It was only about six years ago that millions of dollars were spent on improvements on Main Street and many of us celebrated that the results of 15 years of dereliction was finally addressed.

It was part of the Main to Main Multi-Modal Connector program that provided $20 million from the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant program – only the federal government could come up with a name like that – and Downtown Memphis Commission President and CEO at the time, Paul Morris, put it to good use.

He beautified Main Street but most of all, he repaired the badly damaged street and sidewalk whose pavers showed years of wear caused by cars driving and parking on Main Street despite it being illegal.  In particular, cars of City of Memphis departments treated Main Street as they would any other city street, driving wherever they wanted and parking wherever they desired.   

When the Main to Main Multi-Modal Connector project was completed, Main Street was restored to a condition even better then when it was first transformed from a four lane city street to a pedestrian street. 

Missing: TLC

But to remain in that improved state, it needed TLC, a commitment to its sense of place, and an emphasis on what makes it special in the first place. 

Most of all, the improvements encouraged walkability, which should without question be the overriding goal of Downtown Memphis Commission and the Strickland Administration.

I was thinking of this last Thursday when I ate lunch at Café Keough.  There were seven cars illegally parked in that downtown block, including two Shelby County Health Department vehicles, and another car driving down the trolley tracks.  In the block to the south, four more cars were parked on the sidewalk.

Every one of them crossed pavers that millions of dollars were spent to repair only a few years ago.

The cars were so flagrantly parked, it’s clear that the drivers knew there would be no repercussions for treating Main Street as a parking lot.  Some cars blocked doors to buildings, others required pedestrians to walk around them, and all of them were disrupters to what is supposed to be Memphis’ most walkable neighborhood.

An Indictment

It is a damning indication of the shape of Main Street Memphis.  But more to the point, it is damning indictment of city government and its agencies whose casual disregard for the condition of Main Street has created an every-man-for-himself attitude for car drivers. 

Put directly, downtown is out of control. 

The lack of attention to parking enforcement is complemented by a lack of attention to street scape and quality of place. 

And it calls into question the almost $4 million a year that downtown commercial properties pay every year in a special assessment fee that is earmarked in particular for beautification and safety.  While development deals may get the headlines, it’s walkability that is the overriding measurement of the success of the Downtown Memphis Commission.

It has been reported that workers have been slow to return to downtown post-pandemic.  It shows on the quiet street and in struggling restaurants.  Many people are still working remotely.  One lure for their return that is missing is a vibrant, exciting, fun downtown that is walkable, enjoyable, and reflects a commitment to the sense of place. 

City Hall Needs To Help

Long ago, City of Memphis abdicated responsibility as a full partner in downtown.  It took the position that downtown was the responsibility of Downtown Memphis Commission, city government sent complaints, funding needs for infrastructure, and plans for the future to the agency.

Once upon a time, City of Memphis – and even Shelby County Government – funded downtown’s development arm yearly but that feels long ago.  It is obvious today that downtown has serious unmet deferred maintenance and infrastructure costs likely to be in tens of millions of dollars.  And yet, Downtown Memphis Commission has been told by several Memphis mayors that the agency needed to figure a way to handle it. 

It’s little wonder that there are grates where trees were supposed to grow, oversized planters with puny flowers way too small for them, there are garbage receptacles that are sometimes overflowing with trash, there are inoperable lifts for disabled people to enter the trolley, and missing trolley signs and maps. 

In other words, the responsibility for a downtown that looks cared for doesn’t just lie with Downtown Memphis Commission.  It requires the support and help from many city divisions, notably the willingness of Memphis Police Department to crack down on the park anywhere attitude that is out of control (and to quit parking on the sidewalks themselves).

All of this requires a downtown agency willing to kick and scream for enforcement by city departments.  What’s particularly ironic is that many of the people in city government who could help with these issues walk from City Hall downtown Main Street for lunch.  In addition to them supporting restaurants who need more customers, it would be major step if they would also take ownership of Main Street.

Walking The Walk

Someone said to me that downtown looks ugly and is chaotic.  After walking the length of Main Street, it’s difficult to put up much of an argument.

There’s much to do and it begins by showing that someone cares enough to demand that things get better.  For me, that begins by getting the illegal parking under control, and by under control, I mean the enforcement that removes it from Main Street. 

If we are willing to allow Main Street to forfeit its walkability, we need to acknowledge that in time, we will lose downtown’s distinctiveness and appeal. 

We should also admit that the millions of dollars spent marketing downtown Memphis as our tourism anchor are merely window dressing because we may talk the talk but we don’t walk the walk.

Worst of all, Main Street is compelling evidence of the “good enough for Memphis” attitude that has dogged Memphis for way too long.  The road to ridding Memphis of that attitude once and for all begins on our own Main Street today.


Join us at the Smart City Memphis Facebook page for daily articles, reports, and commentaries relevant to Memphis.