In Search of the Heart of Memphis

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Memphis, One Year Later

"Memphis doesn’t announce itself with silver skyscrapers and streets of gold. It’s not a blond bombshell kind of seduction. It’s the pretty, demure girl by the fireplace who conveys intelligence and quiet confidence… who seeks a connection that only the soulful can embrace. Memphis comes alive for you only if you’re smart enough to love her body and soul, embracing her flaws and all her scars."
Mark Fleischer, April 2016

In August Memphis celebrates Elvis Week and in May we have Memphis in May. For me, the last week or so of October into the first couple of weeks of November will from now until always represent my Memphis Pilgrimage, when my California feet took root in the Memphis mud.

Two weeks into November last year my wife and I finally completed our move into Midtown, and it was October 24, 2015, the third Saturday in October, when we crossed the de Soto Bridge - The M Bridge - over the Mississippi, completing a four-day drive to Memphis. 

The Hernando de Soto Bridge, locally known as the M Bridge,
from Arkansas and into Downtown Memphis

I did not know what to expect. If you’ve read my earliest blog posts, you know that upon arrival into Memphis my Bluff City vision had not yet matured. My looking glasses at the time were limited to the local news and by some of the, well, um, let’s call them opinions that prevail east of The Loop and from those who hadn’t been to Downtown in years. 
This time last year I didn’t know the meaning of the Grit ’n Grind - I imagined it was something served with Louisiana hot sauce in bowl. I thought the Choose901 bumper stickers I kept seeing represented a past local political movement. I thought the corner of Poplar and Mendenhall in East Memphis would offer the best grocery shopping (Whole Foods) and dining experiences (Houston’s) I would have in this sprawling city. (Although I still love both for a splurge). And I thought I needed to lock my car doors wherever I went.

I didn’t yet understand the depth and width of this town’s tapestry: the live music options every day every where, the excitement of Wednesdays when the new Flyer comes out, and the passions of the community over something called a Greensward.



But after we had crossed the veil of East Parkway in mid-November and the holidays marched past we finally settled into Midtown. And it didn’t take long for this big small town to wrap its arms around me, heart and shoulders, embracing me with its music and food and people and soul. 

So on my first anniversary of living in Memphis, and with a bow to our own Holly Whitfield, here’s my personal #ilovememphis Ode to Joy:

I love that I now know there is more than one Gus’s and Muddy’s and Pizza Cafes and Fino’s, and that I know which ones are unquestionably (to me) the very best: Gus’s Downtown, of course, Muddy’s on Cooper, the Pizza Cafe in Overton Square and Fino’s from the Hill at Madison and McLean. 

I love that I have an argument now for the question of Just where is Midtown? For the record, my record, its street borders form a shape that looks like Nevada without Las Vegas: North Parkway up, East Parkway right, Southern Ave east of Lamar down, Lamar (Hwy 78) at a 90-degree angle up, and finishing off at Cleveland Ave to the left. 



I love that for my entire adult life I’ve been acronym-challenged but here in Memphis suddenly I have EMLFMA - Embraced My Love For Memphis Acronyms. I can rattle off the neighborhoods and groups I’ve come to love and are a part of: CGA, OPA, the MMDC and the MAC. I love that I’m five minutes from CY and that I finally understand just what the DMC does! 

I love that I’m not the only one who gets a kick out of the fact that seemingly every organization in the entire city has “Memphis” after its first name:

Advance— and Arts— and Ballet— Memphis

CoWork— and Emerge— and EPICenter— Memphis

It’s like a song—

Innovate— and Leadership— and Livable— Memphis

Make— and New— and Opera— Memphis

I love that in this small, two-degrees-of-separation town that I know someone from virtually every one of those organizations. (Now he’s just bragging). But it’s true! Since 1993 I spent fifteen years in one organization and seven years in another and I STILL did not know as many people as I already know here in Memphis. It’s one of those truisms that seems like an exaggeration but isn’t.

I love that almost everywhere I go I run into someone I know. Makes me feel as though I have finally become part of the fabric of this town, no longer an audience member just watching everyone else play their part. I now have a speaking role in this play called Memphis, getting my hands dirty helping board up and save an historic birthplace, putting my sweat into helping reinvigorate a couple of historic streets Downtown, and joining the community in helping to save a green from becoming a parking lot.

I now know that McLean is pronounced Muh-clain, that some lifelong Memphians pronounce Cooper Cupper, and that there are at least two pronunciations of Binghampton: Bing-um-ton, and Bing-hamp-ton. Though I can’t claim to know which one is more acceptable.

