Saturday, February 20, 2010

Op-ed: Panhandling Downtown

125 N. Main St.

The other day, after some hours of slothing around my apartment, I decided to go for a walk. I figured I might as well get some fresh air, people watch, and observe some of Memphis’ downtown architecture—a personal interest of mine. As I ambled across Adams Ave. and gazed reverently at the fenestration adorning the building at 125 N. Main, I realized I now had a companion in tow. My next stop was in front of the sculpture constructed in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As I read “I Have Been To The Mountaintop,” I kept a wary eye towards the woman approaching me and, as I expected, she came up to me and introduced herself. She seemed to be homeless and after her introductory formalities, she asked for money or help getting a meal. My feeble response was “Sorry, I have no cash.” After hearing my response, she continued her brisk pace north with a sighing grumble of “Oh, Lord.” The interaction was harmless.

I Have Been To The Mountaintop sculpture

Anecdotes such as this are common downtown. Readily accessible pedestrians and an influx of money into the downtown core create a panhandler friendly environment. This trend is frightening to some as begging is an invasive practice. Yet, panhandling—while not illustrious itself—is indirectly connected to the allure of downtown. The art galleries of South Main, boisterous Beale St., and Auto Zone Park are all interwoven with panhandling. Every neighborhood is an ecosystem. Therefore all aspects of downtown are interconnected even if their associations are indirect. And as the world continues to shudder under humanity’s footprint, we continue to learn that ecosystems are interacting complexities compiled upon complexities that we are unable to fully comprehend. Thus, a simple shock to any ecosystem portends ominous aftershocks.

The downtown ecosystem has prospered in the past few years and begun to bloom because of the financial nourishment it has received. These blossoms are not contained compartments free of interaction from the rest of downtown. While recent investments have fertilized the germination of downtown’s new spunk, the soil that holds downtown’s roots has been here much longer. In order to yield the downtown we all care to see, this soil must be arduously tilled and nourished. Spot weeding and pesticides won’t do the trick.

Panhandling is an organic function of the state of the downtown. It is as much a part of downtown as The Peabody. Forbidding panhandling is a quick fix. It will not address the clandestine social dynamics that produce beggars. It will only fortify the social polarizations of black vs. white and rich vs. poor that currently devastate downtown and greater Memphis. For example, as one enters Peabody Place Mall they are greeted with a dismissive sign. The sign lists a dress and behavioral code that forbids a myriad of actions and garments including sideways or backwards hats and do-rags. I infer that the ownership posts this sign to try and keep trouble out of their facility but instead it is feeding a trouble that is far worse. It is bolstering the aforementioned polarizations with an extra helping of young vs. old. It is understandable that those who own Peabody Place desire a safe atmosphere but latching on to trivial surface indicators as a means of protection will not address the dangers that are present downtown. In the same thread, it is understandable why many care to banish beggars but this objective will also shank wide of the core issue. Panhandling is the visible tip of an iceberg of poverty and homelessness. Even if we lop off the tip, two-thirds of the iceberg remains submerged and parasitic. It is only through the consistent grind of non-profits, charities, and Memphis’ overall civil society that we may thaw the iceberg and address the actual issue that is far greater than panhandling.

Peabody Place Sign

Two ordinances are currently making their rounds through downtown circles. One aims to outlaw panhandling and the other to outlaw single-container alcohol sales. If passed, these ordnances will not help downtown but hurt it just as an unclean wound festers under a band-aid. They may make downtown appear less dangerous but they will not battle any danger. They will further polarize the downtown community.

Downtown is the safest precinct in Memphis. That distinction is a credit to the community that lives here and the laws that govern it. Downtown does, however, possess blight such as vacant buildings and vagrants that make it appear unsafe. This blight is benign and will slowly disappear as downtown continues to prosper. Until the downtown ecosystem manifests our positive efforts, we must let the benign be benign. As for what is malignant, there are already laws that check such behaviors as “aggressive panhandling”—a term defined in the ordinance that seems as a circumlocution for attempted robbery.

As for single-container alcohol sales, there is a positive correlation between said sales and public drunkenness. But public intoxication is no stranger to downtown—witness any night on Beale Street. The negative connotation of single-containers stems from the proverbial man drinking on the corner and acting a fool. But if that man were to have a little money would he not be in some downtown bar acting a fool as many “upstanding citizens” do? Would he also not have a place to go after his consumption so that he may privatize his drunkenness? Loitering on a corner and drunkenly harassing folks is unacceptable and, as with robbery, we already have laws for that. Therefore abolishing single-container sales glances off the central issue of addressing poverty and homelessness downtown. And after all, some people do just want to fork over a dollar and some change to sip a single beer and not cause any trouble.

These ordinances aren’t abominations and nor are their architects. I read the ordinances as a sincere desire to better downtown Memphis. I, however, think their strategy is off. Two shocks to the downtown ecosystem will not reverse its social undercurrents. Furthermore, whether intended or not, they will send malignant tremors that will widen the already present cracks that separate downtown’s social groups. To fight blight in downtown, we must put our collaborative work into the steady efforts that combat poverty and homelessness. Our efforts will not manifest immediately for they must pervade and root within this ecosystem. Yet, as it takes hold there will be no dirty laundry or dust swept under the rug. There will be less panhandlers and drunks, not because they are locked up at 201 Poplar siphoning taxpayer dollars but because our community has less poverty. We must see the big picture.

- Bert Geyer

Photos courtesy of Anson Jeng

Panhandling Ordinance

Single-container Ordinance


fearlessvk said...

Amen amen amen amen amen! Thank you!

Sneak Peek - Memphis said...

Wowwwwww To Say The Least. I WIll Be Sure To share This With Everyone Involved With This Issue