I was chastised by one of my readers for focusing exclusively on the negative aspects of Memphis without depicting the flowering of some of the historic neighborhoods. Evidently they’re much better now than just a few years ago. So I’ll highlight one of the select spots in town that are currently flourishing after decades of abandonment and disinvestment during the mid twentieth century exodus to suburbia.
Stretching along the riverfront is a patch of traditional architecture and urban fabric that’s in the process of being renovated and infilled with new construction.
There are three forms of revitalization underway. First, historic preservation and the repurposing of existing older buildings is in full swing. The Lorraine Motel and a number of relevant nearby buildings fit this description as they’ve been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum. Second, there’s construction of relatively small bespoke properties at the upper end of the economic scale – typically luxury single family homes. And third, there are large scale new projects of the 200 unit Texas donut variety built by national firms and funded by institutional investors.
It rained the entire week I was in Memphis and I often found myself ducking in to an alcove to keep dry. One such spot happened to be the storefront of a local architectural practice. I was graciously invited in and chatted about their work. The balsa wood models in the front window initially seemed suburban or even rural in nature, but I was assured by the charming architect I spoke with that a significant number of their built work was to be found within a few blocks of the office. Once the rain subsided I headed off to see one house in particular.
The house was interesting enough – certainly not cookie cutter or predictable – but its context was more compelling for me. It was essentially suburban. Most of the nearby homes had a McMansion sensibility. That’s not a criticism as much as an observation. Some were more artful than others. None of them were inexpensive.
These homes sat on a bluff above the Mississippi River along a row of narrow “view” lots. It’s the equivalent of beachfront property where expensive custom homes are constructed to take advantage of a scenic vista.
There’s a three mile long public path along the crest of the bluff from the Harahan Bridge to the Memphis Pyramid that connects a ribbon of various amenities. Directly behind the bluff homes is a rapidly revitalized historic city neighborhood that offers culture, good food, and increasingly upscale retail establishments. The value proposition here seems to be a best-of-both-worlds blend of large exclusive single family homes that back up to open space and nature combined with the walkable urban amenities of downtown out front. It’s a niche market, but it works for those who can afford it.
So I’ve done my duty by showing the new investment, civic amenities, and growth that’s currently underway in Memphis. If you like this sort of thing you now know it can be found there. But here’s my larger point. Memphis once had magnificent architecture and amazing historic urban fabric that rivaled the best of what Savannah, Charleston, Boston, or Philadelphia still retain.
But Memphis – like so many other cities – removed as much of it as they possibly could in a twentieth century rush to install parking lots and Jiffy Lubes. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Looking back, it was a huge mistake. And we, as a society, don’t know how to rebuild anything half as good. So Memphis is now stuck with whatever left over crumbs it can scrub clean. Realistically most of Memphis will remain more or less suburban in nature. The institutional and cultural inertia to keep on keeping on is too powerful to turn around. Some of these suburban areas will remain pleasant enough. But many are already in steep decline with no good reason for anyone to try and do much with them. They just aren’t worth caring about. We all need to adjust to that reality.