Summer Avenue, the most disrespected street in Memphis, Tennessee, begins life as North Parkway. Pointing away from the Mississippi River and towards the east, Parkway passes fat-pillared bungalows and the spreading green of Rhodes College, a private institution whose tuition starts at $26,000. Across from sedate Rhodes College rustles Overton Park, an old growth forest whose trees garnered federal protection in a landmark Supreme Court case of the 1970s. At the corner of the famous park, North Parkway turns right and leaves.
The road you’re now traveling is Summer Avenue.
“Used to be a Mexican Restaurant,” says John Bain, the owner of MoonBugs, a Volkswagen repair shop on the other side of Summer. John has a modern, clean website, but long-dead Beetles, VW buses, and Karmann Ghia’s squat all over his property. On the side street, a yellow Bug with rusted, sightless light sockets is parked alongside a VW Bus, a white drop cloth shrouding its front. In the back, a penned-in area holds a jumble of VW’s waiting for repair, or to be scavenged for parts. The pen doesn’t have a name, but John, the man they call “Mr. Moon,” tells me he can come up with a good one if I want.
The repair area itself is two small concrete squares stacked full of car pieces. According to John, somewhere in the shop is a 1971 Beetle that still runs, but I can’t pick it out. A black and white Tennessee tag—TNMoonBg—hangs on the wall. A radio sitting on top of car parts keeps the handful of workers company. John’s assistant, Buddy, gets tickled when John asks, “What is that y’all are listening to?” The bossman walks over to the radio, lowers the volume on the honky-tonk music.
John asks Buddy to show me an original VW seat. Buddy—knit cap, old-man stubble, washed blue eyes—hops around and points to a front seat, face down on the hood of a car. “I put it so it’s not touching metal,” Buddy tells John, who upends the seat and says, “That’s an original seat.”
I’m not looking at the orange plaid fabric that seduced me on the website. I’m looking at black vinyl pockmarked like chicken skin.
“But look,” Buddy says and flips over the matching back seat. The original German Inspector’s ticket is lodged in the webbing.
John, who has long gray curls and a gray-flecked goatee, re-built his first motor when he was twelve, then, when he got old enough, he went to work at a VW dealership down the road, back when he and his friends drag-raced on Summer. Before that time, when John’s 1924 building was at the edge of the city limits, Summer Avenue was a prosperous street. John has seen black and white photos of Summer when it was gravel. In its heyday, John says, “Summer was it.”
John—whose website has hits from all over the country, who had a guy from Tokyo come by the store, who is, as he says, “kind of world famous”—still smiles at Summer Avenue. “We all have to be somewhere,” he says.
Buddy shrugs. “Beats South Lauderdale.”
How could that be?
I had seen Summer Avenue’s name in the newspaper, never in a good light. Memphis is a city of streets that run from the river eastward like fingers extending from a palm. Of these streets (Jackson, Summer, Poplar, Union that becomes Walnut Grove, and Lamar), Summer Avenue—three lanes west, two lanes east, a turning lane in the middle—is on the northern edge. Memphis is growing to the south and the east. Whenever there’s a dispute in the newspaper about how to handle this growth, you come across a quote saying, “If we don’t watch out, it’ll turn into another Summer Avenue.”
The most recent fight centered on an older Walgreen’s that wanted to move across the street from its current location and build a new store on the corner of Summer and Parkway. The neighborhood association that protects the Parkway corridor protested. In addition to objecting to commerce invading Parkway, the opponents argued that, besides, Summer needs more than a new Walgreen’s to help it.
The opponents won.
I don’t know which argument worked.
On February 13th, the day I’ve begun my quest to find out why Memphians hate Summer Avenue, the still-vacant lot that would’ve housed the Walgreen’s is filled with Valentine’s baskets wrapped in cellophane. Red heart balloons puffed with helium sway on short strings. About twelve blocks away, out where Summer becomes more “East Memphis,” a bulldozer clears a lot for a new Walgreen’s.
More damning in their testimony against Summer are the churches. In a city where Reverend Al Green preaches and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson teaches, where one of the largest Baptist churches in the world reigns supreme (Bellevue Baptist, whose website boasts 27,000 members), where the second largest Pentecostal group in America was born (Church of God in Christ, whose website boasts eight million members)—Summer Avenue has the Holy Trinity Community Church. The House of Glory Non-Denominational Church. The Memphis International Church. The New Tyler AME Church. In front of the tin building that contains the House of Glory stands a wooden cross, painted white. The House of Glory has no website I can find, no boasts that Memphis can hear. Small time churches in big time religion.
