“Excuse me. I’m a police officer [*shows ID*].
Do you know that you’re in a very bad neighbourhood?”
And that’s how I met Steven. Who, after me ascertaining that he was indeed a police officer, through two ID checks, instructed me to get in his car, or he’d call one of his colleagues for a marked car if I didn’t feel comfortable, but I needed to move. He had just got off work, saw me wandering around, and his serve and protect instincts had caused him to pull over.
I got in, admitting to him that this felt wrong and I was totally flustered, because of course my paranoia meant I thought I’d done something wrong. He told me he wasn’t a weirdo, was married, and was just worried, before he revealed just how sketchy that part of town was. I had an inkling, y’know, but not wanting to give in to the stereotypical warning signs I’d carried on.
Memphis is on the ‘most dangerous’ list
When I was in Nashville a few people had asked me about my next destination and then had replied something along the lines of ‘good luck’ when I’d replied I was Memphis bound for the weekend. Gangs, drugs, guns, they’ve got it all. But I just put the negativity down to some sort of local derby jealousy.
In fact Forbes.com rates Memphis as the 4th most dangerous city in the USA, while Yahoo puts it at number 2. I had no idea. Detroit has fascinated me and scared me ever since Eminem introduced me to it in 8 Mile, but I’ve never really fancied a visit, thanks to it’s position at the top of any ‘most dangerous’ list. And here I was, strolling around its close contender with camera, lenses, phone and a fresh $300 out the machine.
Steven went on to tell me it’d recently risen up the ranks.
“It’s not something we advertise, of course”
He said as a tourist I probably wouldn’t get murdered, which is the crime that’s given it the accolade, but petty theft and general assault were common. The obvious response to that is ‘why’. His reply was something along the lines of…
“We have a lot of uneducated and displaced black people with no jobs and no money. There are also a lot of drugs on the street and gang problems too.”
I didn’t really know what to say, I kind of knew what the answer was going to be before he’d even started. I mean, I’d walked five miles through that part of town that morning (didn’t tell him that). I’d been in the US for the last two months, and in the Deep South exclusively. I’d seen the same in some of the neighbourhoods of Austin, Montgomery and New Orleans – I could see the way things went round here, even if I didn’t understand.
‘Separate but equal’
That day I’d spent three hours at the Civil Rights Museum, stood within a metre of where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968 for his work in changing America for black people, and then here I was, getting picked up by a white cop in a poor, black neighbourhood almost 50 years on and just two miles away, because it was deemed ‘very bad’.
He dropped me off and I thought back to the protestor I’d seen sat outside the Civil Rights Museum that morning – Jacqueline Smith has camped out there since 1988. The ‘Jacqueline Smith Protest‘ argues against the $27 million+ Civil Rights Museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel, where King was murdered, and in the building over the road from where the fatal shot was fired.
She was a tenant of the motel and was kicked out for the refurb. She says that the money that’s been spent on the museum should’ve been spent actually helping poor black people on the street today, and to fight for equality to continue Martin Luther King’s work, rather than focusing on him and his death as some achievement that visibly hasn’t been put into practice on the streets.
Her huge signs condemned the obvious gentrification of the area around the museum.
Gentrification of the Deep South
After repeated warnings against cycling to Graceland the next day from Steven, which was my plan, I got an Uber. I asked my driver about it all and he kind of said the same as the cop, not in a preachy way, or what I would deem as patronising, but a factual way. Gentrification has lead to some no go areas in Memphis, with limited ways for the residents to change, which has caused desperation, which has then led to this ‘most dangerous’ tag.
Somewhere along the line the passion for equality halted where it mattered most and despite the celebratory museums in the Deep South commemorating advancement and open minds (such as the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery), you only have to walk a few minutes away from the gentrified tourist areas to see there’s still a huge imbalance between the feel good expectations of equal rights and opportunities, vs the reality.
I’ve genuinely been surprised along my Deep South route, at the race differences. Whether I was oblivious before, hadn’t really considered it that much, or just needed to see it first hand to believe it, it’s obvious that for a million reasons, that I don’t feel educated enough to include or go into here, there is still a huge disparity in the US based on the colour of your skin.
I like Memphis
I actually really liked Memphis, as soon as I arrived, and still do. And, to be honest, walking around that morning I’d obviously noticed the dilapidated buildings, kids riding around on tiny bikes, grown men walking down the street talking to themselves (that led me to crossover) and broken down cars in front of boarded up windows, but I still didn’t feel that unsafe. I helloed at anyone who did the same to me, as almost everyone I passed did, and didn’t feel any more at risk as I have done in London.
After talking to the officer though, and piecing together all the warnings I’d had, I’d be stupid to carry on as I was, and I stuck to the Ubers and buses from then on. Wandering around the second, or even fourth, most dangerous city in the USA isn’t something I feel the need to do.
Travelling where I have in the US has really opened my eyes. You’re fed a certain view of the country – No Child Left Behind, Independence Day, the Civil Rights Movement… the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. But actually walking the streets, in some parts of town, and the supposed effects and sentiment of the above are as if they don’t count for some.
The USA is obviously at an important crossroads politically right now and with the current candidates, as disconnected as they all seem to even the small glimpse of what I’ve seen, heard and read about, I cannot imagine equality improving at all.