For about 15 years, Memphis forgot who it was.
As a result, as the 20th century ended and as the first 10 years of the the 21st century began, it wandered without direction as tens of thousands of jobs vanished, tens of thousands of people moved away, and tens of thousands of people sank into poverty.
It lost the sense of what made it different and what made it special. It tapped into a pessimism that revealed itself most often in a game of the Dozens in which two people worked to outdo each other in their insults about their own hometown.
It lost the music that flows through its culture. It talked about its rich music heritage but it wasn’t feeling the rhythm any more. It lost the sense that it was its very real diversity and the outsider culture it created that were at the heart of its distinctive character. Instead, it turned its back on its own authenticity and regularly chased magic answers from other cities.
It forgot that Memphis had been tested before…many times…and it not only survived, it thrived, transcending each challenge to become stronger and tougher. It fixated on Nashville like it had once fixated on Atlanta, but forgot that it had the power to define its own unique future, one that didn’t have to look like either of those cities.
Getting Off The Mourning Bench
In the boom years in the late 1980s, Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris often evangelized: “Memphis has the longest mourning bench I’ve ever seen, and it’s time to get off of it. If you can’t get excited about Memphis these days, you should go to the doctor and get your pulse checked. I think you may be dead.”
The good news today is that was then, this is now. Where Memphis once was lost, now it’s found.
These days, it’s the city’s pulse that’s beating fast. The malaise that gripped Memphis lifted and anxiety attacks are giving way to adrenaline rushes that are defining a new attitude just when it is needed most.
We Rest Our Case
Recently, in just the space of one week:
* Bass Pro Shops opened to record crowds for the national retail giant.
* Carlisle Corp, which already is reviving the 112-year-old Chisca Hotel after about 30 years as a vacant eyesore downtown, filed zoning applications for a 30-story apartment building and a 22-story hotel at the foot of Beale Street.
* Shelby Farms Park held the groundbreaking for the new Visitor Center, restaurant, and events center as part of its $70 million project to create “America’s great 21st century park.”
* A four-story, 75,607-square-foot hotel was announced to replace the blighted French Quarter Inn in the transformed Overton Square.
* Developers filed an application for incentives for Tennessee Brewery – the beautiful building that no one thought could be redeveloped – to be redeveloped into 46 apartments, 13,500 square feet of commercial space, and a new six-story apartment building to the north.
* Developers expressed interest in revamping Mud Island to take advantage of the millions of people coming downtown to the newly reimagined Pyramid.
* Negotiations began for the $55 million redevelopment of Central Station to include a new hotel, 200 apartments, retail, and a movie theater.
* Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced that crime in Memphis dropped dramatically in 2014.
To cap it all, Hugo Matheson and Kimbal Musk announced that they were adding Memphis to their family of Kitchen restaurants in Chicago, Denver, Boulder, and Glendale. More to the point, they build restaurants with the purpose of building “community through food,” including schools’ vegetable gardens and strong relationships with local farmers. Their two restaurants in Memphis will anchor prime locations at Shelby Farms Park and Crosstown Concourse.
It is said they chose Memphis over Los Angeles because of its enthusiasm and dynamism they encountered here, and they were impressed by the way the community embraced their interest. Perhaps, the story is apocryphal, but what is most telling is that these days it’s completely believable that Memphis beat out L.A.
After all, if there’s a mantra in Memphis right now, it is that “everything is possible.”
As a result, major initiatives for Memphis to create an ecosystem for entrepreneurs, to create a vibrant riverfront, to do something transformative at the Fairgrounds, to reduce poverty and create better paying jobs, and to elevate our quality of life assets don’t seem like wishful thinking, but a realistic to-do list for the future.
It’s possible these days to make a long list of all kinds of new programs driving the new momentum and the new can-do spirit. But the best news of all is that many of the programs are being started and driven by young professional talent in the culinary, arts, retail, and neighborhood improvement fields. They ask no one for permission, they genuflect to no authority, they express their opinions honestly, and they offer others opportunities to collaborate with them. Best of all, they set out to create the city in which they want to live.
