What’s a great city but a collection of great neighborhoods? We’ve been building them from the early days, when our population was concentrated along the Mississippi River. In time, wealthy Memphians began moving “out east,” building the mansions of today’s Victorian Village and the family homes of Central Gardens. Before the turn of the 20th century, Cooper-Young was coalescing and Orange Mound emerged as the country’s first community designed for African-American homeownership.
We know that great neighborhoods are more than physical locations, though. They’re communities of people—neighbors, business owners and patrons, government leaders and civic visionaries—coming together to make our neighborhoods great.
In the pages that follow, we’ll look at several such neighborhoods. Each tells a story of revival engineered by Memphians, people who invested in our neighborhoods to make them places that we can all enjoy today.
They are stories of people who saw past our challenges to envision our potential. Past the suburban flight that shifted our population and amenities east, leaving a vacuum in the westernmost part of our city. Past projects in the name of progress that displaced communities or threatened our environment. Past economic fluctuations and crime. Faced with these challenges, we fought back. In the 1970s and 1980s, we started to see neighborhood-minded organizations—the Center City Commission, South Main Association and Cooper-Young Business Association among them—really take hold. The organizations and their supporters dreamed big. Yet they cared equally about smaller details that could make a big difference. In one example, Gary Belz regularly opened the bar of the Peabody while it was under reconstruction to a group of like-minded Memphians. The business leaders among them committed to training their staffs to talk to guests about where Memphis was going, not where it had been.
In the 1990s, crusaders for strong Memphis neighborhoods, particularly Henry Turley, introduced new communities to our cityscape and reinvested in others. We’ll look more closely at those projects in the following pages.
The 21st century signaled a new era of innovation among Memphis neighborhoods. In 2011, Bloomberg Philanthropies selected us as one of five U.S. cities to receive a grant establishing an Innovation Delivery Team. The team, then aligned with Mayor A C Wharton, launched the MEMFix and MEMShop series of events. The events sought to show the potential of underutilized city blocks by reigniting them for a specified period of time. In their short history, MEMFix and MEMShop have sown the seeds of urban renewal in Crosstown, Overton Square, Highland and Walker in the University District, South Memphis, the Edge and other midtown and downtown neighborhoods. The program has continued under the administration of Mayor Jim Strickland.
It has taken decades of focused work in this vein to help us bury the image of Memphis as a decaying backwater. In 2012, CNN named us one of 11 “Great Riverfront Towns” in the nation. We know that Memphis is even more than that—we’re a city of great neighborhoods made by great people.
A Neighborhood Festival for All
Cooper-Young is one of Memphis’ oldest communities, but its residents like to think of it as “historically hip.” Since 1988, they’ve welcomed all of Memphis to the Cooper-Young Festival, when the neighborhood’s original restaurants, shops and other businesses serve as a backdrop to live music and hundreds of vendors selling food, arts and crafts. At recent count, the festival was drawing a minimum of 125,000 attendees annually. In 2012, Cooper-Young was named by the American Planning Association as one of the top 10 Great Neighborhoods in America.
A New Face for an Old Broad
When Memphis’ Binghampton neighborhood was thriving in the early 20th century, Broad Avenue was its commercial heart. That changed when the Interstate 40 expansion project cut the neighborhood in half. Although the expansion was ultimately thwarted in 1971, Binghampton and Broad were left floundering, compounded by declining population and income levels.
In November 2010, the organizations that would become the Historic Broad Avenue Arts Alliance and BLDG Memphis worked to spearhead an event called A New Face for an Old Broad. With little more than the sweat equity of volunteers and donated supplies, neighborhood stakeholders set to work. They cleaned up vacant properties and temporarily filled empty storefronts along Broad Avenue with pop-up shops and restaurants. They added bike lanes and crosswalks, streetlights, benches, bike racks and plantings, too.
In just two days, this show of possibilities created believers in Broad Avenue and Binghampton. Over $40 million in investment has followed. Buildings have been renovated; public art and community programming have been added; new enterprises have moved in while existing enterprises have grown (60% are minority-owned).
