Nate Berg

An art project turns Memphis blight into a monument to the city.

On a recent 24-hour visit to Memphis, Tennessee, I came across this cool art project right across the street from the Memphis Central Station train depot. A simple plywood fence had been built around a vacant piece of land and painted with the lyrics about Memphis.

Formerly the site of a dry cleaner, this plot of land on South Main Street is now a vacant brownfield site. A few years back, a group of local artists and volunteers joined together to counteract the blight – one of the first impressions left on train travelers entering the city. Led by the local nonprofit the UrbanArt Commission, the group decided to transform the site into a monument to the city and its legacy as a birthplace of blues and soul.

"Memphis has such a rich music heritage," says Lorie Chapman. She helped organize the project and is an urban planner with the Downtown Memphis Commission. She says the lyrics evoke both the city's cultural history and the role of the train in bringing people to the city, and sending them off. "It’s a middle class sort of town and it reflects everyday people's feelings and emotions," she says.

"When I walk by it and look at it, I'm humming the songs in my head. I think it has this almost universal appeal."

Each of the 10 panels on the fence are painted with lyrics from songs by famous Memphis-based musicians, like Rufus Thomas or Jerry Lee Lewis, who grew to fame through his recordings at the Memphis-based Sun Studio.

From "Memphis Beat" by Jerry Lee Lewis
From "Memphis, Tennessee" by Chuck Berry
From "Night Train to Memphis" by Roy Acuff

The project is also meant to honor the legacy of this part of town, once  be the city's arts district. At the very least, it's an interesting way to hide blight. "I wish we could do more projects like it," Chapman says. "It was a huge bang for the buck, just $750 to cover a brownfield site."

Photos: Nate Berg

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