If our first century was about securing the very survival of Memphis, our second century has been about strengthening and sustaining our city. Imagine the early days: infrastructure—in the form of public utilities, safety, health, education and the like—had to be the priority of our newly-established city. As Memphis matured, our priorities broadened to include quality-of-life enhancements—the amenities that matter when you’ve passed “survival mode” on your way to becoming a growing, thriving community. Some of my favorite highlights follow.
1960s We opened a new airport, replaced Crump Stadium with Memphis Memorial Stadium and built the Mid-South Coliseum as a next-generation venue for entertainment and sporting events.
1970s We erected the Hernando DeSoto Bridge to link our city with Interstate 40, built the 18th largest convention center in the country and took the family to Libertyland. Downtown, we felt the first stirrings of revitalization.
1980s Under the leadership of Mayors Dick Hackett and Bill Morris, we saw quality-of-life amenities develop at a fast and furious pace. We watched Mud Island, the Children’s Museum of Memphis, Agricenter International and ShowPlace Arena materialize. We applauded an award-winning expansion of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. We took note as lights flickered on again downtown, illuminating our way back to Beale Street, the Orpheum Theatre and the Peabody Hotel.
1990s We replaced the Mid-South Coliseum with the Pyramid, debuted the National Civil Rights Museum, revived trolley transportation and made world-class improvements at the Memphis Zoo.
2000s We brought baseball back to Downtown Memphis, then made it into the big leagues when the NBA Vancouver Grizzlies came to town. We cut the ribbon on FedExForum, the Memphis Grizzlies’ $250-million new home—and the largest public building project in Memphis history.
2010s We witnessed the transformation of Shelby Farms Park, the Shelby Farms Greenline and Big River Crossing—and along with them, the state of outdoor recreation in our city. With development and reinvestment setting the tone for the decade, we enjoyed upgraded amenities from the National Civil Rights Museum, the Children’s Museum of Memphis and the Pink Palace to our neighborhoods—including the much-anticipated Crosstown Concourse project.
As we look back to look forward, it’s galvanizing to take stock of the amenities and improvements that, once upon a time, were mere dreams of people who just wanted to make Memphis a great place to live, work and play. Dreams that might not have been realized without the commitment of our people to see them through. As Shelby County Historian Jimmy Ogle reminds us, “Memphis could have seen a very different outcome following the assassination of Dr. King, when Time magazine ran a story calling us a decaying, backwater river town. Instead, something different happened. Amenities started taking hold in a serious way.” I think that says a lot about the people of Memphis.
In the pages that follow, I’ll take a deeper look at some of Memphis’ defining amenities across our favorite categories: music, civil rights, sports, parks and recreation. Of course, the story begins in our neighborhoods. It’s been a pleasure to revisit my memories of these places and an honor to hear first-hand stories from the people who worked behind the scenes to make them a reality. Enjoy your reading and do me a favor: the next time you visit one of our amenities, seek out the dedication plaque. Then reflect on the dreamers and doers who have made, and who continue to make, Memphis the great place that it is.
Throughout its history, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art has expanded in more ways than one—sometimes via construction, other times via collection. Yet generosity has always been essential to the story of this art museum, the oldest and largest in the state of Tennessee.
In preparation for its centennial year, 2016, the Brooks launched “100 Gifts for 100 Years” with the goal of augmenting its permanent collection. Patrons and supporters answered the call, gifting works by artists from Picasso to Memphis-based painter Carroll Cloar.
Look further back and you’ll learn that even the seed money for the museum, $100,000, was a gift. In 1913, Mrs. Bessie Vance Brooks earmarked her donation for the creation of an art museum in Overton Park. The gift honored her late husband, Samuel Hamilton Brooks, who had expressed interest in establishing an art museum for Memphis.
In the 1950s, two locals began donating pieces from their personal art collection to the Brooks. Their names were Hugo and Margaret Dixon. Since 1976, the estate they bequeathed for all to enjoy—the Dixon Gallery and Gardens—has showcased the couple’s Impressionist paintings, temporary exhibits, a certified arboretum and tens of thousands of bulbs in bloom each spring.
Some people believe that the best way to the heart is through the stomach. That would explain the love affair shared by locals and visitors alike with Memphis food.
The Arcade may be our oldest restaurant, but it was the opening of Leonard’s—with just five stools and a five-cent sandwich in 1922—that began building Memphis’ reputation for pit-smoked pork barbecue. In 1948, Charlie Vergos opened the restaurant that would spread that reputation across the world. Every rack of dry-rubbed ribs that sizzles over The Rendezvous’ fire fuels the notion of Memphis as a barbecue capital to this day. And to think the magic happens in a restaurant tucked inside a Downtown Memphis alley! Sixty years later, names including Central, Corky’s, Interstate, Payne’s, Three Little Pigs and Tops still spark public debate over who does Memphis barbecue best.
Some of our most unique culinary creations have resulted from the fusion of Old World traditions with Memphis recipes. During the first half of the 20th century, when so many of the stars on our restaurant scene descended from the Mediterranean, we learned to crave barbecue pizza from Coletta’s and Berretta’s. We ordered barbecue spaghetti from Brady and Lil’s, which evolved into the Bar-B-Q Shop. You can still taste the influence of Greek flavors at The Arcade and The Rendezvous: Speros Zepatos, founder of The Arcade, and Charlie Vergos shared Greek heritage. For more than a century, we’ve enjoyed the Tuscan-style cooking of the Grisanti family. It’s no wonder that Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, Memphis sons whose cooking honors their Tuscan and Sicilian grandmothers, are modern-day favorites of locals and critics alike. Shortly after opening their first Memphis restaurant, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, the duo began receiving steady praise from the James Beard Foundation, Bon Appétit and Food & Wine.
Memphis has long had its share of fine dining options, from Chez Philippe and Erling Jensen to Justine’s, which The New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne called, “conceivably the best restaurant in the South.” But we’re equally proud of our homespun specialties, especially our soul food. Since 1946, diners including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Stax Records artists have fallen under the spell of The Four Way’s home-cooking. It was around the same time that diners began frequenting the Gay Hawk Restaurant on South Danny Thomas Boulevard. The former drive-in is popular today for its buffet of fried chicken and steaming vegetables. Anyone who’s ever bitten into a Pronto Pup at the Delta Fair or Cooper-Young Festival will defend Memphis’ culinary traditions just as fiercely. Which reminds me: did you know that Pronto Pup creator Bemis Atkins Sr. was once a barber in the location of today’s Beauty Shop restaurant?