Where’s the glory in that?
He’s pointing toward North Parkway.
Like everyone I ask, the clerk claims North Parkway as Summer. Also like almost everyone I ask, the problem area of the street is some other part. For the hardware clerk, the bad part is the surrounding areas off Summer—he gestures roundhouse. I feel sorry for his predicament and tell him I’ve noticed the street is kind of divided into sections.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says, glad he doesn’t have to go any further with his explanation.
You can see why the clerk likes his store – push mowers with black top-hat engines on shiny red aprons line the outside wall. Thirteen parking spaces—shared with Nostalgia World next door—point headfirst into the one-story building. Above its plate glass are transoms hand-painted with hardware paraphernalia—a gushing faucet, a hammer, a Yale lock, a saw in action. Red brick chimney pots space themselves evenly across the tile roof.
Inside, bolts and screws, nails and spikes wait in loose bins. Only a few aisles have packaged goods. A curved weight scale, like the kind in the produce section of a grocery store, hangs over one of the metal bins full of nails. Because I’m in a hardware store and I love hardware stores, I buy four spike nails, three brass round things and a chrome vent face, all too small to weigh. The clerk doesn’t blink, tells me Home Depot is a waste of my time, asks me to come back. Earlier, another customer looking for a For Sale sign had told a clerk, “That’s a big time sign. I’m a little time guy.”
“That sign’s twenty dollars,” the clerk said.
When I leave, the man is walking down the aisle with the sign in hand.
For a while, we’re in the automobile section of Summer Avenue—Joe Stewart’s Body Shop, Byrd’s Auto Repair, Dynamic Automotive, Gardener’s Auto Sales, Nice Auto Sales—then we enter the used clothing strip. In a three block stretch we pass the Disabled American Veterans Thrift Shop, the Junior League Thrift Shop, the Children’s Charity Shop (but it’s boarded up, no more charity for the children), the Salvation Army Thrift Shop, and the Shoe Outlet. The DAV parking lot is settled by older white couples—always a man and a woman—but the Shoe Outlet is a happening place.
Yellow balloons bob on a sign bright with fluorescent orange letters. Inside, Reggae music rumbles and people—young, old, Hispanic, white, black—mill the aisles, maybe drawn by the Two for One sale. The store offers more women’s than men’s shoes—leather boots with chunky heels, glittery butterflies glued to silver pumps—all between $12 and $15.
The owner, who says he’s been “running like a rabbit,” attributes the business in part to the two inflatable Uncle Fred’s outside the store. With tangerine arms and legs, the Uncle Fred’s wobble in the breeze, put there by the owner so folks will see his place, which sits on a slight hill. I came in not because of the Freds, but because, up until recently, the store had been a used shoe store, and what is more scarily intimate than someone else’s used shoes?
The owner, however, is explaining something I don’t really follow about shoe economics that allowed him to upgrade to new shoes and except for—slight eye falter here—“one or two in-store returns,” the shelves now are stocked in brand new shoes. Still, the dynamics of shoe economics may force him to move.
“Just one of those things,” he shrugs.
The store does still offer used clothing, and I buy a red plaid jumper, size 4, with gold buckles on the shoulders for $5.99. As the owner is bagging up the jumper, he’s asking me, “What’s your normal shoe size—we’re getting more in.”
He hands me the bag, still shilling the shoes.
A lot of folks walk Summer. On this rainy day of my travels, a mother in a beret walks by the old Walgreen’s carrying two plastic grocery sacks. A child trudges behind, hood on, head down. The Walgreen’s sign, faded almost to pink, shines over them.
Much of the time, the walkers walk in the street itself, trailing down the centerline as they try to find an open spot in the stream of cars. Almost all of these middle-of-the-street walkers are African American. The mother and child lugging groceries were African American. The man cleaning up the DAV parking lot with a broom and dustpan, red tinted glasses covering his eyes – he was African American. The old woman talking to the shoe storeowner—combed-back red hair, he’s definitely white—was also white. The two boys picking up boots to eye their soles were Hispanic. Further down Summer, there’s an Oriental grocery and a kosher food store.