What’s more, the success of A New Face for an Old Broad wasn’t confined to Binghampton. The experiment inspired the MEMFix and MEMShop series that would go on to reinvigorate neighborhoods across the city—and attracted support for such events from the Hyde Family Foundation and the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis.
Healthcare (and More) on the Edge
When the University of Tennessee chose Memphis as the location of its medical school in 1911, it laid the cornerstone for our city’s medical district. In the century that followed, what began as Memphis Hospital in 1829 grew into the system we know as Regional One Health today. Methodist and Le Bonheur hospitals, plus Baptist College of Health Sciences and Southern College of Optometry, joined the neighborhood. In the 21st century, so too have residential developments, a brewery, restaurant and public art installations. They’re concentrated in “the Edge” of the medical district at the intersection of Marshall and Monroe Avenues, which exhibited its own MEMFix transformation in 2014.
The Rebirth of Downtown
Shelby County Historian Jimmy Ogle has been heard to quip that in the 1970s, there were more people living at 201 Poplar, the Shelby County Jail, than in all of Downtown Memphis.
The deterioration of our downtown wasn’t an isolated case. The prevailing trend of suburban flight was weakening the downtown districts of cities nationwide; as suburban populations boomed, downtowns bottomed out.
Our case was, however, extreme. As John Dudas, first president of the Center City Commission, recalls, “Downtown Memphis had an even worse situation . . . more than you would see in other communities. We had all the ingredients to destroy a downtown [on top of the] major emotional blow [of Dr. King’s assassination].”
Out east, the new Clark Tower was offering more office space than any of the commercial buildings downtown. White Station Tower and Ridgeway Complex lured more businesses in that direction. These moves influenced the decisions of major hotel chains, as we saw when the Hyatt Regency opened near Ridgeway instead of next door to the Memphis Cook Convention Center. Naturally, retailers followed suit.
In an endeavor to halt the chain reaction, the Chamber and the city looked to models of success in other locales. Main Street was closed to vehicle traffic to create a pedestrian mall. However, retail sales were declining faster than construction could take place. By the time Mid-America Mall opened in 1976, many of its businesses were on their way out.
Fast-forward to 1977 and the creation of the Center City Commission, now the Downtown Memphis Commission. As its first president, Dudas was tasked with making all of Memphis greater by strengthening our downtown. At the same time, individual Memphians were taking bold steps to encourage rebirth. “People took risks,” Dudas affirms. I remember feeling that energy in the air back then, almost like the excitement of a frontier.
By the mid-1980s, we were seeing the chain reaction we wanted—in the form of restoration and development of the Peabody, the Orpheum, Beale Street, the Lorraine Motel and other sites. “We needed everything to get downtown to where it is. You couldn’t have just had the Peabody [for example]. It required all those different parts,” Dudas remembers.
It also required people and planning. In the pages that follow, we’ll check in with some of the visionaries who never gave up on downtown.
From the commission’s perspective, Dudas explains, “The strategy was to hit it from several directions: housing to get people down here 24/7. Hotels. Office space. Retail. Public infrastructure.”
It’s worked. In the commission’s first decade, the number of residential units grew from 250 to 3,100. In its second decade, the Main Street Mall was redesigned to accommodate a vintage trolley system and AutoZone moved its corporate headquarters to Cotton Row. Leading into the commission’s fifth decade, ServiceMaster has completed relocation of its East Memphis headquarters to the former Peabody Place and we’re seeing major investments, and reinvestments, by hotel chains.
Now, let’s revisit some of the highlights of the rebirth of Downtown Memphis.
Memphis in May
Did you know that it was a cultural festival in the capital of Scotland that inspired the creation of Memphis in May? Memphians looked to the Edinburgh International Festival and wondered: how could Memphis create a similar event to highlight the assets of our hometown—and catch the attention of other countries that might invest in our community?
In 1972, our Chamber formed a group called the Memphis in May International Festival Society that worked to define such an event. Contributors included Rodney Baber, Harold Shaw (head of Universal Life Insurance Co.) and George Brown, who would later become a local judge. In 1977, a young board member, Lyman Aldridge, took over. Aldridge was busy developing real estate downtown, but under his leadership, the Memphis in May society became a movement.
