Downtown Memphis grew from the warehouses that stored cotton and other goods shipped up and down the Mississippi. For a long part of Memphis' history, this meant that the riverfront was a place for commerce, not recreation and tourism. That has changed, with the development of public facilities, housing, and restaurants taking the place of many of the drab, industrial buildings of the past. Now, when you take a ride on the paddlewheel boats that run regular tours from the Memphis harbor, you can spot joggers in Riverfront Walk, swimmers in the pool on Mud Island, and elegant homes along the bluffs (including Cybill Shepard's, look for the round window). Or, visitors can take a beautifully-restored, 19th-century trolley car up Main Street parallel to the River and stop at the imposing Pyramid arena, grab a bite and a brew in one of the Pinch Historic District pubs, loop back to the south to see the Orpheum Theatre and continue on down to the Civil Rights Museum, located in the old Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. A ride back up to Union Avenue and walk two blocks east brings you to the Peabody Hotel, where the comeback of downtown started in 1971, with a major restoration. After a visit with the ducks in the lobby fountain, cross the street to the new Peabody Place entertainment center to see a movie, or cross Union for some popcorn and crackerjacks while the Memphis Redbirds play baseball in Autozone Park.
The focal point of downtown, for tourists at least, is Beale Street, 'Home of the Blues.' Brought back from a downward spiral in the '60s and '70s by a coalition arrangement of private business and city government, Beale Street now features lively bars, clubs, restaurants and quaint souvenir shops. Closed to traffic on weekend evenings, the area teems with an eclectic mix of tourists, suburbanites, downtown residents and kids turning flips for quarters. Here you can visit Elvis Presley's restaurant with its souvenirs and videos of Memphis' favorite son. Visit B.B. King's Blues Club and the Hard Rock Café for music, food and dancing. Come to the Center for Southern Folklore and learn more about local culture and history.
More of Memphis' fabulous musical heritage can be soaked up at the original Sun Studio just a short distance down Union from the Peabody Hotel and Beale Street. This is the studio made famous by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King and others. The walls seem to have soaked up the musical magic created by these legendary performers, or at least that's the mystique that still brings up-and-coming musicians here to record.
Few buildings in Memphis date back more than 50 years, making the preservation of the Victorian Village, on the north side of the downtown area, all the more important. These homes, built at the turn of the century, still stand in their original tree-lined setting. Some of these homes are maintained as examples of life in post-Civil War Memphis and are open to the public.
Harbor Town is a planned community founded in 1989 by developer Henry Turley and Belz Enterprises (responsible for the revival of the Peabody Hotel and the building of Peabody Place). It sits on a narrow spit of land between the Mississippi and Wolf Rivers, just north of the downtown Memphis area. The original idea was to create a self-contained community of homes, stores, schools, and recreational facilities. The shopping and schools have been slow in appearing, but Harbor Town has quickly become one of the most desirable residential areas in Memphis, sparking renewed interest in living downtown and building along the river. The architectural design is a based on a Victorian style (peaked roofs, wood construction, tall, narrow buildings) but with extensive use of glass in doors and oversized windows. Lampposts from the turn-of-the-century enhance the ambiance of the neighborhood. Residents enjoy the use of the Marina, a Montessori elementary school with a bilingual pre-school, a yacht club and shopping plaza. Miss Cordelia's Grocery Store provides a limited selection of provisions. Harbor Town is not a gated community and visitors are welcome to stroll the pleasant streets and enjoy the parks.
The Midtown area stretches from I-240 on the west to the University of Memphis on the east, and from Southern Avenue to North Parkway. This lively neighborhood harbors beautifully restored residential areas, the highest concentration of ethnic restaurants, trendy clubs, and live theater, along with some of the best places for antique shopping in Memphis.
At the heart of Midtown lies the Overton Square Entertainment Complex, home of Playhouse on the Square, the Malco Studio on the Square movie house and wine bar, Loony Bin Comedy Club and a selection of restaurants and funky shops. This walkable area is a great place for a pre-theater glass of wine at Le Chardonnay, followed by a play, musical, or independent film, then a late dinner at the elegant Paulette's.
To the north is the rolling lawn and spreading shade trees of Overton Park, home of the Memphis Brooks Museum, the Overton Golf Course and the Memphis Zoo. Just down the Poplar corridor is the Circuit Playhouse, an intimate theater where many young actors and actresses have gotten their start. Burke's Book Store draws the local literati to readings and book signings.
The Cooper-Young Historic District forms the south border of Midtown. Annual tours of this neighborhood and its fall festival show off the turn-of-century homes, lovingly restored over the last 15-20 years. The affluence of the current residents supports some first-rate restaurants including the Pacific Rim-style Tsunami and the wonderfully eccentric Java Cabana coffeehouse. Several second-hand and antique shops have found homes here too.
