Down­town cor­ri­dors are his­toric, funky, strange

The Commercial Appeal - - Front Page - The Bei­fuss File USA TO­DAY NET­WORK – TENN.

Al­leys, in the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion, are places of men­ace and dan­ger, ro­mance and se­duc­tion, il­licit trade and fugi­tive art.

Yes, that’s a pretty broad de­scrip­tion for a nar­row pas­sage­way. But you know what I mean. Al­leys seem au­then­tic, out­law — cool.

A sports bar is in a strip mall. A speakeasy is in an al­ley.

The up­per crust re­sides on Park Av­enue. The work­ing class in­hab­its Gaso­line Al­ley.

When Turner Clas­sic Movies de­cided to ded­i­cate a weekly pro­gram to the sin­is­ter crime genre known as film noir, what did the ca­ble chan­nel name it? “Noir Al­ley.”

Lee Dorsey sang “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Al­ley.” “Sneakin’ Jane Down the Lane” just wouldn’t have had the same dis­rep­utable ring.

But what was once dé­classé is now fash­ion­able. Ea­ger to em­brace so-called au­then­tic­ity, cities now pro­mote their back streets — what Down­town Mem­phis

Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent Jen­nifer Oswalt calls the “al­ter­na­tive paths” that branch off fa­mil­iar cor­ri­dors.

That can be a metaphor, of course. (You’ve been to the Med­i­ta­tion Gar­den at Grace­land? Next, why not visit Furry Lewis’ grave in South Mem­phis?) But in the case of Down­town Mem­phis’ net­work of his­toric al­leys, the “al­ter­na­tive paths” are lit­eral.

Re­cently, the DMC an­nounced a plan to beau­tify sev­eral Down­town al­leys, with pub­lic art, cre­ative light­ing, dec­o­ra­tively repaved sur­faces and other im­prove­ments. Specif­i­cally, the project — dubbed “The Artery: Stereo to Es­cape” — will fo­cus on the cor­ri­dors of Stereo Al­ley, Mag­gie H. Is­abel Street (ac­tu­ally an al­ley), Ren­dezvous Al­ley and Gen­eral Wash­burn’s Es­cape Al­ley, which con­nect to form the shape of an un­used sta­ple that mostly runs par­al­lel to Sec­ond Street.

Those path­ways, how­ever, are only four of about a dozen al­leys that criss­cross Down­town Mem­phis. So The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal (i.e., me and pho­tog­ra­pher Joe Rondone) de­cided to take a walk­ing tour of all of them, with of­fi­cial Shelby County his­to­rian, some­time Pe­abody Duck­mas­ter and top al­ley cat Jimmy Ogle as our knowl­edge­able and en­thu­si­as­tic guide.

Ogle, of course, never met a vin­tage street sign, cor­nice or cob­ble­stone he didn’t want to, well, ogle. He is to Mem­phis knowl­edge what water is to wet: In­sep­a­ra­ble. You might ask about al­leys, but his an­swers will cover much more: Man­hole cov­ers (Down­town has 2,000 of them). Elvis (young mas­ter Pres­ley lost his job as a movie usher at the old Loew’s State Theater on Main Street af­ter get­ting into a fight in ad­ja­cent Bar­boro Al­ley). “Houses of com­mer­cial af­fec­tion” (i.e., broth­els).

Al­though most peo­ple now ex­pe­ri­ence al­leys as pedes­trian short­cuts, his­tor­i­cally they were a ne­ces­sity, Ogle said. They pro­vided cru­cial ac­cess for fire­fight­ers and other ser­vices, in­clud­ing power and tele­phone com­pa­nies. In what is now called Jack Tucker Al­ley, for ex­am­ple, the slop­ing cob­ble­stone sur­face is in­ter­rupted at in­ter­vals by deep chutes (now cov­ered with metal grills) that orig­i­nally were coal chutes, so coal could be dropped down into a build­ing’s base­ment.