They teach the rest of us lessons in taking pride in history but using Memphis’ heritage as the lever for doing more and aiming boldly to the future. They inspire a sense of confidence that runs like a current through the city just as real as the one flowing by the city’s front door. They show little patience for those who want to rehash the past, to list grievances and problems, or undermine progress with a negative attitude about their hometown.
In the process, they have unleashed new optimism, whose strength comes from the fact that it is largely bottom-up. They are largely uninterested in what government, chambers of commerce, and tourism agencies have to say, because they instead are interested in what their peers have to say and nothing produces change as much as positive buzz.
In that regard, while many cities are talking about their narratives, these young people are too busy to pay much attention. They are too busy writing narratives of their own.
In a very real sense, Memphians today are tapping into the true character of the city, a mythic place chronicled in too many music histories to count and listed by Sir Peter Hall in Cities in Civilization as one of 21 cities through which 2,500 years of civilization can be told. He wrote that in Memphis, “a remarkable event in human history took place: cultural creativity and technological innovation were massively fused…The special reputation of the place, free and wide open, helped it all to happen…the music of an underclass could literally become the music of the world…This was a revolution in attitudes and behavior, as profound as anything that has happened in the last 200 years.”
Memphis’ peer group, according to Mr. Hall: Athens, Rome, Florence, London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Manchester, Glasgow, Detroit, San Francisco/Palo Alto/Berkeley, New York, Tokyo, Stockholm, and Los Angeles.
What’s most exciting these days is that there is a growing number of people who believe that our place among these world famous cities doesn’t have to be found in history books, because there is the opportunity for Memphis to be counted among the great cities of today.
We do it by tapping into the new optimism, self-confidence, and can-do attitude to tackle the toughest problems facing our community. In this way, the new spirit in Memphis is not about ignoring the problems while working on projects and programs less trying but addressing them in new and innovative ways that improve the lives of every Memphian.
At the same time, there is a palpable sense of urgency today because just as quickly as this new spirit materialized, it can evaporate. Because of it, time is of the essence and actions are the mandate. More than anything, that was what was missing in Memphis’ lost 15 years, and it’s what can make the next 15 years and more the turnaround years for the city.
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I didn’t move from Memphis because of the jobs or any of that; I moved to Az to retire and get away from humid weather it was killing me; I left my children and grand children but had to move; I come back to visit every year and make it in time for Memphis in May and the great Bar B Q; didn’t make it this year but always enjoy Memphis when I do visit;
All things may be possible for any city, but I disagree about Memphis turning the corner. Things are still very bad. The city continues to fall way behind other peer cities. Good news here is scarce. It’s great to try to be a cheerleader, but Memphis continues to be a city in decline.
Great article, and so very true! I’m a born and raised Memphian who left the city for school and adventures in 1990. My husband and I were so impressed by the new can-do Memphis when we visited in 2014 that we pulled up stakes from our home of 16 years in Atlanta to move back.
I’m so glad we did. We love our home in Midtown and we want to do our part to keep building on this momentum here. Memphis has been beat down too long. Time to rise up!
John Kitchell: We hear you and we write often about the challenges here and the peer cities comparisons. We post even more of them to our Facebook page, by the way. That said, it’s undeniable that there is a new undercurrent of determination and action that can bring the change we need. First, we have to believe we can make a difference; second, we have to decide Memphis is worth fighting for; and third, we have to understand that it is possible for any city to change for the better.
There are many great things happening in Memphis now for sure, and there are plenty of incredible people, but to move forward, we have got to get a handle on public education here. We can argue all day about where the fault lies, but it is a very troubled system, and our kids are not going to be competitive in the world until we can come together and hammer out some real solutions. Having spent almost all of my career in public education, I’ve seen the political posturing, blame games, and dog-and-pony shows first-hand. We need brainstorming, real talk, practical steps to take, and the willingness to make changes that will give our kids the tools to succeed in vocations or in academic fields. As it is, students who do not intend to go to college (for whatever reason) don’t come out of high school with any marketable skills, and in fact often drop out in 9th or 10th grade because they don’t see the point of continuing on a dead-end path. Revive and expand vocational education. Let students choose their path and be ready for the work world when they graduate. College is a wonderful choice (and was my personal path), but there are many who are much more interested in developing skills in a trade. We don’t push that nearly enough here.