Japan was the honored country of the inaugural festival. It was a strategic choice. In the mid-1970s, few Japanese companies had a presence in Tennessee. Then-president of Japan’s Datsun Forklift, Koichi Iwata, served as advisor to the first Memphis in May board. After the inaugural event, Gov. Lamar Alexander established the U.S. Japan Economic Summit between our state and the country of Japan. That was in 1979. In 1980, Sharp Manufacturing opened a Memphis plant creating 1,200 jobs in the southeast corner of our city.
Memphis in May included Beale Street Music Festival from the get-go, though local attorney and music-lover Irvin Salky gave the inaugural event a big leg-up. The venue was W.C. Handy Park; the bill touted B.B. King at midnight and Al Green on a Sunday afternoon. It drew more than 6,000 people. The symphony concert at the end of the month also took place downtown.
The festival budget that first year was $52,000. The board spent $62,000. The financials weren’t there yet, but board members knew that they had something to build on. Going into year two, they added the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest to the festival lineup. Charlie Vergos consulted every step of the way and even served as a judge during the event, which took place in the parking lot across from the Orpheum Theatre.
On its 40th birthday in 2017, Memphis in May brought more than 160,000 people to our vibrant downtown for a month of cultural activities. The economic impact was measured at more than $100 million. It may be hard for some of the younger attendees to imagine the inaugural festival and what our city was like then—when people needed a reason to come downtown, a reason to have confidence in our city. Memphis in May gave them that, and it continues giving back today.
The year was 1925. The Peabody Hotel had only been open in its current location for a couple of months when Philip Belz, a young Memphis developer, and his bride-to-be, Sarah, inquired into booking their wedding reception there. They were told that the modern new hotel was booked for the next three months. The couple instead celebrated their reception at the Hotel Chisca.
Twenty-three years later, Philip and Sarah’s son, Jack, would celebrate his wedding to wife Marilyn at the South’s Grand Hotel. You see, just as the Peabody is woven into the fabric of our city, it is woven into the fabric of the Belz family. So when the property closed in 1975 after a failed series of ownership changes and modifications, the Belzes began quietly making plans. Ahead of the property’s July 1, 1975, auction, they tapped attorney Raymond Shainberg to represent them among other potential buyers—including Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges—on the courthouse steps.
Not many people realized that Jack Belz was anticipating the outcome of the auction from inside the courthouse, barely out of sight. Shainberg won the auction on behalf of the Belz family, beating out Prince Mongo’s bid of $100,000.
Upon taking control of the property, the Belzes were advised to tear it down. Naysayers said that the time for such a hotel in a city like Memphis had come and gone. This pessimism seemed to make the family dream even bigger. They began the due diligence required to restore the property to its original glory. Teams scoured the Memphis Room of the public library for photos of the old hotel. Then one day, a demolition worker found the original drawings tucked behind a sheetrock wall. After peeling back layers of modernization, much of the hotel’s original features were uncovered in tact—including the stained-glass skylights and wooden beams you see in the lobby today, at one point obscured by acoustic ceiling tiles.
While the renovation costs climbed to more than $20 million, other details needed attention. Jack’s son, Gary Belz, was appointed general manager of the hotel and tasked with finding the perfect brand for the Peabody. He toured hotels around the country and considered national chains. The decision was made to bring the Peabody back as an independent, a standalone icon of hospitality and lodging. Gary Belz also thought to restore ducks to the hotel’s lobby fountain and revive its rooftop parties, a nod to the big band-era dances hosted in the Peabody Skyway.
John Dudas was still with the Center City Commission when the Peabody reopened. Of that day in 1981, he reminisces, “It was a symbol of rebirth, not just of downtown, but of Memphis. We were back in business.”
In 1934, local political leader George W. Lee published Beale Street: Where the Blues Began. The book illuminated what Lee called “the Main Street of Negro America,” providing for the medical, legal, religious, educational and recreational needs of black Memphians. It depicted Beale as the intersection of former slaves, free people and sharecroppers who had migrated via Highway 61 and other country roads.
The depression of Downtown Memphis that took hold in the mid-20th century snuffed out Beale Street’s shine. The first rumblings of redevelopment were widely heard around 1963. Before the decade was up, nearly 2,000 area residents were moved out. Businesses left, too—all told, some 400 buildings were taken down. The plan for urban renewal looked more like urban removal.