When the city was first laid out in 1819, it ba­si­cally stretched from where the Pyra­mid is now lo­cated to Union Av­enue. Con­se­quently, most pur­pose­ful Down­town al­leys are north of Union, and pretty much end by Court Square. Here’s a run­down of our tour: ❚ We met Ogle — tot­ing a heavy tin sign em­bossed with the leg­end “Novem­ber 6th, 1934” — at one of the old­est orig­i­nal al­leys, now known as

which stretches down to­ward the Mis­sis­sippi from 77 S. Front. The al­ley­way is named in honor of the late ar­chi­tect (he died in 2009) now known as “The Fa­ther of Down­town Liv­ing” for work­ing to bring res­i­dents back to the his­toric city cen­ter at a time when more peo­ple were in­car­cer­ated in the Down­town jail than were rent­ing Down­town apart­ments. Ac­cord­ing to Ogle, this al­ley is paved with cob­ble­stones hand­made from “nine dif­fer­ent kinds of ig­neous rock.” ❚ Next, we am­bled across Front to

paved with ma­chine-cut cob­ble­stones of dec­o­ra­tive con­crete known as “bo­man­ite.” One of the long­est (it con­nects Wag­ner Place and Sec­ond Street) and liveli­est al­leys (it has hosted Goner Records con­certs), Bar­boro is home to the neo-speakeasy, Belle Tav­ern; mean­while, the walls of some of its build­ings pro­vide open-air gallery space for im­pres­sive mu­rals by such artists as Mar­cel­lous Lovelace (whose paint­ing in­cludes a por­trait of ge­nius mu­sic pro­ducer Wil­lie Mitchell) and the team of Bird­cap and Nin­ja­cat (who spe­cial­ize in ex­pres­sively car­toon­ish vi­sions). Ogle said that a stretch of Bar­baro near Sec­ond used to be known as “Dead Man’s Al­ley” be­cause it housed two fu­neral homes. Those were the days!

❚ Run­ning south from Bar­baro to form the bot­tom half of a T is a small al­ley known as which reappears north of Union. But Cen­ter Lane is just a rumor of a thor­ough­fare com­pared to its par­al­lel neigh­bor,

an al­ley that runs from Beale to the Pinch in a fre­quently in­ter­rupted dot­ted-line pat­tern with 26 turns. De­scribed by Ogle as “the spine of Down­town,” the al­ley once was home to the “house of com­mer­cial af­fec­tion” that was run by the “Heroic Hooker,” An­nie Cook, who lost her life in 1878 car­ing for the sick dur­ing the Yel­low Fever epi­demic. But what es­pe­cially in­ter­ests Ogle is the fact that the al­ley is named for an event that hasn’t ex­actly im­printed it­self onto the city’s col­lec­tive mem­ory: Nov. 6, 1934, marks the day that Mem­phis voted to join the TVA power grid. It’s this quirk­i­ness that ap­peals to Ogle, who thinks “Novem­ber 6th, 1934” might be Amer­ica’s coolest street name

Al­ley, Bar­boro Al­ley, Cen­ter Lane, 6th, 1934 Street, Jack Tucker Novem­ber

as well as the only street in the coun­try named af­ter a full date. Said Ogle: “There’s no ‘July 4th, 1776’ al­ley in Philadel­phia. There’s no ‘July 20th, 1969’ al­ley any­where.” For this rea­son, Ogle is irked that street signs now read sim­ply “Novem­ber 6th,” with­out the year; that’s why he toted on our walk­ing tour the afore­men­tioned vin­tage tin sign with the com­plete name, which he held aloft near var­i­ous street cor­ners to demon­strate what ought to be.

❚ Walk­ing north across Union one comes to

named, of course, for the late restau­ra­teur and his fa­mous bar­be­cue restau­rant. In­ter­sect­ing the Ver­gos street like a dis­carded rib bone is one of Mem­phis’ more in­ter­est­ing paths,

the un­usual moniker gives Ogle a chance to put on a one-man show as he re-en­acts the com­i­cal tale of Cad­wal­lader C. Wash­burn, the Union gen­eral who re­port­edly high­tailed it down the al­ley in his night­shirt when he re­ceived word that Con­fed­er­ate Gen­eral Nathan Bed­ford For­rest had re­cap­tured Mem­phis and was march­ing his way.

