As a 34-year-old who still subscribes to and reads the print edition of the daily local paper I am part of a steadily disappearing demographic. This article and what it implies about the current direction of the Commercial Appeal caused me to seriously consider calling in to cancel my subscription.
Last Thursday the paper ran a story under the headline, "Credit Union cites crime and isolation for move to Bartlett," that started with this lead:
"Raleigh's distressed commercial strips of empty asphalt, vacant space and liberal supply of predatory lenders have sunk so low, even the City of Memphis has fled to Bartlett.
"That is, the City of Memphis Credit Union."
Reading further in the story it becomes clear that although the credit union uses the city's name and seal in its logo, it has no connection to Memphis government. Five of its six branches are still in Memphis but one in Raleigh recently moved about a mile further east on Stage to a new space in Bartlett.
The article says:
"Part of CEO Ken Swann's answer was that his credit union needed to be nearer some of the 25,000 members, all of whom don't live in Memphis, and required more and nicer square feet.
"But he also stressed the crime and isolation in Raleigh.
"After pointing out that five of the six branches remain inside Memphis, Swann told questioners Wanda Halbert and Janis Fullilove that the Raleigh branch had become increasingly isolated and victimized.
"Its neighboring tenants had already moved out of the Village Mart on Covington Pike, just south of Stage Road.
"Burglars once attempted to steal the credit union's ATM. Another time, criminals jack-hammered around the night deposit box.
"'We struggled with that,' Swann said of leaving Memphis. 'Our goal was not to move out of the city.'
"But leave it did, just over a mile and just over the line into Bartlett. The new branch opened in Bartlett Square office building, 5705 Stage Road, on July 2."
Crime has definitely increased in Raleigh over the past 20 years, but where the article transitioned from sensationalism to outright blatant misinformation was when it began comparing the old credit union location to the new one saying:
"Site visits by The Commercial Appeal showed:
"Old place: Faced illegal dumping grounds behind a now-vacant Payless Shoe Source.
"New place: Good view of stately, red-bricked Bartlett United Methodist Church.
"Old place: Commercial strip fronted by big asphalt parking lot with only thin lines of perimeter landscaping.
"New place: Office building fronted by much smaller parking lot with proportionally much more landscaping. Even the atrium inside is flush with trees.
"Old place: One of strip center's bigger stores displays only a temporary banner sign: "School Uniforms".
"New place: Next to lushly landscaped, well maintained Side Porch Steak House.
"Old place: Borders waste bin area for neighboring Burlington Coat Factory, which itself is surrounded by acres of treeless asphalt.
"New place: Has a gurgling water fountain in lobby and blooming crepe myrtles outside.
As someone who grew up in the area described in the article and who still spends a lot of time traveling down both Covington Pike and Stage at work I knew that the differences between the two areas were far less significant than the paper was claiming. In fact, the similarities between the two are a lot more noteworthy and important for any genuine analysis of the lifecycles of local suburban commercial developments.
So I took my camera to both areas for some pictures to back up my rebuttal of the Commercial Appeal article. Since barbecue and soul food restaurants are where all my posts start out, no matter how far I might eventually digress, my first stop was the China Inn 2 located just a few buildings south of the credit union's old Raleigh branch.
In case you were wondering, the original China Inn is on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Whitehaven. I'll have to try it after being surprised by the quality of the soul food offerings at the Raleigh Location.
The sign in front of China Inn 2 promises a buffet loaded with both "international cuisine" and "Southern home cooking." I've always been a little hesitant to try it, since I'm wary of restaurants that try to cover too much ground with their offerings. It is usually a recipe for mediocrity at best. I assumed the Southern cooking options at China Inn 2 would be a handful of selections like fried chicken, meat loaf, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese sitting in the steam pans.
The usual staples were there. But there was also a large choice of foods like hog maws, beef tripe, pig's feet and neckbones. And there was still enough of a lunch crowd near 2 p.m. to keep fresh food coming out at a steady pace. The crowd was a mix of black, white, Hispanic and Asian customers of all ages.
For my first plate I got pulled pork barbecue, a pork neckbone, a baked chicken drumstick, turnip greens, yams and some hot water cornbread. Everything was good. The barbecue was the least impressive. While tender and juicy, it didn't have any smoke flavor and was served with bottled Cattleman Jack's sauce. It wasn't bad, but commercial gas oven 'que with store-bought sauce definitely isn't anything to get excited about. Everything else was really good. I guess I should have been paying more attention to the parking lot when I drove past China Inn 2 in the past. All the cars should have made me realize the place was worth checking out.
For less than $8 the buffet ended up being a great value. I ended up getting another neckbone because the first one was so good. On my second trip I also got a few bites of the pepper steak and stir-fried fish from the Chinese section of the buffet to give it a try. Both of them were good as well. I'll definitely be back, since I'm in the area so frequently.
I could have eaten even more, but it was a boiling hot afternoon and I needed to go walking through some blacktop parking lots to take pictures for this post.
The old Raleigh branch for the City of Memphis Credit Union. The Commercial Appeal described the location as a, "commercial strip fronted by big asphalt parking lot with only thin lines of perimeter landscaping." No one can argue with that statement.
The biggest problem with the old location was that it was at the back corner of the shopping center beside the rear corner of the Burlington Coat Factory next door. Once again, there is no denying that the loading docks and garbage containers didn't make for a very scenic view.
The Commercial Appeal was also correct that the shopping center has plenty of empty asphalt with little greenery. This building on the other side of the Burlington Coat Factory was once a home improvement store called Home Quarters. There is a large Home Depot across the street that the old store didn't have a prayer of competing against. The building is now a distribution center for an athletic company, making the space look somewhat empty and underutilized.