Just east of Cooper-Young is the Mid-South Fairgrounds, home of Libertyland Amusement Park and the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. The Mid-South Fair, held each September, attracts visitors from surrounding states eager to see the exhibits of purebred cattle, hand-sewn quilts, and local art and photography. One weekend every month, an enormous flea market occupies both the stadium, the surrounding grounds and parking lots.
Opposite the Fairgrounds is Christian Brothers University, known for its excellent engineering program, while nearby is the charming Children's Museum. Just down the street, the founder of the Piggly-Wiggly Grocery Stores built his Pink Palace to spite the snooty members of the Memphis Country Club. The Palace now houses a replica of the first ever self-service grocery store, exhibits on natural history, the Sharpe Planetarium and an IMAX Theater.
Memphis locals flock to Midtown when they're in the mood for authentic Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Greek or Japanese food, when they want to hang out with friends in a coffeehouse such as the Deliberate Literate or Otherlands, or when they want to treat themselves to fine cuisine at restaurants such as Paulette's or Tsunami.
University of Memphis Area
The University of Memphis is largely a commuter campus, thus it has not developed the usual collection of businesses catering to students. Instead, the stretches of Highland and Park along the borders of the campus have an odd collection of semi-respectable bars and a Middle Eastern restaurant called Mo-Jo's (looks like a fast food place, but isn't). Some of the best housing in the Memphis is located in this area. Small houses with excellent potential for restoration surround the campus. The block to the north comprises some of the most coziest neighborhoods to be found in the city, with a stable population and manicured yards. The campus itself is undistinguished, but it does produce some worthwhile art exhibits as well as theater and musical productions.
You almost never hear the phrase "East Memphis" without the adjective "affluent" in front of it. Despite the fact that many of the most expensive homes in Memphis are in the Midtown areas, East Memphis gets the epithet because of the uniformly high standard of living of its inhabitants and the clusters of upscale shops. In an area ranging roughly from just east of the University of Memphis to just outside the I-240 perimeter, East Memphis encompasses the Laurelwood Shopping Center, Oak Court Mall, and the Regalia Center at Poplar and Ridgeway, the best locations in Memphis for designer boutique shopping.
To sate their appetites for culture and beauty, East Memphians have the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, a museum in a once private home willed to the city by the Dixon family, along with the family's collection of Impressionist paintings. The traveling exhibits featured here, though small, are often more interesting than the blockbuster events at larger museums, and are always enhanced by the charming setting. Symphony concerts and other events held in the gardens are popular in the spring and fall. Nature lovers have the Memphis Botanic Garden and the Lichterman Nature Center, the former devoted to plants, flowers and a Japanese garden complete with a bridge, and the latter devoted to animals, mostly indigenous varieties in natural settings.
Perhaps the busiest stretch of the Poplar Avenue corridor runs through East Memphis. Anyone who spends much time in the city finds themselves on this congested road from time to time, looking for a particular store, restaurant, or place of business. The best bookstore: Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Laurelwood on Poplar. A reception for the opening of an artist's showing: Probably in one of the galleries along this stretch of Poplar. The barbecue sandwich voted best in Memphis year after year after year: Corky's on Poplar just west of I-240. Residents of this area know ways to avoid the non-stop traffic jams on Poplar'take Park or Shady Grove and cut through any of the dozens of parallel streets running north to south.
North of Poplar lie some of the loveliest houses and lawns in the city. A drive along Shady Grove or Walnut Grove reveals the gentle side of life here. Elegant ranch houses on wide, spacious lawns and tree-lined side streets exude peace. South of Poplar the homes are smaller: '30s and '40s cottages with peaked-roof shelters over the front doors and wrought-iron railings leading down the front steps.
There's not the concentration of nightlife in East Memphis as there is in midtown or downtown, but there are just as many opportunities for an evening's entertainment, including live productions at Theater Memphis, movies at the Ridgeway Malco, food for every palate and price (whether you're looking for California/Continental (Grover Grill, Lulu Grille, Aubergine, Napa Valley), Chinese (Wang's, Tsingtao), perfectly-cooked steak (Folk's Folly), Japanese, barbecue (Corky's, Leonard's) or Southern (Cooker), and dancing at the Adam's Mark Hotel.
North Memphis is the kind of heterogeneous ethnic neighborhood common in cities such as Chicago and New York. With a recent influx of immigrants from Mexico, authentic taquerias and restaurants have sprung up on and near Jackson Avenue. Asian shops, with exotic produce and merchandise, are helping the area take on an appealing international flavor.