❚ Head back north on Char­lie Ver­gos and it be­comes

an al­ley-by-any-other-name that has re­ceived a Down­town Mem­phis Com­mis­sion makeover with the ad­di­tion of dec­o­ra­tive lights over­head and newly stamped cob­ble­stone pat­terns on the as­phalt un­der­foot. Mag­gie H. Is­abel runs along­side Madi­son Av­enue Park, the rel­a­tively new “pocket park” oc­cu­py­ing a small lot where the al­ley meets Madi­son. A par­tic­u­larly in­trigu­ing el­e­ment of this de­sign is the Tops Gallery space en­sconced be­neath the park (which is higher than the slope of the al­ley for much of Is­abel’s length). A com­ple­ment to the in­door Tops Gallery at 400 S. Front, the space is es­sen­tially a large trape­zoidal “va­trine” (glass show­case) for art, like a high­fa­lutin win­dow dis­play in a com­mer­cial shop. Cu­rated by Tops owner Matt Ducklo, the gallery cur­rently houses a se­lec­tion of “totemic mod­ernist forms” by the man who may be Mem­phis’ most sig­nif­i­cant sculp­tor, John McIn­tire. Many days, a home­less drifter slumps near the glass, adding an un­planned per­for­mance el­e­ment to the show.

❚ Just North of Madi­son Park off Mag­gie H. Is­abel is marked at its en­trance on Sec­ond by an im­pres­sive over­head “Stereo Al­ley” metal sign, plus the call let­ters of sta­tion KLYX, which once broad­cast from head­quar­ters in an al­ley build­ing (hence the “Stereo” name). From there, the sig­nif­i­cant Down­town al­leys more or less cul­mi­nate with (pre­vi­ously known as Whiskey Al­ley for its preva­lence of bars), and which has an un­usual claim to fame: You can still see — on a South-fac­ing wall of the Metro 67 apart­ment build­ing that flanks the al­ley near Front — the win­dow through which Tom Cruise threw a chair and leaped to free­dom while elud­ing his pur­suers in di­rec­tor Syd­ney Pol­lack’s 1993 adap­ta­tion of John Gr­isham’s “The Firm.” Ac­tu­ally, “It wasn’t Tom Cruise, it was Tom Cruise’s stunt dou­ble,” re­vealed Ogle, shat­ter­ing the il­lu­sions of those “Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble” devo­tees who ex­pect the star to hang off jet air­planes and scale sheer cliffs.

Oswalt said the DMC’s al­ley beau­ti­fi­ca­tion plans are fo­cus­ing on some of the busiest through­ways first. “We be­lieve the in­vest­ment in these spa­ces, in these al­leys and un­der­passes and path­ways, will re­turn greatly as we con­nect all of Down­town and the river­front,” she said.

As for Ogle, “I would like to see us put these signs back on there,” he said, again bran­dish­ing his “Novem­ber 6th, 1934” sign, with the de­ter­mi­na­tion of a true be­liever. “It would be like 15 signs. The way they waste money at City Hall, they could do it, easy.”

Al­ley, Wash­burn’s Es­cape Al­ley; Street, Char­lie Ver­gos Ren­dezvous Mag­gie H. Is­abel Stereo Al­ley, Park Lane Gen­eral Floyd Al­ley,

Jack Tucker al­ley in down­town Mem­phis on Sept. 27. JOE RONDONE/THE COM­MER­CIAL AP­PEAL

John Bei­fuss Mem­phis Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

Mem­phis his­to­rian Jimmy Ogle de­scribes the city's down­town al­ley­ways on Sept. 27. PHO­TOS BY JOE RONDONE/THE COM­MER­CIAL AP­PEAL,

MATT DUCKLO

En­sconced be­neath the Madi­son Av­enue "pocket park" on the west side of Mag­gie H. Is­bel al­ley, the Tops Gallery - a "va­trine" show­case that in this pic­ture is dis­play­ing art by Mem­phis Col­lege of Art grad­u­ate Mo­toko Fukuyama - is one of the more unique fix­tures of Mem­phis' Down­town al­ley sys­tem.

Mem­phis his­to­rian Jimmy Ogle stands in Jack Tucker al­ley as he talks about the city's down­town land­scape.

Mem­phis' down­town al­ley­ways on Sept. 27.

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