Peaceful Places in Memphis: The Levitt Shell on a Wednesday afternoon at 4:58 pm

Posted on February 2, 2015

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By: Lily Kate Anthony

levitt shell

Less than a year ago, after a Saturday night spent on the beer-soaked back porch of some fraternity house where conversation welded itself into a single sound wave that pulsated along with the rhythm of American poetry, I found myself in the car with a friend, heading towards a fast food restaurant whose neon lights continued to glow long after midnight. We bought sausage biscuits and large orders of pale fries, and with a mix-tape in the console, we circled around the same city block three times before admitting aloud that we did not want to return to our dorm rooms and the sickening chaotic routine (or perhaps routine chaos) upon which our lives were established. We debated driving to Arkansas and paying $39 for a motel room, though both of us were broke. We spoke only half-jokingly about driving until we saw the ocean (the gas-tank was only half-full). Finally, we stopped at Overton Park, in a lot behind the Levitt Shell.

We left the interior of the car and climbed atop the concrete stage, the Shell completely empty. We sat down with folded legs and picked at our fries, now gone cold and limp, talking about the nature of things. Underneath the concentric concrete domes so far above us, and the even more distant dome of night sky, I felt infinitesimal, but yet I felt safe.

There’s something humbling about the Levitt Shell. Built in 1936, it functions as a performance space in the middle of a public park, but in between shows, it sits, and for the most part, it is dormant. I recently returned on a Wednesday afternoon in January to find it just as vacant as it had been on that one Saturday night. I reclaimed my center-stage position and just sat, looking out at Chris Fennell’s skeletal steel sculpture that disappeared among the branches of the barren trees and the sky, scarred with vapor trails and cirrus clouds, where the moon was already visible–one of two alabaster crescents overhead. Sound seemed to recede, so that the tide of city traffic and the whistles of freight trains and the murmurs of mourning doves seemed but echoes from far away. With my back pressed against the white concrete wall, I saw only one other human being; an art student crossing the lawn with a vinyl portfolio under his arm and a plastic comb nestled at an angle in his cottony afro, who, upon seeing me, inexplicably apologized, perhaps for interrupting my solitude.
It might seem unconventional to find peace, seclusion, and silence at a venue constructed for the purpose of bringing Memphians together to celebrate musical noise, but it is when it stands almost forgotten that I find the Levitt Shell most wonderful. It feels protective, as a shell should be, with the semicircles of its arches offering those beneath a sense of confinement and safety (an idea supported by my knowledge of the psychological conveyance of circles as gleaned from a high school art class). The Shell is simple and stable and surrounded by trees, and it truly does remind one of her smallness in the most restorative way. So, in the middle of a noisy and thriving city, it is possible to find places of peace if we are willing to look for them.

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Posted in: Music