Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Millington Past and Present - Old Timers

I'd never eaten at Old Timers in Millington before I stopped in on Monday, but as soon as I saw how many tables of people were there for lunch I figured the food had to be good. The restaurant is just off Navy Road in a building that was built at a dry goods and grocery store in 1907 near the train tracks. I keep noticing that in small suburban towns around Memphis there always seems to be something a little special about restaurants in historic buildings next to train tracks.

I initially planned to order something other than barbecue. The menu features a great selection of Southern cooking standards, some of the specials on the specials board sounded great and everything I saw on other people's plates looked good. Plus I'd plenty of great barbecue over the weekend. As part of my weekend-long birthday celebration I went to the dependably excellent Bar-B-Q Shop in Midtown on Saturday night with a large group of friends and made sure to order enough pulled pork and ribs that I was still eating leftovers on Sunday afternoon. 

But fate seemed to be determined that I needed more barbecue. The hostess sat me at a table at the back corner of the restaurant where a large plate-glass window provided a view of the restaurant's barbecue pit in an adjoining brick room. There may be some men who can sit and look at the big barbecue pit while they are hungry at lunchtime and not order some of the pork smoked on it but I'm not one of them.

The impressive ribs had a tremendous amount of meat on them. The had a nice solid smoke ring and enough deliciously rendered fat in them that people who aren't aware how healthy pork fat is might foolishly complain about it. They didn't have any dry rub on them and at first I was a little worried when the only sauce available on the table was a mild one, since mild seems to mean syrupy sweet at a lot of places. But the sauce at Old Timers has a nice vinegar tang to it that makes it a good compliment to the ribs.

The baked beans didn't initially look very appealing since they had the color and appearance of canned pork and beans, however when I tasted them they had a really good flavor and were loaded with chunks of onion and pork. Adding a bit of the barbecue sauce made them even better. The slaw was really good too with a nice pickle and vinegar flavor instead of mustard or mayonnaise. The meal came with a couple corn muffins that were way too sweet. After being impressed with the well-balanced mild barbecue sauce I was surprised by how disappointing they were.

The restaurant's walls are covered in vintage photographs that provide a fascinating look at what life in Millington was like during the first half of the 20th century. I took a meandering trip to the restroom while I was there mainly just to look at as many of the pictures as possible. The northern side of the building where Old Timers is located is home to the Millington Cable Company. Like I noted in a recent post about the Collierville Town Square, looking at older sections of small suburban towns can provide a vivid example of just how bad most of the surrounding planning and design has been.

The old multi-use building is built out to the street and has design that still looks good with a cable company occupying it. Whenever I end up in older areas with buildings lining the streets I inevitably spend a little time walking around sightseeing, since it almost always ends up being interesting.

People use terms like generic and cookie-cutter to describe suburban developments, but those terms can be a little misleading. The buildings within most commercial development look  exaggeratedly different from one another. What is cookie-cutter about them is how a Chili's or an On the Boarder in one place looks like one in any other in the country. Branding and ease of parking near an entrance are major priorities to national chains. A McDonald's wants to look like a McDonald's from a mile away and it doesn't want anyone having to walk past the entrance of another restaurant to get there. This doesn't just rob area's of their individual character. The big problem occurs when a company with a garishly distinctive building design decides to close a location.

The cable company looked right at home in the cool historic building. Right around the corner from it on Navy Road this was obviously a chain pizza place surrounded by a big parking lot until recently. Now it is a discount tobacco store, sitting by itself in a sea of cracked asphalt, in a building that looks  exactly like a former chain pizzaria converted into a discount tobacco store. If it was one of several tenants in a denser retail environment with a more appealing design it would look okay. But here it just looks like blight.

Head north on Highway 51 from Navy Road and you will pass a former big box retail store that is now a Goodwill thrift store. As a nonprofit the Goodwill store isn't paying any property taxes even it costs the city just as much in police and fire services and infrastructure needs as the original tenant.  

As Strong Towns director Chuck Marohn noted on his visit to Memphis, once a municipality agrees to subsidize growth it is agreeing to pay the additional costs associated with that growth indefinitely, no matter how much the return on investment might plummet. Marohn explained that cities and towns tend to drastically underestimate how much new growth will cost them in the long run, wile overestimating how much revenue it will bring in.

When the City of Millington approved the shopping center where the Goodwill store is currently located, you can bet that no one was planning for it to end up occupied but not paying taxes. The only advantage to the city now is that having Goodwill in the building keeps it from being a vacant property driving down surrounding property values.

I have seen a steady increase in the number of nonprofit thrift stores occupying former large big box retail sites over the past several years, all overflowing with donated goods. We have reached a point in our society where the economy is sputtering and stalling because people aren't borrowing enough money to keep buying enough ever-increasing amounts of cheap consumer goods at the same time that we are having trouble finding uses for all the barely-used cheap consumer goods we are already covered in. Meanwhile organic farming gets dismissed as too expensive and labor intensive by people who seem to think that having more jobs and less material stuff in our society would be a bad thing.

True laissez-faire capitalism isn't possible in a modern society where any development will need things like basic infrastructure and police and fire protection provided by government. On the other hand, planned economies that attempt to separate profits from production have been a devastating failure everywhere they've been attempted. Local governments shouldn't be attempting to control local businesses. But when local businesses demand government services it is the government's responsibility to make sure it will see a longterm positive return on its investment.

This Rent-A-Center and Cash America Pawn shop are just south of the Goodwill store on Highway 51. They've been there for years so both are obviously filling a need within the surrounding community while paying property taxes to the city. The design of the properties they occupy makes them more of an eyesore than the natures of the businesses themselves.

Of all the Memphis suburbs, Germantown has done the best job of preventing blight through strict regulation of its businesses, zoning laws and design codes. That can seem ironic since Germantown has a very Republican-leaning population that would frequently claim to hate government regulation of business and property rights. But what that city has done, like a smartly run business, is recognize that any development it approves is both an investment and a liability. Granted Germantown has pushed for a little too much design uniformity at times, creating a community that would be far too boring for me to personally live in. But unlike the majority of the rest of the Mid-south, its leaders have actually thought about what the developments they approve will look like decades down the road.  

Old Timers on Urbanspoon


  1. Old Timers was one of my favorite lunch places when I worked near Millington. Just about everything I've had there was pretty good. From what I could gather, it seems that you didn't like the barbecue. In my opinion, it's okay but not as good as Barb-A-Rosa's. By the way, I want to wish you a belated Happy Birthday.

    1. Thanks for the birthday wishes. I enjoyed the ribs at Old Timers. I definitely liked them better than the ones at Barb-A-Rosa's. I still need to try the Old Timers pulled pork.