring political corruption with it.  

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  1. I just wanted to say, while your barbecue reviews are the main attraction, how much I enjoy your take on the political issues around Memphis, particularly here, talking about unchecked development. I know next to nothing about your city - I've only visited three times, and hardly in depth - but you speak a lot of sense. 25 years from now, Germantown could well look a lot like Lamar, or Summer, or Elvis Presley do today, if people don't pay attention to how they're allowing developers to pave their land. Keep up the great work.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Germantown actually has less to worry about than the other outer suburbs since it has always had much stricter standards for planning and design. The areas that need to worry about looking like Lamar, Summer or Elvis Presley are places like Germantown Parkway north of Germantown, Goodman around I-55, Goodman around Highway 78, Highway 64 in Oakland, etc.

  2. I used to have to commute on Lamar regularly. I would like to suggest that one of the primary reasons that street has a bad reputation is because it's a major transportation artery (Highway 78). The truckers who come through, often transiting from Memphis to Birmingham or points beyond have historically bolstered the traffic in drugs and prostitution. Businesses have a hard time thriving in high-crime locations even if the crime is primarily non-violent. I did work on Lamar for a while and I can testify that it is hard to function with that particular presence. I think Memphis would do well to tamp down the prostitution on that street if they want businesses and / or neighborhoods to flourish.