One of our favorite things about this community is its lack of pretension and snobbiness.
Perhaps, it comes from the fact that the character of the city was shaped fundamentally by the people from the edge, the rivermen and the African-Americans, the outsiders who gave us our most famous international export – our music, and people with crazy ideas like the one that gave birth to FedEx.
As Carol Coletta has said, Memphis is a city of second chances. We give people another chance – whether they are playing basketball for University of Memphis or the Grizzlies or whether they have moved here from another city after a business failure or whether they were scandalized and looking for a new start.
Perhaps we’re being a little Pollyannish, but we like to think that being judgmental or acting superior is just not a part of our civic makeup, because most of us know people facing lives with challenges, people from different races and places, people from all socio-economic backgrounds, and people with all kinds of lifestyles.
Yes, there are the occasional bursts of geographic pride that lead people from a section of Memphis to be dismissive about the suburban choices of others. And vice versa. But most of us ignore the petty back and forth and they quickly fade.
All of this is why we were surprised when someone who had recently visited Memphis as he explored what cities are doing to compete and succeed telephoned us to ask about the state of the city, particularly the redevelopment of The Pyramid. He said some people told him that they didn’t support it because it would bring so many rednecks to Memphis.
So, we stand to defend the rural residents of our 100-county market area and beyond. The suggestion that they are rednecks when so many of us here are from those areas is simply silly. It was a surprise that the comment even affected me since it’s been decades since I left Haynes, Arkansas for Memphis (population in 2000 was 214; Census doesn’t keep up with its population anymore).
It is a rare day that passes that I don’t also meet another Arkansan who made a similar journey. The same goes for Mississippi and West Tennessee. Memphis is what it is because it is an amalgam of the rural influx of people to Memphis. Just think of all the blues artists, B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker from North Mississippi; Elvis Presley from Tupelo; Sam Phillips from Florence, Alabama; rockabilly artists like Cordell Jackson; musicians like Ace Cannon, and soul artists like Rufus Thomas, and the list goes on and on. We won’t even get into all the civic, political, and business leaders that moved into Memphis, but here are a few: Bill Morris, Ned Cook, Bill Tanner, Kemmons Wilson, and dozens more.
Huntin’ and Fishin’
It continues even today. Between 2008-2010, 1,570 people moved into Shelby County from Eastern Arkansas; 2,376 people moved into Shelby County from West Tennessee; and 3,544 people moved into Shelby County from Northern Mississippi.
Those 7,690 people represent the most significant source of new residents for this county, and that has been the case for as long as we can remember. That’s why it’s next to impossible in a meeting to not find someone who doesn’t have roots that trace back to West Tennessee, Eastern Arkansas, or Northern Mississippi within a generation or two.
In other words, to dismiss these emigrants as rednecks is to dismiss ourselves. We are them, and hunting and fishing hardly makes someone a redneck. After all, in an inspired bit of fundraising, Susan Schadt at ArtsMemphis has used hunting to raise substantial money for the arts in Memphis with some high-quality books, First Shooting Light, Wild Abundance or A Million Wings,“ which celebrate and preserve the unique culture and tradition of American sportsmen and their intense devotion to land and wildlife.” They spotlight some of Memphis’s leading families, including major supporters for our arts and culture.
Most of my relatives in Arkansas are hunters and fishermen and they are anything but rubes or rednecks, a word whose derivation refers to a rural poor white person of the South. Anyone who is serious about hunting and fishing knows that the gear and equipment are anything but cheap, but more to the point, Bass Pro Shops is about outdoors recreation and nature, also including hiking, camping, and boating.
In addition, Memphis prides itself on being the world headquarters for Ducks Unlimited, which has 600,000 members, 40,000 volunteers, and $180 million yearly revenues devoted to conserving wetlands and associated upland habitats for waterfowl, other wildlife, and people. So much for redneck hunters.
Here’s the thing: We don’t particularly care about the color or sizes of the necks of any of the more than two million people who will be drawn to the Bass Pro store at The Pyramid – 40% of them from beyond 50 miles. Their spending will revitalize the Pinch Historic District into a retail district known for the preservation of its existing building, they will spend money all over downtown, and they will pay for the improvements to The Pyramid without any money from city budgets.
We all value the basketball and baseball games that bring people to downtown, but if you add them all together, and multiply them by two, then you have the conservative estimate for the number of people who will come to downtown Memphis and spend money because of Bass Pro Shops.
The only store comparable to it is the headquarters for the destination retailer in Springfield, Missouri, and it is the #1 tourism attraction in that state with four million visitors a year.
When the recent visitor to Memphis asked how we had become such advocates for the retailer, we said that back when we questioned what the best use of the former arena was, and because there were many negative comments made about the selection and recruitment of Bass Pro by the citizens committee headed by business leader Scott Ledbetter, we did two things.
One, we visited Big Cedar Lodge, the Bass Pro-owned resort in the Missouri Ozarks, and we visited the mother ship in Springfield, Missouri. We came face-to-face with the realization that all the dismissive “bait shop” comments were not just inaccurate. They were stupid. The attention to detail, the artisans employed to work on the Lodge and who were keeping Ozark crafts alive, and the vast conservation exhibits that take up 40 percent of every store impressed every one of us.
Most of all, we were reminded that while our kneejerk reaction might be to see Bass Pro as someone else’s store, we realized that it was in truth a byproduct of our traditions in the Mid-South and its key location on the Mississippi Alluvial Valley flyway. Already, we are told that the store is developing outreach programs to introduce Memphis youth to outdoor recreation and conservation, and in that way, like all of us, they apply their rural ethos to an urban setting in ways that can make the city better.
At a time when everyone from Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. to TV star Lisa Kudrow to CNN are sponsoring shows to track down ancestry of well-known celebrities, we apologize for our defensiveness about criticisms based on stereotypes about rural Mid-Southerners. Clearly, some of us take them personally.