There’s a lack of pretension, conceit, and guile that lies at the heart of what Memphis is.

Perhaps it comes from the fact that the character of the city was fundamentally shaped by the people from the edge: rivermen and African Americans, outsiders who gave us our proudest export — legendary music — and entrepreneurs with crazy ideas from self-service grocery stores to overnight air shipping.

Maybe that’s why Memphis is a city willing to give so many people second chances, whether they are playing basketball for the University of Memphis or the Grizzlies, whether they moved here from another city after a business failure or whether they have been scandalized and are looking for a new start.

It’s not a city where acting superior and judgmental is part of the basic civic makeup. We all know people whose lives were turned upside down, and we all know people from different races and places and with all kinds of lifestyles. While there may be occasional bursts of geographic pride that lead people from a part of the community to be dismissive of people in another, pettiness about where someone is from is not something we spend a lot of time dwelling on.

The Promised Land

That’s why it was surprising when a reporter from a national newspaper visiting Memphis to check in on the redevelopment of The Pyramid wrote that he heard people disparaging it because it would bring too many hunting and fishing enthusiasts from rural areas into Memphis, or as he reported, more rednecks into downtown. After all, Bass Pro stores average 1.8 million customers a year with almost half coming from beyond 50 miles — and it’s expected that people will come much farther for this one-of-a-kind store.

It was a surprising report since it’s a rare day in Memphis when you don’t meet someone from a small town in Arkansas, Mississippi, or Tennessee, and so many chapters in our history have roots that stretch back to small towns.

From Mississippi came B.B. King from Itta Bena, Howlin’ Wolf from White Station, John Lee Hooker from Coahoma County, Elvis Presley from Tupelo, Cordell Jackson from Pontotoc, Albert King from Indianola, Rufus Thomas from Cayce, and Ace Cannon from Grenada. From Arkansas came Johnny Cash from Kingsland, Al Bell from Brinkley, Al Green from Forrest City, and Charlie Rich from Colt. That’s not to mention Tennessee’s Tina Turner and Sleepy John Estes, both from Nutbush, and Carl Perkins from Tiptonville. And famously, Sam Phillips drove in from Florence, Alabama.

Meanwhile, we have business and political leaders like Fred Smith, Harold Gwatney, Bill Morris, Ralph Horn, Pat Kerr Tigrett, Ned Cook, Bill Tanner, George Ellis, Kemmons Wilson, Clarence Saunders, and dozens more. There are enough members of the Memphis Society of Entrepreneurs from small towns to approach a majority.

It’s the Green That Matters

It’s a century-old story about how Memphis has been seen as the promised land by so many, and it continues today. Between 2008 and 2010, 1,570 people moved into Shelby County from Eastern Arkansas; 2,376 people from West Tennessee; and 3,544 people from Northern Mississippi. They represent the most significant source of new residents for Shelby County, and in this way, to dismiss these immigrants as country bumpkins or to categorize hunting and fishing as redneck sports is essentially to be dismissive of ourselves.

Susan Schadt at ArtsMemphis proved the point when she used hunting to help fund the arts in Memphis with the impressive books, First Shooting Light, Wild Abundance, and A Million Wings, which “celebrate and preserve the unique culture and tradition of American sportsmen and their intense devotion to land and wildlife.” To underscore the point, ArtsMemphis partnered with Memphis-based Ducks Unlimited for the Conservation Through Art program, and now, the 600,000-member organization will have its National Waterfowling Heritage Center in The Pyramid.

The ArtsMemphis books make the point well: Anyone serious about hunting and fishing knows that the gear and equipment are not cheap, not to mention the outfitting for serious hiking, camping, and boating that is also featured at The Pyramid. To get an idea of the impact of the reimagined Pyramid on downtown, the number of people visiting Bass Pro Shops will be more than two times the number of people who attend all University of Memphis and Grizzlies basketball and Redbirds baseball games.   (500,000 people visited the store in its first 27 days.)

It’s impossible to be dismissive of this influx of people into downtown Memphis by referring to the color of their necks. After all, it’s the color of the money that really matters.


This City Journal commentary appears in the May 2015 issue of Memphis Magazine.

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