In The Beginning

April 1997

This magazine’s first issue was published in April 1976. With this month’s publication, we actually end the celebration of our 35th anniversary year. So this is the last time you’ll see that cute (or obtrusive, depending on your perspective) little red “35” beside the logo on our cover. Onward and upward!

It wasn’t too long after Memphis magazine was launched that I met a crazy young landscape designer named John Griffin, at a party somewhere in Midtown, hosted by a mutual friend who now lives in San Diego. As luck would have it, I happened to spend the night a few weeks ago at this mutual friend’s splendid Craftsman house (which John helped restore) in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego. We shared more than a few chuckles about the guy who has been for decades now our own mutual friend, “the man who saved Greenlaw,” and the subject of a major profile in this month’s issue. “When I bought my 1915 home some years ago,” she recalled, “it was painted white, like a New England house. Now it’s five colors. That’s John.”

That’s John, all right, and a house of many colors seems a far more appropriate metaphor for his life’s work than a coat. A peculiar set of circumstances brought him to Memphis in the late 1970s, a time when downtown was dead, and Greenlaw, frankly, was deader. But this decaying neighborhood on the northern fringe of the center city still had dozens of historic residences that dated from the nineteenth century. Most were already well on their way towards crumbling into dust, but John, almost single-handedly, resolved to save the rest.

He didn’t quite succeed, but he did a damned good job of trying. The result is there for all of us to see today. This neighborhood once known by the name of the brothers who first laid it out in the 1840s is today shown on the maps as Uptown, the most recent of the many downtown redevelopment projects that have revitalized this city over the past three decades. A public-private partnership between the City of Memphis and longtime downtown advocates Jack Belz and Henry Turley, Uptown Memphis put over a thousand new homes and apartments into the old Greenlaw neighborhood in the first decade of this century. The fact that the developers still had the semblance of a neighborhood in which to place all those residences owes much to John Griffin’s resilience. 

John, as the story in this month’s issue explains, has gone on from Greenlaw (where he still resides in the house on Looney which he acquired in 1978) to do many home restorations, in many different places, from New Orleans to Nantucket. But Memphis is a very different place because of him. 

It’s probably been a long time since you’ve heard anyone talk about the signature theme of George H.W. Bush’s inaugural adress on January 20, 1989. Those with extra-good memories may recall how the first President Bush spoke eloquently  about  his “thousand points of light,” referencing “all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the nation.” A bit corny, maybe, but his concept was pretty good.

As far as cities go, however, the “thousand points of light” are mostly invididuals. More often than not, it’s the one person with the right idea who takes a community from A to B. The successes of modern Memphis have been built around a thousand points of light; John Griffin is just one of them.

There is still no substitute for sweat equity, whether the person doing the sweating is a lawyer, doctor, or Indian chief. Or the painter of houses of many colors. 


Kenneth Neill


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