At this point, local agencies were free to take control of the properties. But without tenants, the buildings of Beale Street died their own deaths by disuse. Burdened by this glut of decaying real estate, the city offered to sell the street’s properties for $1 each. The catch? Buyers had to be willing and financially able to rehab what they purchased. The plan didn’t gain much momentum. From 1977 to 1983, a fence went up around the area while its fate was decided.
In 1983, the city took full responsibility, rehabbing the buildings of Beale Street one by one. The endgame was envisioned by John Elkington. Elkington wanted to rejuvenate Beale Street with commerce, music, entertainment and an essence that would transcend them all: in his words, he wanted to create a place where “blacks and whites could socialize.”
In 1983, Beale Street reopened as an entertainment district. It took some time to catch on. Rum Boogie Café was an early success story, but enthusiasm really began to build in 1991 with the opening of B.B. King’s Blues Club. “We got Hard Rock Café to commit then. After that, it was [a matter of] making Handy Park a real performance venue,” Elkington recalls. Today, Beale Street is the most visited tourist attraction in the state of Tennessee and the “Favorite Iconic American Street” of USA Today readers (2013).
The Orpheum Theatre is “where Broadway meets Beale.” From its inception as a grand vaudeville theater before the turn of the 20th century to a devastating fire in 1923, reconstruction and eventual conversion to a Malco movie house, the Orpheum has seen its share of drama. And that was just the first act!
In 1976, the movie house closed. There was talk of demolishing the building in favor of an office complex or parking lot. Bill Matthews, then with Union Planters Bank, wouldn’t hear of it. He bought the building for less than $300,000 and transferred ownership to a newly created organization, the Memphis Development Foundation. With Tony Bologna, Lucia Gilliland and Pat Halloran cast in major roles, the organization worked quickly to add the Orpheum to the National Register of Historic Places. With the building protected, they launched a $5-million capital campaign toward its renovation.
Halloran, who assumed leadership of the Memphis Development Foundation in 1980, was at the helm when renovations began. It was December 1982 and the plan was clear: restore the theater to its 1928 grandeur. You could call January 7, 1984, reopening night.
The show has gone on since. In 1996, upgrades to the front- and back-of-house debuted to accommodate larger productions, including The Phantom of the Opera. In 2015, the Memphis Development Foundation erected the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education right next door. The new facility accommodates additional programming from concerts to comedy shows to community programs in an intimate venue. Fittingly, it’s named for Halloran, who retired the year it opened. Of his earliest days at the Orpheum, he recalls, “I took [the] job even though downtown was in rough shape because there were these jewels like the Peabody that were beginning to make a comeback. Beale Street was developing its strategy for renewal. I knew it was something we all had to pitch in and try to change.”
The Turley Effect
Henry Turley doesn’t want to be called the father of Downtown Memphis. Press him on his role and he’s quick to credit a cast including Jack Belz, Tony Bologna, Billy Galbreath, Ed Sapinsley, Jay Martin and John Dudas. But after years of brokering the sales of landmark buildings, Turley felt a calling. “Somebody needed to help rebuild Downtown Memphis. [Yet] it was too weird of an idea to risk other people’s money,” he recalls. That’s when Turley decided to invest personally.
In 1977, he formed the Henry Turley Company and set to work with what he had: vacant commercial space and a conviction, shared by his pioneering peers, to get people living downtown. Turley began with the Shrine Building, then turned his attention to South Main Street. With loft living en vogue in our nation’s biggest cities, and a glut of empty warehouses and commercial spaces along South Main, the street was prime for repurposing. Turley renovated some of the empty spaces into residences. Art galleries and studios filled in and the street became recognized as the South Main Historic Arts District (see page 49: An Art Village). Strolling the area today, especially during monthly Trolley Nights or the seasonal Memphis Farmers Market, you feel a real sense of community among the people who live and work here.
In the 1990s, Turley pivoted from repurposing to building communities from scratch. Early in the decade, Harbor Town and South Bluffs welcomed residents who were open to his idea of New Urbanism. The developments mixed land uses, positioning destinations for work and play close to home. The density was alluring and the developments gave proof, along with Turley’s previous projects, that city living in Memphis was not merely viable—it was capable of improving residents’ quality of life.
