Memphis early map











The Memphis region’s latest jolt in yet another report showing that our economy is struggling was issued late last week by the Milken Institute.  We’re still buried in the rankings at #145, but at least that’s up five spots from last year, and the Memphis region is  #27 in high-tech GDP growth and #71 in wage growth.

But the best news of all stems from the fact that we no longer have to position it as a wake-up call.  We’re way past that point.

That’s because these days there seems to be action everywhere by people of all races, ages, and incomes who are committed to dramatically improving the trajectory for Memphis (and ignoring those who believe it is already written in the negative).

Tapping Into The Reservoir

We were thinking about this a couple of days ago when we got one of the periodic emails and telephone calls that we get from young professionals interested in Memphis, from men and women who want to understand how to plug in to make a difference, and from people who are thinking about bringing their programs to Memphis but are unsure how they will be received.

Each time, we start naming people who they should contact, and without fail, it is an uplifting exercise for us because it reminds us just how many people we have to choose from, people who are doing important things, particularly at the neighborhood level, and who have no tolerance for business as usual.

There’s never a call when we don’t end up bursting with pride.

Yes, we face some intractable problems, and some date back generations.  Yes, we know some experts and urbanists have already given up on us.

Yes, we know that it will be a long climb to reach the economy we want, to build the workforce needed for knowledge and technology jobs, to keep the 25-34 year-old college-educated talent that we’ve been bleeding for 15 years, to create a startup and entrepreneurial culture, and to build a readiness culture to stop the one after another ad hoc approaches to dealing with a challenge.

And yes, most of all, we know that we can be our own worst enemies at times.

But no, we refuse to despair or forget that there is a reservoir of creativity in this community that we can tap into at any time if we are prepared to work together to advance the Memphis region.

Refusing To Give In 

There’s no stronger proof that the history of the city itself…from the days when it was a wilderness village of a few hundred hardy souls to a riverfront that defied law and order to its pragmatic approach to its Southern allegiance during the Civil War to its survivor’s pride during the Yellow Fever epidemics, the decline of the steamboat economy, the era of the political boss and white gold and bond daddies, decline of the cotton economy, the murder of Dr. King and the closing of Beale Street, Hotel Peabody, and most of downtown to the bankruptcy of Memphis Chamber of Commerce and the beginning of the migration of downtown businesses eastward to waiting for crises to deepen before taking action on downtown decay, government reform, and tourism development, and finally, to the global recession that wiped out African American wealth, drove up poverty, and most negative measurements.

We say all this to say that this is just as much a part of our civic character as music and barbecue: our refusal to give up or give in.  Despite what’s throw at us, we get back on our feet, look the challenge squarely in the eye, redouble our efforts, and fight, scratch, and claw our way back.

We have done it time and time again.  We will do it again….because there is a current of creativity and perseverance that flows through this city’s history and defines our civic character just as surely as the current of the Old Man River flows back our front door.

Contradictions And Paradoxes   

Even from the beginning, we were a contradiction.  And we were known for the trials we faced.  We still are, and it is what you either love or loathe about Memphis.  It happens to be what we love most, the many paradoxes, the creative tension that comes from cultures bumping together, and the fact that at its heart, Memphis is a gritty Midwestern city masquerading as a Southern sunbelt city.

These contradictions were evident from the beginning and are threads that run through the entire history of the city.

Despite the wilderness’s rough and tumble environment, settlers formed a county government and one of its first acts was to appropriate money to help the poor.  Later, a new city formed with pretensions of civility, but policemen dared not try to extend law and order to the riverfront below Front Street.  Like Vicksburg, on the Memphis riverfront, the only thing cheaper than a woman’s body was a man’s life.

There was the paradox of a Southern city during the Civil War where people conducted business with Northerners to the point that Nathan Bedford Forrest questioned whether Memphians had loyalty to anything.

History Lessons

Waves of Yellow Fever epidemics led to Memphis’s personality being defined in racial, rather than ethnic terms, as the city’s vibrant German community and merchant culture and its growing Irish population moved away if they could, becoming some of the prominent old families in other Southern cities.  The worst epidemic in 1878 sent 30,000 people out of Memphians, leaving behind 20,000 people with 17,000 of them coming down with the plague and 5,000 died.  Trench graves were dug, the city was avoided literally like the plague, it was said you could smell death in Memphis five miles before you arrived here, and predictions that Memphis would rival Atlanta seemed like distantly fading boasts.  Eventually, Yellow Fever took more lives in Memphis than all the fatalities from the Chicago fire, the San Francisco earthquake, and the Johnstown flood.   And yet, there are stories of Memphians who stood their ground to nurse and care and often die from the Yellow Fever epidemics.

