Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The Politics of Saving the King's Court: Why We Should Take Elvis Fans Seriously1

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The Politics of Saving the King's Court: Why We Should Take Elvis Fans Seriously1

Article excerpt

In 1995, the Memphis Housing Authority proposed to raze Lauderdale Courts, a downtown housing project, as part of a larger "dedensification" program led by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD 's vision of reforming substandard, crimeridden public housing apartments through demolition had drawn criticism from politicians and activists across the country who claimed the reform would bring a sharp drop in the number of housing units available for very poor families and render many people homeless. The tearing down of Lauderdale Courts (also known by locals as "the Courts") proved particularly contentious, but for different reasons. Historic preservationists pointed out that the Courts, built in 1938 under the auspices of the New Deal, was one of the country's first federal housing projects. What drew even greater attention, however, was the fact that a teenage Elvis Presley and his parents had lived at Lauderdale Courts from 1949 to 1953, specifically 185 Winchester Avenue, apartment 328 (Fig.1).

Learning of these plans to demolish the Presley apartment, Elvis fans worked successfully with journalists, historic preservations, city officials, and area developers to save Lauderdale Courts. Fans argued that the Courts provided a view of Elvis's humble beginnings not available at the opulent Graceland estate. Moreover, the apartment building had been an important transitional site in the King's personal and musical development. Elvis signed his first record contract with RCA just a little over two years after leaving Lauderdale Courts. As Judith Johnson, a Memphis preservationist, asserted: "This [Lauderdale Courts] is Elvis Presley's life .... It's on a very human scale. Everything that influenced him is in a four-block area from his apartment building, and this is the last place where he was normal."2

Of the many people involved in the preservation struggle, three Memphis-based Elvis fans - Mike Freeman, Cindy Hazen, and Georgia Anna King - played a noteworthy role. Freeman and Hazen gave tours of the threatened apartment building to visitors and articulated a convincing narrative of the historical importance of the Courts. Along with Georgia King, they formed strong political coalitions with local historical preservationists, who helped place the structure on the National Register of Historic Places. King, in particular, used her organizational experience and connections as a neighborhood activist to bring legitimacy to the cause of saving the Elvis apartment. In addition, her identity as an African American lent added credibility to the campaign, defusing suggestions made by opponents that the preservation struggle was carried out by white Elvis fans out of touch with the housing needs of poor black residents. While Freeman, Hazen, and King took advantage of their local influence and resources, they also mobilized the geographically expansive community of fans that communicate with each other about Elvis-related events and causes. Georgia King, who at the time was President of the Elvis Presley International Fan Club Worldwide, organized a major petition drive. Using book and Internet publishing, Freeman and Hazen asked fans across the United States and the world to write letters of protest to a host of authorities, including the HUD office in Washington, D.C. By involving this wide fan base in the Lauderdale Courts campaign, Freeman, Hazen, and King broadened the scale and cultural importance of their struggle.

Lauderdale Courts has since been renovated and renamed "Uptown Square" as part of a larger Uptown Memphis revitalization initiative. Completed in 2004 after spending $36 million in private and public funds, Uptown Square is a mixed-income apartment community with some units reserved for public housing residents and the remainder rented at market rate to young professionals. Even after it was clear that the Presley apartment would be saved, Elvis fans continued to influence the redevelopment project. …

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