Over the weekend, I was trying to think of how to best describe downtown Memphis. Every time I came up with a new adjective, another one would pop in my head and completely negate the first. What I came to find is that it’s extremely difficult to encapsulate the vibe of a city that has so much to offer, yet so far to go.
So, what can I tell you about downtown Memphis? Well, I’d argue that if you randomly woke up here, you’d be hard pressed to know what decade you landed in. A lot of the architecture blends designs from the 50s and 60s, while the newer buildings exude over-the-top 80s style with neon lights and oddly placed waterfalls. There’s also the staggering number of empty lots that harken back to the lowest points of the 1930s.
That’s not to say all is lost though. Yes, as a whole, downtown lacks that certain youthful exuberance I found in parts of Cleveland, Philly and Charlotte. But there are several pockets starting to build things back up. From the neighborhoods that surround the visible music college and AutoZone Park to new hotspots like Tamp & Tap and Local, there are glimpses of a turnaround everywhere you look. The city is even in the process of building a Centre for Performing Arts next to the Orpheum Theatre, which is sure to help boost another section of the downtown area.
Is the lack of modern aesthetics a bad thing? It all depends on how you look at it. I’ve heard this city’s history from several people over the past week and while I won’t bore you with the details, I do have a firm understanding of why the city is the way it is. Yet, despite it all, the people here are extremely passionate about the place they call home and will happily tell you about the wonders of Memphis. They know that for every down the city has seen, there’s always an up to counter it. As the Grizzlies' “growl towels” stated at their last home playoff games—We Don’t Bluff.
From Graceland and Stax to Sun Records and Beale Street, this is a city that knows what it’s made of and won’t back down from anyone. Hell, this is also a lifelong wrestling city—home of Cleveland Indians fan and WWE Hall of Famer, Jerry the King Lawler—who’ll happily send a personalized chair shot to anyone who talks ill of his salt-of-the-earth, nitty-gritty, for better or worse city of Memphis, Tennessee.
Over the next three weeks, I hope to expose some of the city's bright spots—from the awesome theater system and “must-see” museums to the hip midtown area and the various Memphis in May festivities. I’m excited to share what I find, but first I need to grab some more of this city’s incredible BBQ. As they say, if you want to win the heart of the masses, always start with their stomachs.