Soon after the disease waned, artesian water was discovered, and suddenly, the city called by the federal government the most unhealthy city in the U.S. was famous for its model sewer and sanitation systems, and along with its master plan for parks and parkways, it became a star of the Progressive Era.  Even then, Memphis had a sizable underclass living in the shadows of mansions built “in the country” at what is now Victorian Village and Union Avenue was lined by magnificent homes as well.

Memphis was known as the buckle on the Bible Belt and the Chamber of Commerce bragged that the city had more churches than gas stations, but meanwhile, the temptations on Beale Street never lacked for customers.  More than anything, the street was refuge for all things African American, but even more than food, music, and culture, it offered an unbridled attitude and freedom of expression.  One of the most notorious lynchings in the U.S. took place in 1892 on the northern end of downtown while Beale Street on the south remained a haven – not always a safe one, as Ida B. Wells could attest – but generally, the civic ethos was that whatever happened in the saloons, gambling houses, brothels, boarding houses, and theaters on Beale Street stayed on Beale Street.

That cultural, racial, and creative tension has always been a distinctive characteristic of Memphis, and over the years, it has cut both ways – to our benefit and to our detriment – but more and more, we are finding ways to tap into the strength of diverse people and opinions without the divisiveness and conflict that have been a drag on our progress in the past 20 years.


We say all this to make this point: we are the beneficiaries of a legacy that should inspire all of us to get into the game, roll up our sleeves, and make a difference.  If we do, 2015 could be the turnaround year that we have been waiting on and building toward.

The Memphis region is showing nascent signs of moving past the devastating impact of the Great Recession, which wiped out African American wealth, drove up the poverty rate, sent public revenues for services in a downward spiral, and tens of thousands of jobs vanished.  But, the fact is that we’re not just fighting to turn the corner from the damage done by the Recession alone, but from the preceding 10 years, when decisions primarily by Shelby County Government sparked the most large-scale relocation of people out of Memphis in history, layered on more debt paid largely by Memphians to pay for suburban sprawl, and advanced the idea that any road is a good road.

Sometimes, it’s hard to see the history as it’s swirling around us, but since the Recession, Memphians have been fighting aggressively for a better future.  Notably, Memphis City Council ended double taxation (city and county taxes) for services like the health department and schools, and moved decisively to get its fiscal house in order.

It seems to us that each year since the Recession, we saw a little more momentum, a little more boldness, and in the past couple of years, all the hard work seemed to come into focus: Broad Avenue, expansion of Cooper-Young, rebirth of Overton Square, Hattiloo Theatre, Main to Main, greenlines, improvements to Shelby Farms Park, Overton Park Conservancy, Pyramid revitalization, Chisca Hotel, American Queen Steamboat, Mitsubishi electric transformer factory, Electrolux major appliances plant, AutoZone Park purchase, Sears Crosstown, Memphis Slim House, Beale Street Landing, Forge, affordable housing projects in two dozen neighborhoods, and more.

Making The Most Of The Moment

Generally underappreciated in the face of continuing criticisms aimed at city government is the more active role it has played in recent accomplishments.  Its leadership and involvement were pivotal to most of the projects in the previous paragraph since they would not have taken place without it.  In addition, city government has its own portfolio of projects with 5,000 construction jobs and 5,000 permanent jobs as part of a master plan that connects them into new arteries of economic activity.

Meanwhile, there is no lack of other plans developed by nonprofit organizations, the private sector, and committed Memphians, particularly young ones, for programs and projects of all kinds.  Although the news media tend to concentrate on young white advocates working in marquee neighborhoods, there are even more African-Americans toiling away to improve neighborhoods without the allure of Midtown, to create startups and small businesses, to fight crime, to mentor youths, and to do the less glamorous work that rarely gets into the headlines.

There are some who suggest that too many young urbanists talk like elitists, but that is the mistaken impression that comes from the energy and certainty that young adults bring to issues of their community.  The fact is that we need more of them, not fewer of them, and if we need anything, it is to cross-pollinate the teams across sectors, neighborhoods, and races to spark even more new ideas and new approaches.

Job losses bottomed out in the third quarter of 2010, unemployment peaked in the fourth quarter of 2009, and just recently, the Federal Reserve has said that the Memphis region might create 10,000 new jobs this year.

2015: The Beginning Of A Different Future

With all of the exciting accomplishments of recent years and several projects poised to launch  in the coming months, 2015 could be the year we look back to in a few years and say this was the year that we turned things around and that Memphis launched its positive course for the future.

We know that we face some tough issues and challenges, but hasn’t that been the thread running through the history of Memphis?  We overcame the challenges in the past and pointed to a better future.  There’s no reason we can’t do it again.

Let it begin this year.