For Turley, it begged a question: could the same ideas uplift a lower-income community? The answer came in the form of Uptown. After weathering decades without reinvestment, the neighborhood presented 100 blocks of neglect on downtown’s northern edge. By the early 2000s, several of Turley’s best practices—eco-friendly home construction, historic restoration and density, among them—were applied with the help of grants and public-private partnerships. It’s a bolstered foundation that Uptown residents and stakeholders continue to build on today.
When you think of Memphis, you have to start with our water. Our location on the Mississippi River drew settlers long before Jackson, Overton and Winchester came along, and distinguished Memphis as a hub for trade and transportation. The pure artesian water beneath our city is a natural asset so essential to our everyday lives, some take it for granted. Yet how to make the most of our riverfront as an amenity for locals and visitors to enjoy is an ongoing conversation.
When Mud Island River Park opened in 1982, it was the first time in the history of modern Memphis that locals had an excuse to come downtown and access the river. Framed with a scale replica of the lower Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans, Louisiana, a river-themed museum, an amphitheater, shops and restaurants, the attraction was expected to be a vital part of Downtown Memphis’ rebirth. It did attract close to one million visitors in its first year. Unfortunately, accessibility came to be perceived as a problem. Over the next two decades, visitation dwindled and along with it, the attraction’s viability. Today, we’re actively seeking ways to revive the amenity for future generations.
One of the challenges we face is the Mississippi River itself, with a waterline that can shift 40 feet over the course of a year. These extreme highs and lows have kept our riverfront relatively underdeveloped for much of our city’s history. Where other riverfront cities have well-established restaurants, shops and hotels, we have parkland and protected cobblestones. Even into the 21st century, it was not uncommon to see river vessels tied to trees, anchored to the Mud Island boat ramp or floating downstream, nowhere close to Downtown Memphis.
The remedy was Beale Street Landing. Its floating dock mitigates the river’s moods while additional amenities, including a grassy gathering space, a splash playground, a restaurant and public art, engage locals and visitors with our riverfront.
Furthermore, Beale Street Landing netted a big win for the city. In 2012, the American Queen Steamboat Company named Memphis its homeport and began offering overnight passenger excursions on the lower Mississippi River. American Cruise Lines announced Memphis as a port soon thereafter. It’s important to note that for both cruise lines, Memphis is a point of embarkation and debarkation. In lay terms, this means that the lines regularly deliver passengers to Memphis hotels, restaurants and attractions—a $42-million impact in 2017. In addition, our signature Memphis Riverboats, which have run near-daily sightseeing cruises since 1955, call Beale Street Landing home. Just like that, regular passenger traffic is flowing again through Memphis.
In 2015, a monumental repurposing project made a positive impact on our riverfront. To understand its origins, we have to go back to 1989, when the Big Dig kicked off construction of the Pyramid. Pat Tigrett helped plan the party, complete with laser lights outlining the building’s projected angles and fireworks bursting over our soon-to-be-changing skyline. Though intended for use as a sports arena, the building became an iconic element on the Memphis cityscape, akin to what the Gateway Arch is to St. Louis. So when the decision was made to build a new sports arena in the early 2000s, few people could comprehend simply tearing the Pyramid down. A committee was formed to explore possible reuses; a Grammy hall of fame and an aquarium were kicked around.
Then local fishing legend Bill Dance got together with Bass Pro Shops’ founder Johnny Morris and Memphis leaders. This second life for Memphis’ Pyramid likely saved the icon from the wrecking ball and created the largest freestanding retail location in the world. In its first year, Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid counted more than three million visitors who shopped and took advantage of its singular amenities, including large-scale aquariums, an aquatic-themed bowling alley, a hotel and a glass-bottom observation deck that affords a view from East Memphis to Arkansas.
From Beale Street, South Main and the Pinch District to Harbor Town, Mud Island and Uptown, from historic landmarks to our mighty riverfront, our people have charted a new course for all of Downtown Memphis. In 2007, the Urban Land Institute’s Urban Land magazine described our efforts as one of the top turnaround stories in the nation.