Certain Memphis streets get respect from the locals for the part they played in housing waves of immigrants, historical markers of the development of the city. Summer Avenue with its current, just-look-around-you mix of ethnicity, is not one of these streets. Summer has had a song written about it, “Sounds from Summer Avenue,” by Everett Brown, but he’s singing about be-bop and the old drive-in, the Summer Avenue of the 1960s. No one seems to sing about today’s Summer.
I park in a visitor’s slot.
In front of me is the butt-end of a string of seven pitch-roofed cottages, beige stone with scrolled iron columns painted white. A big boarding-house-looking building looms down the way. To my right is a concrete swimming pool, its caved-in tarp filled with dirty water. Just past the pool is the OFFICE, a beach-type bungalow with metal windows and a green tarpaper roof. Exhaust fans spin on the roof.
Fifty years ago, James Jones lived in Leahy Trailer Park in a Spartan trailer and wrote, From Here to Eternity. I know this from a web search, not from anyone at the trailer park. The OFFICE is CLOSED. Three empty desk chairs swivel in front of broad, flat desks. Music seeps through to the stoop where I stand, but no one comes out. It’s mid-morning on a Wednesday, no management in sight.
I walk toward the cottages. A man with long frizzed curls and a naked beer belly saunters out of one of the doors.
I decide not to look around on my own.
Back on the curb, I watch an older black man ride down Summer on his bike. White-tufted sideburns poke from his red ball cap. The handlebars on his bike are screwed on backwards and point in the direction he’s coming from. He cruises down the middle turn lane, traveling Summer Avenue.
But say, “Summer” today, and what you’re likely to get back is “prostitutes.” Hotels with hard plastic signs hunker on side streets. With no sign on Summer, no pointing billboard, the motels don’t appear to be interested in attracting drive-by traffic. It’s what people on Summer Avenue don’t want to talk about.
Officer Brown of the Memphis Police Department says the problem isn’t Summer Avenue itself, but off Summer. She knows—she’s the one the Department sends undercover to catch the dons (“the guys wanting sex”).
“What they need for prostitution—a boarded-up house where they can tear down a widow or a door, take twenty, thirty minutes, get their $20 and go down the street to another boarded-up house to get high—that’s not on Summer. Even I say Summer, but it’s not, it’s off Summer. They don’t work Summer.”
Inspector Strickland, a large, florid man who runs the Central Precinct that includes Summer Avenue, says Summer is nowhere near the worst prostitution street in Memphis, an opinion echoed by Officer Brown.
“Everyone knows Elvis Presley and Brooks are the worst. Everyone knows that,” says Brown.
I’ve attracted a crowd at the precinct. Inspector Strickland, Officer Brown, and the Neighborhood Watch representative, Ms. Mary Pollard, a short gray-haired lady, have me in a circle. We’re standing in Ms. Pollard’s partitioned space—concrete floors, a lone desk floating like an island. After I stood at the glass-fronted check-in booth and made three unsuccessful inquiries for an interviewee, something finally clicked that a chick with a notepad and pen is about to write a “report” on prostitution on Summer Avenue, and for the first time, a chorus of Summer defenders surrounds me.
Officer Brown is the tallest one in our circle, a good-looking woman with dark caramel skin and pink lipstick. She’s packed into her uniform. I get the feeling she’s kind of a celebrity around the Department—they covered her on TV. It’s partly this publicity, though, that Inspector Strickland blames for Summer’s prostitution reputation.
“A couple of years ago, we saturated Summer. Officer Brown posed as one of them.” Inspector Strickland is looking at me hard while he talks, as if I might turn out to be a disobedient child. “The media printed out the names of the johns. It got the publicity.
“Plus, the street is more affluent—that’s not a good word, you pick a better one—but it’s got businesses. There’s lots of churches on Summer. So people complain more. They’re neighborhoods right there, and they don’t want their children seeing that.”
“Summer Avenue’s been known from way back as a place to go for nightlife,” says Officer Brown, “if you wanted an easy date. Ten, fifteen years at least.”
“It started with Leahy’s Trailer Park,” says Strickland.
“Leahy’s. Admiral Benbow. The old Holiday Inn,” says Brown.
“They finally tore that down,” says Strickland.
The biggest problem on Summer Avenue now?
