City of the Future
Looking for the best of Memphis.
Beale Street Landing
Rendering Courtesy Riverfront Development Corporation
When was the best Memphis has ever been? What was the high point of our city?
The answer depends largely on what part of Memphis you’re asking about, and the background of the person you’re asking.
The city was ascendant right before the Civil War, especially with steamboats and railroads linking the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean in Memphis in 1857. Memphis had become America’s largest inland cotton market, and it was one of the largest cities in the South and for a time was the fastest growing city in the U.S. But that was a slave-holding city, and you would be hard-pressed to argue that the 1850s were some kind of enlightened time in Memphis history.
No, pre-Civil War wasn’t the best Memphis has ever been.
The city made it through the Civil War mostly unscathed, and the Memphis Freedmen’s Bureau was created to provide banking and education to freed slaves. But there was considerable resentment among the white population, and freed slaves did not mean equality. There was violence, in Memphis as elsewhere.
The scourge of yellow fever in the 1870s decimated the city. Thousands died and even more fled in terror. Blacks and immigrants who couldn’t afford to leave didn’t, and many paid with their life. The resultant massive civic debts prompted leaders to repeal the city’s charter and give up Memphis for state control in 1879. The move was successful and helped Memphis get out of its economic strain. But despite the prosperity and philanthropy of Robert Church Sr., the first African-American millionaire in the South, and despite the discovery of artesian water below the city in 1887, you still couldn’t argue that the latter-nineteenth century was anything but a time of recovery for Memphis.
No, the nineteenth century wasn’t the best Memphis has ever been.
One name dominates Memphis in the first half of the twentieth century: E.H. “Boss” Crump. He effectively ruled Memphis politics and everything that it touched — in other words, everything. W.C. Handy fathered the blues, Clarence Saunders created the supermarket, and a new Peabody hotel opened on Union. Many of today’s prominent Memphis organizations got their start in the first half of the 1900s, including hospitals, universities, the airport, and museums. But women couldn’t vote until 1920, and Jim Crow laws suppressed the rights of African Americans until the mid-1960s.
No, the early 1900s wasn’t the best Memphis has ever been.
The 1950s and early 1960s were arguably the most important time in Memphis’ history, with the converging cultural might of Sun Records, Holiday Inn, and Stax Records and the founding of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. But it was a time of civic upheaval, with federal desegregation and civil rights strife, and broken city-community relations. It all culminated with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Riots broke out, and Memphis’ reputation nationally took a hit that would impact the city for decades. In the 1970s, the city core was hollowed out by suburbanization.
So, though there were major advances in Memphis over a few decades, such as the founding of FedEx and AutoZone, the rise of East Memphis commerce, the opening of Graceland and Mud Island, redevelopment of Beale Street and The Peabody, and the establishment of Harbor Town returning residential living to downtown, the last decades of the twentieth century mirror the last decades of the ninteenth century: recovery.
No, the latter twentieth century wasn’t the best Memphis has ever been.
Since 2000, there have been strides forward and, as always, backward. Downtown has seen the construction of a stellar baseball field and landed its first big-league professional sports team with the Memphis Grizzlies. FedExForum bears the name of the city’s biggest corporate citizen and sits off of Beale Street; a recently successful redevelopment, Uptown, has transformed a former housing project; and Stax was resurrected in the form of a museum and music academy. But the national economy has been rocky, the financial industry has been knocked on its heels, and the housing market has cratered, slowing the advance of local progress. Disunity between the city and suburbs has been the norm rather than the exception.
No, 2000 to 2011 wasn’t the best Memphis has ever been.
All that is to say: There’s never been a best time in Memphis, which must mean it’s still in our future. Never before have all the elements combined at the same time to capitalize on the city’s potential. Either someone or another has been disenfranchised or economically suppressed or some part of town or another has been neglected while another prospers. Memphians have been victims of outside forces, and we have victimized ourselves.
In "Redeveloping Memphis," on newsstands now, MBQ examines the top 10 redevelopments in Memphis — places that aren’t right yet but that communities of stakeholders are laboring to make better. These are people and organizations who believe that Memphis’ best days are ahead of us, and they are working toward it by capitalizing on the successes and flipping the failures of the past.
There are a lot of great revitalization efforts in the Mid-South to examine. Look for further installments in the Redeveloping Memphis series in future issues of MBQ.
Memphis wasn’t built in a day. I’m not sure we’ve yet seen the real Memphis after almost two centuries.