Here is an incomplete list of things white people told me about Hollywood Street in Memphis, Tennessee:
-You will be the only white person there
-Don’t go there at night
-Don’t go there alone
-Don’t talk to anyone there
-It isn’t safe
-You might meet a prostitute
-You will definitely meet at least one crackhead
-It’s a bad part of town
-It’s the bad part of town
Are you seeing a pattern, here?
I am the whitest non-albino person I know. I get upset when the orange clothes I buy from J. Crew don’t match the orange clothes I buy from the Gap. That being said, it wasn’t the fact of potentially being the only caucasian person in this Hollywood that put me on edge, but rather the fact that there’s obviously some complicated, Memphis-specific cultural mishegas surrounding that part of town. So much so that the neighborhood, such as it is (it’s a street that runs north through Memphis, with a smaller area designated as the Hollywood neighborhood), is interrupted at one point by a small street, called Alicia Drive. Maybe the idea was that if they didn’t call Alicia Drive Hollywood, the dire economic straits of Hollywood wouldn’t bleed over?
It sounds silly, but this is more or less true: Alicia Drive, on the southernmost part of Hollywood Street, is a charming suburban nook. Every one of the people I met on Alicia Drive (none of whom had any interest in talking to me – more on this tomorrow) was white. As I moved north, though, the demographic makeup of the people I saw and met in the street shifted so abruptly that it was jarring, and from that point on I was the only white guy, as far as I could tell. Suddenly, the charming houses were in disrepair, some even boarded up.
In my experience – which was obviously bounded by my short time in Memphis and the fact that I was on Hollywood Street during broad daylight – the panic over Hollywood seemed to have been exaggerated, in some cases to the point of farce. Did I always feel comfortable in the neighborhood? No. Did I ever – once – feel threatened, or that hostility was being directed at me? No. Were people curious what a lone, bespectacled, fairly queerish (let’s face it) guy was doing walking around and trying to interview strangers with a microphone? Well, yeah, of course. But not so much so that they wanted to talk to me, sadly.
I did end up speaking to three community organizers who are working actively to turn the neighborhood and, critically, its perception in the local media around. Their take on Hollywood, its past, present and future, coming tomorrow.