Mention Memphis in Paris, Beijing, or Budapest and what comes to mind? Elvis Presley, of course. The King is more connected with his hometown than most celebrities, and his home, Graceland, brings more visitors to Memphis from all over the world than any other single attraction in the area. In fact, Graceland is the second most visited home in the U.S., after the White House. More than 700,000 people come every year to this stately manor located just south of the city in what used to be one of the best residential areas, now named for its most prominent attraction. The Presley Foundation has expanded the Graceland complex to include the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum, an exhibit of his airplanes, a gift shop with an impressive variety of Elvis souvenirs, and three restaurants.
The surrounding area has been largely overtaken by hotels and motels to house the fans who come to pay homage. The newly renovated Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel taken over by the Presley Foundation is worth a visit just to see the cocktail lounge, decorated in a style Elvis would have loved. Other hotels in the area include Holiday Inn, Sheraton, Marriott, and Radisson. For fine dining, travelers will probably want to visit other areas of the city. However, some great nearby barbecue places include Interstate BBQ and Marlowe's Ribs and Restaurant.
Germantown, Bartlett and Cordova
While largely residential, Germantown brings in visitors for the international horse show and the Kroger St. Jude Tennis Tournament. The area provides some excellent dining and shopping as well. Current favorite places to dine include the Greek/Mediterranean-inspired Yia Yia's Eurocafe and the country-club style Three Oaks Grill.
For shopping, Germantowners and East Memphians flock to the Shops of Saddle Creek. The smaller Carrefour at Kirby Woods, where there are several small clothing shops and a top-notch leather goods shop.
Bartlett and Cordova, two newer bedroom communities, have little to attract tourists other than Cordova Cellars where visitors can taste locally grown wines and learn about wine-making or the Davies Manor Plantation, a restored log home from the 19th century. Still, as more and more Memphis locals move out east where they can get more home for their money, restaurants and shopping centers are bound to proliferate.
History of MemphisThe history of Memphis is based on its geographic location. First, it was the Mississippi River that transported goods north and south. Then came the railroad, dissecting the country from east to west and changing Memphis from a port into a hub. Most recently, it's been the airplanes of Federal Express, carrying packages to every corner of the globe, that have elevated the local economy and inspired a new sense of pride in both long-term residents and newcomers.
Long before Columbus, the Chickasaw Indians found their way to this area. The flat plains made cultivation easy and the proximity of the river insured an abundant supply of water. When the last major earthquake along the New Madrid fault shook the area in 1829, a branch of the river reversed its flow and formed Reelfoot Lake. Luckily, so few people lived in the region at the time that no deaths or injuries were recorded. Unfortunately, the same factors that drew the Chickasaw here made the area attractive to the European explorers. In the late 17th century, France claimed the lands in the Mississippi River Valley, down to the Gulf of Mexico. When King Louis XVI handed this territory over to Spain in the 1790s, Fort Saint Ferdinand of the Bluffs (named for King Ferdinand VII) kept watch over the traffic up and down the river.
By 1818, the Spaniards were gone and the newly-formed state of Tennessee took the land on the east side of the river from the Chickasaw by treaty. Memphis, named for the Egyptian city because of the similar locations on mighty rivers, was founded in 1819.
Memphis became the center for trade of two kinds: cotton and slaves. Plantation owners from Mississippi brought their cotton up the river to sell and returned home with new workers for their fields. A plaque in Auction Square commemorates the auctioning of both "commodities" during this era. This trade sparked an economic boom in Memphis, resulting in the building of luxury hotels such as the Gayoso House (recently remodeled into condominiums) and the establishment of a number of businesses.
In 1845, Memphis became the site of a naval shipyard, bringing a new source of revenue to the area. With the completion of the Memphis-Charleston Railroad, goods could be shipped east to the Atlantic Ocean, making Memphis the transportation hub it would remain to current times.
The American Civil War was fought mostly east of Memphis, in the mountains of Tennessee and Georgia, and south in Mississippi. The one major battle fought locally occurred in 1862. Union forces conquered the Confederate Navy in a short time while Memphians stood on the banks of the river, in what is now Confederate Park, to watch the battle. Memphis became a Union supply point because of the city's transportation facilities and was also the site of a prisoner-of-war camp.
After the Civil War, the schooling of former slaves began. An organization called the Memphis Freedmen's Bureau was instrumental in the start-up of business services for African-Americans. Unfortunately, the yellow fever epidemic of the 1870s killed more than half of Memphis' population of 16,000, halting economic and social progress. Many who did not fall victim to the disease fled the area, believing that the river waters were unhealthy. The devastation was so severe that Memphis had to give up its city charter in 1879.
The irony of the epidemic was that much of the African-American population survived and remained to begin the rebuilding of the city. It was the area's first African-American millionaire, Robert Church, Sr., a former slave, who bought the first bond issued in an attempt to restore the city's charter. In fact, there is evidence that this was a period of time when African-American residents flourished, economically and socially, from Memphis to New Orleans. Their businesses thrived and a strong black middle-class developed.