There is no denying that the section of Raleigh around Covington Pike and Stage has some blight caused by poor design when the area was initially developed. But the tone of the Commercial Appeal's article makes it sound like the credit union moved to a beautiful utopia just a mile down the road in Bartlett.
Remember how the article described the lush landscaping, trees and blooming crepe myrtles at the new location? This is it.
The article also claimed that the new location had a "good view of stately, red-bricked Bartlett United Methodist Church." The church is visible a little ways down the street. But across the street from the from the new location is this largely-vacant strip mall. Remember how the paper slammed the old location for being near a sea of asphalt with no trees?
The sign in front of the aging strip mall is a good indicator of how many vacancies it has.
Look behind the credit union's new home and you will see what used to be an 84 Lumber yard. The Side Porch Steakhouse beside the building the credit union now occupies is nice looking. But the article made no mention of the old gas station on the other side of the building.
While the lumber yard closed years ago it appears that people are renting space from whoever owns the property now to store industrial equipment and gear for special events. So like the former home improvement store in Raleigh, it isn't vacant but it definitely appears underutilized.
The reporter who wrote the article makes it clear that he visited both sites. So for someone to walk around both locations and then present such a drastically different view of two areas that are facing extremely similar problems means there must have been some sort of agenda behind the distortion of fact.
I don't doubt that the credit union had problems with criminals attempting to access its property after hours at night. But that problem would have been largely caused by its location at the far back corner of its old building, where it was largely shielded from the street. So the move to a front corner facing the street at a new location was a definite improvement, but why did the paper go out if its way to make it sound like an escape from a decaying, crime-infested Raleigh to the lush, green paradise of Bartlett?
Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes on the Commercial Appeal's website knows about the anonymous comment sections at the bottom of its stories. The comments are generally a toxic cesspool where a handful of bored, angry and miserable people posts constantly throughout the day using mockery and bile in a desperate attempt to feel better about themselves. The paper recently instituted a policy that mostly restricts online commenting on articles to paid subscribers (a digital-only subscription is available for just $9.99 a month).
At first the new policy seemed like an attempt to clean up the comments sections, which had become a genuine embarrassment to the entire Mid-south. But I've noticed that since the change crime reporting on the paper's website seems to have gotten even more sensationalist. In fact, any negative news about the city, no matter how trivial, gets huge placement on the site. The article on the City of Memphis Credit Union makes it even more obvious that the paper is intentionally pandering to the most willfully-ignorant, know-nothing elements in its audience to make money off people paying to make snide remarks based on oversimplified stereotypes.
Memphis has plenty of real problems, and it deserves a daily newspaper that is able to provide serious, intelligent analysis of those problems. Right now it doesn't have one. I realize that when the paper's owners at Scripps-Howard in Cincinnati tell it that it is once-again time to do less with less in an attempt to prop up profit margins the paper has no choice but to keep reducing its staff and content. The Commercial Appeal's print edition was recently redesigned in yet another attempt to hide its ever-decreasing content.
With fewer reporters and editors around it is easier to fill space in the paper with stories taken directly from other media and police reports. Real analysis of complex issues requires time and money that is increasingly lacking. But it is deeply disturbing to think that the paper isn't just avoiding more in-depth analysis due to lack of resources; it is intentionally avoiding challenges to the oversimplified beliefs of its most belligerent readers who are drawn to any information, true or false, that reinforces their self-perceived place in the universe.
This isn't an issue of left or right, Republican or Democrat. The paper actually provides the B.S. "balance" that comes from reporting both the Democrat and Republican narratives as if they represent the only two ways to view any issue. This helps keeps the online arguing at a maximum level and the actual thinking to a minimum.
The article on the City of Memphis Credit Union did mention towards its ending that:
"Large-scale planning decisions made many years ago — such as allowing Wolfchase Galleria to be developed on the outer edge of the city — could be the root cause of the Raleigh's commercial deterioration.
"But the credit union executive's grilling occurred minutes before the committee — and later, the full City Council — approved changes to the Unified Development Code. The reason for many of the code changes is to make it easier for Memphis developers to save money by avoiding the UDC's stricter design standards."
Wolfchase definitely caused a lot of the commercial deterioration in Raleigh, just like it did to the suburb of Lakeland. The bigger problem is that no lessons were learned at the time. Newer developments like Wolfchase and Goodman Road around I-55 are even more poorly designed than those older examples. In an odd twist of irony the newer developments have been temporarily stabilized by the current real estate bust, which has prevented further sprawl from making them look like their otherwise destiny of Winchester in Hickory Hill.
The Unified Development Code is the city's attempt to make sure that future development, and redevelopment, within its borders is done right. As I noted in recent posts about Millington and Collierville, there are design elements that obviously do and don't work over a long period. As ugly as the strip mall across the street from the City of Memphis Credit Union's new home looks, it is just west of the best looking retail stretch in Barlett.
Like the old sections of Collierville, Millington and Germantown, the best looking section of Bartlett retail space is next to the train tracks in a historic part of the city. The storefronts are built out to the street and there are a lot of small businesses densely packed together in an area that is easy to walk. This is also the design you will see in the older parts of Memphis; like South Main, Cooper-Young and Broad Avenue; that have seen major revitalization in recent years.
We spent too many decades having our urban planning done by the developers and big businesses who buy our politicians. I was deeply disappointed to see a newspaper I was once proud to work for intentionally misleading its readers to promote the myth that the blight, political corruption and crime that continually follow unchecked sprawl can be escaped with a move outside the city.