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VOL. 125 | NO. 160 | Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dellinger Takes Readers on Trip Down Proposed I-69

By Eric Smith

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When Matt Dellinger came to Memphis a few years ago to research the book he was writing on Interstate 69, he stumbled upon the Little Tea Shop on Monroe Avenue.

The main reason he chose the storied Downtown eatery was because of its street number, 69, which he figured must be a sign considering his book’s subject matter – the new interstate coursing through middle America, including Memphis, from Canada to Mexico.

There, he struck up a conversation with restaurant owner Suhair Lauck about a bumper sticker plastered near the cash register that read “Don’t Split Shelby Farms.”

Dellinger asked Lauck if that motto had anything to do with the proposed I-69. She said no, but added that any book about highway development in Memphis should include a conversation with attorney Charles Newman, a Little Tea Shop regular who in the late 1960s and early 1970s worked with the Citizen to Preserve Overton Park.

“Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway”

Available Aug. 24
Signing Sept. 23, 6 p.m.
Davis Kidd Booksellers, 387 Perkins Road Ext.

That was the grassroots group responsible for keeping I-40 from tearing through the park, a watershed moment for Memphis, yet an antithetical one considering the rash of highway construction at that time in the U.S.

“If I hadn’t had lunch there, I don’t know what I would have written about in Memphis,” the author said by phone from New York this week. “It wouldn’t have been nearly as good.”

This story, and plenty more about Memphis’ role in the development of I-69 – dubbed the “NAFTA Highway” because it will provide a direct link among North America’s three nations – is one of many highlights from Dellinger’s book, set to be released Aug. 24.

“Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway” chronicles the ongoing – and contentious – development of the highway that will traverse 1,400 miles through eight states.

Dellinger’s understanding of I-69 has roots in three different geographic perspectives: Indiana, where he grew up; Texas, where his father lives; and the Mississippi Delta, where he traveled extensively as a writer for the Oxford American magazine.

It was time spent researching an article in 2002, and then another one in 2004, that Dellinger realized the scope of the highway and how people who lived along the highway’s course viewed the project.

“Here’s an opportunity to put a much bigger story together and take a look at the implications and the attitudes in different parts of the country,” he said.

For example, communities in his home state of Indiana see the highway as an intrusion on their lives and their land, while communities in the Delta tend to see it as an economic development windfall.

In the Mid-South, I-69 will head south from Dyersburg into Millington. It will meet up with the existing I-240 in Midtown and then I-55 in South Memphis, where it will lead into the Mississippi Delta and eventually down to Texas (the exact course is still being debated).

In Millington, I-269 will split off from the main highway and loop around Shelby County (including much of existing and future Tenn. 385) into Fayette County and then down into DeSoto County, where it will meet back up with I-69. A short stretch of I-69 in Northwest Mississippi leading toward the Tunica casinos is already finished.

The 269 outer loop has its proponents, who argue that additional highway capacity will further bolster the city’s standing as a logistics and distribution nexus. But it also has been a sticking point for critics here who contend it will promote urban sprawl and suck even more life out of the Memphis core.

“If you’re someone who champions the city, then the loop is a bit of a blow,” Dellinger said. “On the other hand, Memphis is also known for its logistics. So, do you want all those trucks pouring in and out of Downtown?”

Dellinger interviewed plenty of Memphis players for the book, from developers like Rusty Bloodworth of Boyle Development Co. and Henry Turley to attorneys like Newman to outspoken detractors like Tom Jones of Smart City Memphis.

I-69’s fate hasn’t been determined, and Dellinger puts the odds of its overall completion at 50-50. If it is, Memphis, like many cities along the highway’s path, could be transformed forever. Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen.

“I think the lasting impact will be you’ll see Memphis grow and the logistics industry will become more and more important after I-69 is complete,” Dellinger said. “The challenge for Memphis residents is to say, ‘OK, what are the negative impacts and how do we want to balance those?’”

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