“Homelessness,” says Inspector Strickland.
“Well, rumor is that Mr. Rash picked the spot when he thought the interstate was coming right through here.”
John Miller, the son-in-law who runs Ken Rash’s, is talking about I-40, the interstate that the conservation groups kept from invading Overton Park in the 1970s. Instead, the 240 loop circles the city about a mile and a half north of the store. Mr. Miller’s customers take the 240 loop from east Memphis and Germantown to the Summer interchange, never entering some of the “bad” sections of Summer Avenue. Even so, Mr. Miller says moving off the street comes up “all the time,” then he backs off a little.
“You thought you were seeing a big downslide in Summer, but some businesses leave, new ones take their place. When you look at it, Summer is the same as it was.”
Not so, says the manager of Imperial Lanes bowling Alley, Bob McKenney, who’s worked at the bowling alley since 1973. “It was different then. Nice. Good people. No street people, bums, drug addicts. Totally different.”
Owned by one local company since its founding in 1958, the bowling alley serves no alcohol, offers no electronic scoring system, only now is considering adding Cosmic Bowling, the bowling-saving craze of the 1990s. And Bob is stumped when I ask about the most recent renovations.
“We’ve never done any major renovations,” he says.
We’re sitting in a molded plastic booth painted pea green.
“Paint?” I suggest.
“Paint. Carpet. No major overhauls.”
Bob—skinny, maybe forty, a casual dresser—started at the shoe desk, worked his way up to manager in 1994. “Bowling was very popular back then,” he says of the time when he was doling out shoes. “It declines every year.” His best group is his seniors—seventy-five of them will descend on the lanes at 12:30. They come from Mississippi, Arkansas, all over.
When I arrived, I interrupted Bob as he was toting a plastic cleaning bottle around. He works to keep the place neat—outside, a man wearing goggles sweeps a leaf blower in the drive—but he can’t do anything about the streetwalkers.
“They walk outside in broad daylight, but they’re on the sidewalk. I can’t run them off the sidewalk. It’s not my sidewalk.”
When I first introduced myself and my Summer Avenue project, Bob asked, “They sending someone to clean it up?” Now, when I confess I like Summer, his face relaxes. He smiles. “I do, too.”
As I leave, a white-haired man walks in, rolling a bag on wheels across the flecked-marble floor.
“One of my seniors,” Bob says. “Eighty-eight and going strong.”
When the man crosses Bob’s path, he says, “Glad to see you’re cleaning up outside.”
At the entrance, I pass a meeting room. Folding chairs, lined ten rows deep, wait—empty—for the Kiwanis or Rotarians, or, better yet, the Optimists to show up.
More typical was a friend’s response: “Summer is just one of those streets in Memphis, when you hear the name you go, unhh,” and he scrunched up his face like he’d heard something slightly disgusting.
“Seedy” is the word that emerges most often in the vicinity of Summer Avenue. But in the dictionary’s cascade of scolding adjectives—seedy, squalid, sordid, vile and base—seedy (“somewhat disreputable”) is the most benign.
Even so, when I study the street, the usual seedy suspects—the homeless sleeping on the sidewalk, the panhandlers, the staggering drunks, the women in lace tops and thigh-high boots—don’t show up, despite what Bob the bowling guy says.
What I do see is a freewheeling, fast-passing whirl of small businesses. For those accustomed to wide, frontal parking lots, Summer Avenue appears jumped-up, juxtapositioned, jarred. The street is not tidy. Nor is it rehabbed, like Memphis’s downtown warehouse-cum-art district, and it isn’t packaged, like the black-business-street-cum-tourist strip that is Beale Street. For a city that sees itself “on the verge,” a city high on NBA hype and civic betterment, Summer Avenue affronts.
According to the Memphis Heritage Society, in the year 2000, Memphis ranked sixth in the country in buildings listed on the National Register. None of the buildings are located on Summer Avenue.
Look for the banks—a sure-fire indicator of where a community puts its money—and you don’t find one until the corner of Waring Street, almost four miles into Summer territory.
In fact, pretense is so far out of sight on Summer that you can’t even catch sight of it out of the corner of your eye. One sees no former grandeur, no opportunity for resurgence in its decay, so the street never blips the radar screen, except as a failure.