The early part of the 20th century saw the flowering of jazz and the blues as musical forms. Beale Street became the home of nightclubs where musicians such as W.C. Handy experimented with new musical forms born from the combination of spirituals, folk music and even square dance rhythms. When the powerful E.H. "Boss" Crump commissioned Handy to write a campaign song to help him run for mayor, it signaled a formal acceptance of these new art forms. Crump presided over Memphis for almost 50 years, during which time African-American musicians such as Handy, B.B. King and Rufus Thomas put Memphis on the national map. Their success allowed Sam Phillipps to start the famous Sun Studio and for radio station WDIA to adopt an all-black format.
The ultimate product of all this music was Elvis. Influenced by the African-American music surrounding him, Elvis was able to break through the barriers that had kept blues, soul and the new rock'n roll from reaching white listeners. Once young people across the country caught on to the new rhythms, the doors were open for Memphis groups such as Booker T. and the MGs, Sam and Dave and artists such as Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Stax Records, another Memphis recording studio, was started in 1960 to capture these local stars for national distribution.
While the musicians of Memphis flourished, the racial unrest of the 1950s and 1960s scared many white Memphians into moving out to the suburbs. This was a bleak time for downtown Memphis. The Peabody Hotel, long the heart and soul of social life in Memphis, fell into disrepair and eventually closed entirely. Other buildings fell empty. Goldsmith's Department Store left downtown for the malls and other merchants followed.
In 1968, the most dramatic moment in Memphis history brought the city to national attention. The local garbage workers staged a strike for better wages. The most dynamic civil rights leader of the time, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., came to provide moral support and to preach his message of nonviolence. He and his entourage stayed at the Lorraine Motel, just south of Beale Street. As he stood on the balcony outside his room to speak to a gathered crowd, he was assassinated. It took Memphis a long time to recover from the shock and notoriety of this event. Only in 1991 was the long-empty Lorraine Motel turned into the National Civil Rights Museum, with exhibits devoted to the long history of African-Americans in the U.S. and to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. specifically.
The founding of Federal Express (FedEx) in 1972 marked another turning point for Memphis. The brain-child of Fred Smith, Federal Express' concept of overnight delivery anywhere in the country depended on the geographically-central location of Memphis. Packages could be flown into Memphis in the evening, sorted and reloaded onto planes that took off in the early hours of the morning for arrival at their destinations by 10am. For many years, the economic importance of Federal Express was overshadowed by the death of Elvis in 1977 and the opening of Graceland to tourists in 1982. The visitors to the home of one of the most famous musicians brought millions of dollars to Memphis and helped fuel the revival of Beale Street and the building of The Pyramid. But as the national economy boomed and businesses and individuals got more and more accustomed to the idea of overnight shipping, Federal Express became the catalyst for a quiet development. Businesses wanting to promise their customers overnight delivery found it desirable to open warehouses in Memphis, so that goods could be shipped out directly to their destinations. The Memphis airport, tiny by international standards, became the busiest airport in the world between the hours of 3am and 5am as FedEx jets took off in all directions.
Another, more eccentric factor in Memphis' economic renewal was the emergence of John Grisham as one of the most popular authors in the country. Grisham, a native of Mississippi, based many of his thrillers in Memphis. When the first movie was made from one of his books, Memphians were excited to find Tom Cruise in their midst and to take advantage of the calls for extras on the movie The Firm. Producers found that they could cut costs by using the non-union labor in Memphis and that the cost of housing their casts and crews was lower here, too. A series of major Hollywood movies filmed entirely or partly in Memphis not only brought money directly into the city, but raised awareness of the city and its attractions among moviegoers worldwide. This brought a new surge of tourists eager to eat in the restaurants featured in the movies and walk the streets where Tom Cruise walked.
The simultaneous success of FedEx, the Presley Foundation, and movies based on Grisham's books contributed to a boom in development and construction. Belz Enterprises, having restored the Peabody Hotel to its former glory in the early 80s, went on to build Peabody Place, a complex of apartments, restaurants, stores and offices in the heart of downtown. A joint initiative of the city council and local merchants resulted in the revival of Beale Street as a center for nightlife. Harbor Town and the South Bluffs housing developments brought residents down to the riverfront. The Gibson Guitar Factory opened with a theme café and other entertainment options for visitors. And AutoZone, a locally-based car parts business, funded the building of a baseball stadium across the street from the Peabody Hotel for the Memphis Redbirds team.
Today the approximately one million residents of the metropolitan area find Memphis to be a livable city. The increasing variety of restaurants, theater productions, concerts, art exhibits and other entertainment are still reasonably-priced and accessible. Jobs are plentiful while the cost of living is still among the lowest in the nation. While crime remains a problem and quality education has not yet become a priority, visitors to Memphis will find a hospitable populace and a laid-back approach to life that embodies all that is most charming in the American South.
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