Save Chisca Now! Or Knock It Down
By: Paul Morris, Downtown Memphis Commission
The Memphis City Council, led by Dr. Edmund Ford Jr. and former Councilman Berlin Boyd, recently changed the name of Linden Avenue in the heart of Downtown Memphis to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. At the name-change dedication ceremony on April 4, my friend and neighbor Clifford Stockton pulled me aside to say that we can’t let newly-named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Avenue become associated with crime and blight as has happened in many other cities with MLK streets.
Fortunately, Memphis’s MLK Avenue is located in the heart of a growing, increasingly vibrant Downtown that has the lowest crime rate of any precinct in the city. But, unfortunately, at the corner of MLK Avenue and Main Street sits one of the most prominent blighted buildings in our city: The Chisca.
The Chisca was the largest hotel in Memphis at the time it was built in 1913. It wasn’t a luxury hotel; it was an accommodation for the middle class. Many historic events occurred at The Chisca, but one event quite literally changed the world forever. In July 1954, for the first time in history, radio airwaves carried the voice of Elvis Presley. The broadcast came from The Chisca.
From 1949 to 1956, WHBQ radio’s pioneering disk jockey Dewey Phillips broadcast his legendary show, “Red, Hot and Blue” from the mezzanine level of The Chisca. “Daddy-O-Dewey,” as Mr. Phillips was popularly known, was the first DJ to give Elvis a chance. Phillips played Elvis’s “That’s All Right, Mama” three days after Sam Phillips recorded it at Sun Records Studio.
Young listeners immediately started ringing the phone at the station in The Chisca, eager to find out who this new singer was and what this new music was. It was Rock ‘n’ Roll, and it was hot. Dewey kept playing the new music, and right from The Chisca he broadcast the first on-air interview with Elvis Presley.
These events at The Chisca inspired a Broadway musical, “Memphis”, which won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical. The national touring production of “Memphis” began its run in October 2011 at the Orpheum Theatre across the street and one block north from The Chisca. By popular demand, the show is returning to the Orpheum next year. Sadly, though, when theatre goers leave the show, inspired about Memphis’s unique place in history, they see what has become of The Chisca—vacant, boarded up, surrounded by chain-link fencing, and falling apart.
It’s enormously embarrassing for our city that this historic landmark, sitting at the prominent corner of our Main Street and our Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, is so blighted. We shouldn’t tolerate it, especially now that we’ve renamed the avenue on which Chisca sits for Dr. King. Renaming the street is an appropriate honor, but with the new name comes a higher responsibility to make the street a model public space surrounded by vibrancy instead of blight.
The good news is that the stars seem to be aligning to redevelop The Chisca. The owner, Church of God In Christ, is willing to sell. There is an experienced, proven development group forming that is willing to buy and develop The Chisca. A public-private partnership is forming to secure the necessary financing. And the demand for apartments in Downtown Memphis has never been stronger. But this is an extremely challenging project, which is why no one has accomplished it before. And for it to work, it will need strong public support.
Now is the time for those who care about saving historic buildings to come forward and help. Now is the time to come forward and help for those who care about Memphis music, Elvis Presley, and Dewey Phillips. Now is the time for those who care about bringing vibrancy to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Main Street to come forward and help. Now is the time for those who care about Memphis and our reputation to come forward and help. Now is the time for those who hate blight to come forward and help.
Redevelopment of Chisca would serve as an anchor for the growing South Main neighborhood and would connect this neighborhood to the Downtown Core and the Sports and Entertainment District. As it is, Chisca is a major breach in the urban fabric of Downtown and consequently devalues surrounding properties and frustrates other developments. It creates a dead zone through which many are hesitant to walk. The impact of a preserved and revitalized Chisca would extend well beyond the immediate site.
There will never be a better time to redevelop Chisca because the longer it sits the more it decays, making redevelopment that much more challenging. If we can’t get it done now, with all the stars aligning, then there is no good reason to think we could get it done later. The window of opportunity for Chisca is closing.
We can’t just let Chisca continue to sit vacant, blighted, and decaying for the indefinite future. Yes, it is an important part of our history, but its current condition is an insult to that history. Moreover, its current condition is disrespecting our present. If we can’t redevelop it, we should knock it down and make way for something else. Either way, we should insist upon removing the blight and bringing vibrancy to the prominent corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Main Street.
Follow updates about Chisca at www.downtownmemphiscommission.com and share your support on Facebook and Twitter using #savechisca.
(Paul Morris is the President of the Downtown Memphis Commission, formerly known as the Center City Commission. The DMC aims to improve Downtown for the benefit of the entire three-state region it serves.)