Memphis seems to be on the verge of re-asserting itself as a world-class tourist destination. The riverfront (BSL, One Beale, the Harahan Bridge, the Pyramid, perhaps something new at Mud Island, etc.), new hotel projects, Graceland improvements, Overton Square, a burgeoning cultural resurgence, etc., seem to be converging at once. No doubt there are still challenges–the Fairgrounds, the airport reductions, management of Beale Street, and so on–but the successes are starting to outnumber the challenges in a big way.
Though it has been anything but easy to get where we are, the easiest part is making Memphis more appealing to the affluent…be they residents, tourists, or companies. The hard part is leveraging these successes to address the chronic and systemic poverty in our community. Tourism and development certainly bring some jobs along with them, and cultural enhancements do enrich education, but making a deeper impact into the lives of those at the highest risk of an impoverished life will ultimately tell the tale of our collective success or failure.
Reasons for optimism abound, as there is little that cannot be accomplished when leaders from all sectors are willing to answer to bell to meet the toughest challenges.
I guess a Bass Pro Shop store is better than a vacant arena, but it’s only a mere drop in the bucket. Economic development in Memphis is anemic with few new jobs, corporate relocations and expansions. The projects underway, or announced, in Memphis simply pale in comparison to the boom cities like Nashville, Austin, Charlotte and Raleigh. Just compare today’s Memphis Business Journal where the top story is about a Cheesecake Factory chain restaurant opening this winter. In contrast, The Nashville Business Journal is filled with articles about all sorts of new office, condo and apartment towers, expanding companies, Hugh paying new jobs, and a tourism and convention market far larger than ours. Without a decent public education system and a growing population base the jobs and growth will continue to bypass Memphis. Unfortunately that will mean Memphis will continue fall even further behind.
To your list of notable announcements within a one-week period (and also, to address Cindy McMillion’s worthy comment on local public education), I would add the announcement of Charles McVean’s Memphis Model. This initiative has many if not all of the hallmarks of the initiatives discussed in this article.
Love this article. The optimism right now is growing greatly in the Bluff City.
If our mantra of “Now is the Time. Memphis is the Place.” had a blog post today…this would be it.
These comments are great. Most of y’all are missing the theme of the article and proving it’s point at the same time. As a young Memphian who chose to stay after coming home after feeing what was happening here, I encourage you to re-read parts like this
“They show little patience for those who want to rehash the past, to list grievances and problems, or undermine progress with a negative attitude about their hometown”
I moved here from Boston in 2002. It was culture shock, for sure, and many times I wondered how on earth I would ever call Memphis home. The changes that have taken place have given me great hope. The work of Memphis Heritage to save our buildings, the revival of Overton Square, the connecting of O. Square and Cooper Young, the Green LIne, the new features at Shelby Farms, the Grizzlies…don’t forget the Grizzlies, STAX, and the renovation of the National Civil Rights Museum have made such a difference. I agree-our public education is a train wreck, and SOMETHING must be done or our children will not be able to compete. But there is so much good. I’m happy to be here.
I think that Memphis has been in trouble for longer than the 15 years cited in the article. The problems have continually worsened over the last 25-30 years. Today we are so far behind other cities. The city needs to reinvent itself in many ways, starting with education, decreasing poverty and having much better leaders at all levels of government.
Nice article. I agree with it 100%. Memphis is like a person with multiple personallities. Midtown and downtown are “hip” and young and experiencing a spurt of growth that we have not seen in quite a while. East Memphis is feeling the “youth drain” and seems more middle aged or older now. North and South Memphis have their challenges, to say the least.
