In The Beginning

photograph by Bill Engdahl | courtesy of Special Collections, the University of Memphis Libraries

Several days before Thanksgiving, I drove to the airport to pick up my daughter and grandson, who flew in from Montana for the holiday. For decades now, driving up towards Memphis International has always been, for me at least, an uplifting experience, especially during the holiday season, when the airport is brilliantly lit up in red and green. Completed in 1963, Roy Harrover's distinctive grouped martini-glass sctructure is instantly recognizable to every Memphian over age 5, and pretty much the finest piece of public architecture produced in this city during the second half of the twentieth century.

Alas, most of us can no longer see it, at least not until we’re airborne.

The once-magnificent view of Harrover’s creation on the approach off Airways is now blocked — completely — by a brand-new, all-concrete edifice that is eerily reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. My Montana-based daughter gasped as we left the airport, as she saw the finished version of our new, seven-story $150 million parking garage for the first time: “Hideous!” was all she could think to say.

The completion of the airport parking garage — as we go to press, no grand opening has yet been announced, and the Airport Authority website gives visitors no indication as to if or when such an event will take place — brings to a close what has been, by any standard, a particularly lousy year in Memphis aviation history. The year 2012 has brought continued service cutbacks from Delta Air Lines, the city’s primary carrier. Dozens of flights have been eliminated, as Memphis-based passenger traffic declined 29 percent between September 2011 and September 2012.

Making matters worse has been the fact that Delta’s Memphis air fares have skyrocketed, causing at least some skeptical local travelers to suggest that all this is a plot by Delta to abandon Memphis altogether, and leading others to create a community Facebook page, whimsically titled “Delta Does Memphis,” which now has over 5,000 followers.

Whatever Delta has done or will do to Memphis, though, that airline had nothing to do with the creation of the massive parking facility — with spaces for over 6,500 cars — that now stands like a large concrete elephant in front of Roy Harrover’s masterpiece. Nope, as far as Memphis is concerned, the decision to build this monstrosity was clearly a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The pages of the history books are filled with endless “What were they thinking?” moments, everything from General Custer’s decision to go down into the valley of the Little Bighorn River, to the launch of “New Coke” in 1985, to the Red Sox’ Bill Buckner letting that groundball go through his legs the following year. Building this particular parking facility will go down as one of those not-so-magic moments for Memphis.

Forget the fact that garage construction began after the merger between Northwest and Delta was announced, a merger that clearly would involve elimination of at least some duplicated services. (Keep in mind the fact that the new garage has over 6,500 parking spaces next time you’re looking for one on a Friday night downtown.) More disturbing by far was the fact that the selected design turned a Memphis jewel into buried treasure, creating a public eyesore in the process. Go figure.

I’m not here to assign blame for this decision; there’s plenty to go around. The media should not be spared; with the solitary exception of the Memphis Flyer, our sister publication, no one publicly questioned the garage project.

And it’s far too simple to just blame our beleaguered Airport Authority; hundreds of locals — civic leaders, parking-services experts, and architects galore — had a hand in directing the garage project. How is it that all of them ignored the obvious? How is it that no one said, “Let’s rethink this for a minute . . .” What were they thinking?

Fortunately, the new airport parking garage was primarily financed by the federal government; the fact that this was such a massive construction project at a time (2009-10) when precious few jobs were being created in that industry perhaps best explains why everyone involved invoked their right to remain silent. But while that’s understandable, it doesn’t do our community any good to have made such a mess of our airport.

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