Which may be for the best. For if the eyes of the Memphis powers-that-be ever swept across the city like the Great Eye at the top of the downtown Pyramid and found Summer, they would lay a straightening hand on it. They’d evict John and his MoonBugs, spiff up his shop for a new fern-bar restaurant. The shoe shop would be hounded out of existence, the old men and women in the DAV parking lot shooed on home. Gateway Hardware would survive, but its walk-in customers would be nudged aside by the overblown SUV’s. Only Leahy’s would sit on its haunches, refusing to budge—and become a snipped about eyesore.
Let them dislike Summer.
We’re better off for it.
I can’t see that Mr. Peanut’s loss does much harm. In its tiny space, the Peanut Shoppe still has:
- A cast iron roaster made by Royal of Chicago exclusively for Planter’s. On each of its four corners, like garniture on a chest of drawers, the roaster has a raised Mr. Peanut. A three-foot Mr. Peanut rides astride the roaster, its monocled Doc Watson.
- In the back corner, a five-foot, hard plastic Mr. Peanut costume that the former owner wore, waving, down the streets of Memphis.
- Hanging high on the wall, a—what does one call a triptych that has six panels?—of the life of the peanut. “Peanuts Do Not Grow on Trees. They Grow and Mature Underground,” instructs one of the pictures featuring a field of Virginia peanuts. “Note: Sandy Soil.” In each of the pictures, all of the peanut pickers, plowers, and balers are African American.
An African American woman at the peanut counter orders two ounces of pecans.
“They salted?” she asks.
“These are salted,” confirms Jim Burge, the current owner who bought the shop in 1993. Jim’s a slight man with a brown and gray beard and easy blue eyes.
“Okay. Two ounces of cashews, too. Salted. And candy corn,” the woman says.
The woman considers.
“You got four ounces of nuts.”
“Put in the two.”
Jim ladles, weighs, mixes.
The woman peers in the bag. “Four ounces of corn,” she says and returns the bag for amendment.
After the woman pays and leaves, Jim turns back to the counter where he’s stacking rock candy swizzle sticks—white, raspberry, pink—on a paper tray.
“I’ve been right here all my life. I’ve lived in three houses within a mile of here since 1948. I worked here when I was seventeen in 1967, the Summer of Love. Summer Avenue was a hangout place for kids then. Shoney’s, Robilio’s, Krystal – they’d circle. The first McDonald’s in Memphis was next door to here. It was a good drive around drag.
“And motels. The Crescent Motel. The Palomino Motel. Kemmons Wilson’s first Holiday Inn. And they were good—not two hour motels. When Planter’s sold out, Mr. Adler couldn’t afford the big rent on this place, so he put Pop Tunes next door.”
A customer arrives, a man.
“A bag of them cashews. Not too many. I have to watch myself. I go on trips, I eat too many.”
“Throw them in the trunk,” Jim says. “Where you can’t get at them.”
“I’ll eat too many of these. I will.”
“Lots of customers suggest that—throw them in the trunk. But don’t leave them all night or they’ll get rubbery.”
After the man departs, Jim leaves off working entirely, leans on the counter and talks about record shops and signs that had to be moved. In a minute, I buy some cashews. Jim and I stand at the window looking at Summer Avenue.
“It’s a funky, torn up street. A great part of town. It’s incredible that they’re calling it Nutbush and everything. Right around here, it’s a family neighborhood. Houses on Highpoint Terrace—two and three bedroom houses—are going for a hundred and fifty, a hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. If you’re looking for a house, you need to look there.”
As Jim talks and I munch cashews, outside the window, the vee’d spokes on the Peanut Shoppe sign cup the air, ready to catch Mr. Peanut’s return.
Gone is the street of small shops, the ones where you can tell someone loves VW’s or hubcaps or whatever it is for them. Gone is the business street with no businessman’s association, the street whose casualties are neatly boarded up, as if they’ve only shut their eyes for a nap and will return any minute. Gone is the street without patina.
Standing in the flapping wind, stranded in the impersonal, wide-open expanse of Commerce USA, I fear for what the dislike of Summer Avenue portends. Not for Summer’s sake. Uninvolved in itself, unscrubbed, grimy even, Summer Avenue will forever hold its own.
No, I’m worried about us. For if we can’t like Summer, if we can’t appreciate that which slides between categories, if we cannot tolerate that which minds its own business as it rocks in airy lullaby space—what is to become of us?