The reality is that Memphis’s ability to continue moving forward will have to be accompanied by dealing with the financial issues that face the city and country. Much of the positive efforts mentioned in this article were assited by tax abatements and other government support, etc.. This can not continue as the city has a debt load that continues to grow by leaps and bounds.
I only wish that our leasdership had the political will to deal with the financial issue, but apparently they don’t – and the population that pays property taxes will continue to shrink either with their feet or through attrition.
I like to see articles like this, because being totally negative is a downer.
Anonymous 9:14: We didn’t say the problems started 15 years ago. We said that for 15 years, Memphis forgot who it was and quit working on them. Come to think of it, during these years, the problems deepened precisely because we lost the self-confidence to tackle them. Most of the problems in Memphis are structural and you can track them back at least 75 years, if not longer. We’ve written about this often in previous blog posts.
Thanks, John Carroll. Great mantra. The one we use here is “Memphis is worth fighting for.” Thanks especially for working in the trenches. It’s paying off.
“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
I agree we need to get off the mourning bench. Tom, I wish you would end the Facebook page Delta Does Memphis. If ever there was a “mourning bench” DDM is it.
I’ve heard similar requests from other people, and although I started the Delta Does Memphis group, I never considered it mine. Instead, I saw it as the group’s Facebook site. Maybe I’m wrong and I should take the initiative and shut it down. I haven’t kept up with it for more than a year so I’ll go check it out and see if it’s time.
Shutting small groups down is easy since you just remove one member at a time. Larger groups may take a bit of time especially if you have members numbering in the 1000s.
My wife and I, with our young daughters, visited your city in September 2013. We had a great time and loved Memphis very much.
Great food, great music culture, easy to get around (opposite side of the road as well), saw Lisa Marie Presley at the Levitt Shell (great night),downtown is a great mix of old and new, trams that originally came from my home town(Melbourne),Sun S
My wife and I, with our young daughters, visited your city in September 2013. We had a great time and loved Memphis very much.
Great food, great music culture, easy to get around (opposite side of the road as well), saw Lisa Marie Presley at the Levitt Shell (great night),downtown is a great mix of old and new, trams that originally came from my home town(Melbourne),Sun Studios, Stax, Beale St,Graceland, Rock and Soul museum,The missisippee , civil rights museum and again, the great food!
We will be back one day.
The negatives: (no offence intended here)
The poverty, and the constant reminder, visually and personally from people in the street. Sorry that there has to be a negative, but you need to fix this mess, it’s quite confronting when you have young children with you) I read about a lot of crime in Memphis also, although we did not experience this. Overall, a great place to visit and stay, from a foreigners point of view(for what it’s worth). Fix some of the not so good stuff and I think tourism will double, cheers from Australia.
Tom, I’ve been a follow of the Delta does Memphis page in Facebook for a couple of years. It once seemed to serve a purpose, but Delta is done with Memohis and the page has now become the same few people randomly ranting about the same problems at the airport and stupid chit chat. I also agree it should be closed, or renamed something like ” Memphis Air Travel “. Bashing Delta as a company surely didn’t help since most of the root problems were caused by the failures of the airport authority. I never liked a name so closely associated with an infamous old porn flick! Generally not good for the airport or city of Memphis. Just my two cents worth!
This is indeed a positive and hopeful article – and Memphis needs more positivity in our media. I have to say, however, a year and a half ago, I moved back to Memphis (my hometown) after 8 years in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex and several years of relocating to similar-sized cities. I was burned out on hour+ long commutes, insanely crowded and bustling restaurants and shopping centers, and the lack of “community”, but job opportunity (and security) was always a major component.
That being said, the Memphis that I moved back to in October 2013 was a grimy, neglected, derelict, high welfare recipient city. Ruled by a corrupt city council and the host of a ricidulously lacking job market.
