Long-time readers of this blog will know that our team loves scoping out downtowns. Heck, our boss wrote a book about it. Twice. We love comparing and contrasting them to our very own Upstate downtowns. This week, we review some things — both good and bad — about Memphis, Tennessee.
First some background, for those who don’t know, Memphis is located on the Arkansas/Tennessee state line with the Mississippi River serving as the divider. Memphis has a deep history full of moments that are etched into the American psyche. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The landmark early Elvis Pressley records. A vicious Civil War naval battle. In addition, it is much bigger than Greenville. Close to 650,000 people live in the city. That is more than all of the residents of Greenville County alone.
But what did we see?
- They blocked off Main Street. There have been rumblings for the past decade that Greenville needs to block off part of Main Street to traffic permanently. People cite the success of when Main Street is blocked off for things such as the Saturday Market, Fall for Greenville, Artisphere and other festivals as proof that it will succeed. We disagree and we offer Memphis as Exhibit A. About five blocks of its Main Street were closed to traffic, and it felt almost like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. The lights were on in stores and restaurants, but almost no one was walking. Day or night. It just had an eerie effect and made for an uneasy experience. Now, in fairness, the two-blocks of the legendary Beale Street are closed to cars, and crowds were there. But the large swath of Main Street felt barren.
- It’s authentic. Yes, the dreaded A-word. A lot of places want to be authentic, but don’t know what it means or how to get it. Memphis has a definite vibe. It’s a place where people live, but tourists are welcome. Street art is everywhere. The neighborhoods around downtown feel alive. It feels like a place with history, and it knows it. The buildings, both old and new, couldn’t be dropped into any other place and no one would notice. They would stand out anywhere else because they stand out in Memphis. Nope, the buildings, streets and people are Memphis and vice versa.
- Food. Every place wants to be a foodie town. But Memphis is something different. As the home of a specific kind of barbecue, you can find a lot of what we would call downhome cooking. We ate at Rendezvous, which literally is in a basement downtown and it was fantastic. We also feasted on chicken and waffles at Miss Polly’s on Beale Street. We are sure we missed hotter spots, but we were happy.
- Good and bad planning abounds. Mistakes get made in economic development. Case in point, the roughly 32-story glass pyramid that welcomes visitors as they cross the Mississippi into downtown. It originally opened in 1991 with the hope that Memphis would attract an NBA team. It did. In 2001, the Memphis Grizzlies became a thing, and quickly learned the Pyramid did not meet their needs and got a new arena (FedEx Forum) built closer to Beale Street and the city’s AAA baseball stadium. However, the contract between the city and the basketball team prevented pretty much any use of the Pyramid without the consent of the Grizzlies. So, now it was a giant abandoned structure greeting visitors. Not a good sign. However, Bass Pro Shops eventually purchased the site, renovated it and in 2015 opened a megastore that features 100-room hotel and 600,000 gallons of water in various in-store features. Nice save, Memphis.
- The origins of a Simpsons Joke. One of the better gags in Simpsons’ history is where Lisa Simpsons dreams she is denied the presidency because she failed gym class. She is then sentenced to a “lifetime of horror” on Monster Island, but in a wink-wink aside is told, “don’t worry, it’s just name.” The dream then flashes to Lisa and other prisoners being chased by fire breathing monsters and she yells she was told it was just a name. Another person yells back, “it’s actually a peninsula.” What does this have to do with Memphis? Well, in the middle of the Mississippi is Mud Island, but it’s really a peninsula. And despite that name, it is filled with a planned community featuring shops, parks and a lot of housing a la our own Verdae. We can’t confirm there is a tie in between Memphis and the Simpsons, but who knows?
What can Greenville learn from Memphis? Tough to say, since our downtown does a lot of things better, but Memphis has a lot more things to do. Heck, we didn’t even mention Graceland, the Liberty Bowl or the numerous other cool stuff in Memphis.