I now know the differences between South Main and South Bluffs and South Junction. And to you folks who haven’t been Downtown in years, Halloween is well over and I can tell you that the streets west of Danny Thomas are safe! They are far from boarded-up, drug dealers aren’t skulking around every corner and ladies of the evening aren’t hanging around outside Earnestine & Hazel’s (at least not in plain sight). I’m happy to tell you that those areas are thriving with new restaurants, new apartments, new developments. 

This corner at Florida St and Carolina Ave was once empty.
Now it is filled with the new South Junction Apartments (left) and
the music and food of a "repurposed" Loflin Yard (right)

I love that I put on over ten pounds since we moved here. And this exchange with my doctor, in July: 

Doc: You ever had a cholesterol problem?
Me: Nope. Never.
Doc: No? You may now. What happened?
Me: Wow… Well, Gus’s happened! Memphis happened! I couldn’t not try out the best in BBQ and shrimp ’n’ grits, in fried catfish and chicken, and the best burgers anywhere. Can’t resist!

I guess I’ll have to cut back a little.  

I still love the way Madison Avenue rolls past the Trolley Stop through the Edge District and gives us one of the more dramatic views into Downtown. Or the thrill I still get whenever I pass Sun Studios. 

Downtown approach on Madison Avenue

Or the view from Martyr’s Park of the trifecta of bridges that take trains and automobiles, and now bicycles and pedestrians, across the mighty Mississippi to and from Arkansas. 

1916 or 2016?
The Harahan Bridge (1916) is visible here in front of
the Frisco (1892) and the Memphis & Arkansas (1949) bridges

I love that whenever I see food or travel shows that feature Memphis - people gushing with love for Memphis - I get teary-eyed.

I love that whenever I hear The Stones’ Honky Tonk Women I turn up the volume and get chills with the line “I met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis.”

I love how every other guy in Midtown is a musician in a band. And when you hear him play - we're not talkin' covers here - he's very good!

I love that I can rattle off the numbers 901 and 201 and the 104... and know what I'm talking about.

I love how everyone posts Instagram photos of last night’s Grizz Game in the Grindhouse.

I love that we have the best ballpark in the minor leagues in AutoZone Park, and one of the best in all of baseball. 

AutoZone Park, opened in 2000 at the corner of Union Ave
and B.B.King Blvd (3rd Street), and
home of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds

And I love that we’re a work in progress. 

That I am here to see new life being breathed into places like the Tennessee Brewery and the Old Dominick whiskey distillery Downtown, to see the old Sears building on Cleveland being transformed into the Crosstown Concourse, to see the historic Clayborn Temple, an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, being restored to its former glory.

That I’m here at a time when attitudes are changing, when native Memphians all over are more hopeful for a different kind of future for Memphis. That in the circles I travel there is hope and faith, a belief that Memphis can fulfill its unique and collective dreams, if everyone plays their part. 

If everyone plays their part. 

As a city official said to me shortly after I arrived here, “Memphis is what you make it. It can frustrate the hell out of you, but it can also be the most exhilarating experience of your life.” So far, his words have proven spot on. And I am proud to play even the smallest part in this new Memphis renaissance. 

Not to become another Nashville or another New Orleans. And not even to make the same types of comebacks as a Detroit or a Pittsburgh. But to help it stand on its own shoulders. To not compare itself, ourselves, to other cities, but to become the Memphis that only Memphis can be. 

In April I wrote that Memphis “doesn’t announce itself with silver skyscrapers and streets of gold. It’s not a blond bombshell kind of seduction; it’s the pretty, demure girl by the fireplace, who is already talking to friends, smiling, who conveys intelligence and quiet confidence. She seeks a connection that looks past the emptiness of the bright lights, and instead to depths and complexities that only the soulful can embrace. Memphis comes alive for you only if you’re smart enough to love her body and soul, embracing her flaws and all her scars.”

I wrote it then and I love that I not only still feel that way, I am living it and embracing it, even more than I imagined I would. I love that I still need Memphis, and Memphis still needs me, even more so now than that day a year ago when I crossed that bridge, planted myself into its streets, and became part of its soul. 


Opening day of Big River Crossing, Oct 22, 2016.
I like to joke that the City of Memphis held a bridge party for me
on my first anniversary of arriving in Memphis.


1 comment:

  1. For only being here a year, you did an amazing job capturing the essence of Our City! This year marks my 20th as a Memphian and I have no regrets whatsoever about moving here so long ago! Thank you again for your kind words.

    ReplyDelete