Things are improving, but let’s NOT invest millions of taxpayer dollars on refurbishing the Raleigh Springs Mall and Southland Mall. Let’s try to spend the taxpayers dollars on important items such as repairing the roads, keeping the Police and Fire Department intact and funding our schools and the arts. Does that make sense?
As a young adult, I moved to Memphis in early 90s and lived there for nearly 20 years. I loved the music, culture and history of the city, I was a proud mid-towner (later downtowner) and actively involved in the community. I had a wonderful circle of friends – artists, musicians, writers – a tribe of punks and hippies I truly loved. I eked out a living for many years working in restaurants and freelancing until finally landing my dream job.
Then WHAM-O…after the financial crisis, my company closed and there were NO jobs and no support for creative professionals. Zero. Zilch. It killed me to leave – I felt like a traitor – but, I had to in order to continue my career. I’ve often thought about moving back – and it’s tempting when reading articles like this – but, I can’t risk my future on a city so conflicted with its own ability to succeed. Creative professionals just aren’t nurtured or respected in Memphis. And there is no industry to support them. It’s unbelievably ironic.
I’m happy to see this upswing, but it took too damn long. And it will be another 5 years before it impact is felt. Good for the next generation of kids coming up, but it sucks for the ones who were pushed out the door.
Much like my first love, I wish you well and hope you find happiness. But, we’re never getting back together. You burned me too bad.
This was excellent. Keep on reminding the people who have always been here what a hidden jewel Memphis is. You are not alone in your views, but it takes an enthusiastic village to honor and celebrate what is going on.
City has a major problem. They do not care for their police or fire department.
Anonymous 10:28: Then again, the City of Memphis spends $50 million more on fire and police than it takes in with all property taxes and all sales taxes…$423 million.
Question: In the responses many reference the need to improve education in the city. What would improvement look like to you? I am seriously interested in how others would measure progress.
I want to buy smartmemphis. Beer
The energy and optimism in Memphis are now palpable. Every time I go out, there is something new to celebrate, a new building, a new announcement, a huge diverse crowd of people celebrating an event. Crime is down. Over the last 18 months, the renewal in this city in all things has accelerated exponentially. It is incredibly mindboggling and invigorating at the same time. This is all happening NOW. Hundreds of young professionals and retirees are choosing Memphis over other great cities, like Seattle and Atlanta. And they are pouring into the city, in Downtown and Midtown NOW. The houses in my neighborhood just outside of Midtown are selling like hotcakes at the highest prices in a decade. Those who doubt what is happening do not get out at all, and those who are leaving are Miserables who are choosing to not participate in this great Memphis renaissance. They are the losers. Memphis is winning, Memphis is home, and I hope to live many more years to fully partake of everything this great American city is building. I LOVE MEMPHIS!
Beautifully written! I’m so excited for Memphis!
So glad our son recently introduced me to your blog. He & his wife were transferred from west Texas (both born & raised) to Memphis 8 years ago via his FedEx job. Our initial reaction was very skeptical due to the distance we’d have to travel to see them, but mainly what we’d heard about the high crime rate, prompting us to gift them 2 handguns, allowing us to feel like they’d be more secure/protected from this assumed “evil city”. In this 8 year period, they’ve conceived our 2 grandsons, which means we visit Memphis every 2-3 months if at all possible. Contrary to our fearful assumption, I’m relieved to report they’ve never had need for any gun usage at all. Our observation is that our kids (mid 30’s), although “transplanted” Memphians, are definitely among the above mentioned “they have unleashed new optimism, whose strength comes from the fact that it is largely bottom-up” etc… Every time we are there, we are so inspired by their harmonious spirit for Memphis & all that they participate in, such as many church affiliated programs, running event fundraisers & Junior League endeavors to attempt improvement in the many “problem areas” Memphis (ANY city) has & will always have to contend with in one way or another. The pride they exhibit has in turn, provided us much contentment with their move, even to the point of thinking “hmmmmmm, wonder if WE could move there & adapt from rural west Texas to this exciting place they now call home”…
TJ: Thanks for the comments. Come on up and join us. We’d love to have you.