Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

New and Old Urbanism in Memphis

Dateline: 4:58 pm December 12, 2007 Filed under:

Inspired by exploring Nicollet Island in Minneapolis, a tiny historic community near downtown on an island in the middle of the Mississippi, I decided to make a trip down the river to Memphis. I hadn’t spent much time in Memphis, and was interested in exploring downtown and Harbor Town, a new urbanist community located, like Nicollet Island, in the middle of the mighty Mississippi.

Unlike Huck Finn, I flew down the Mississippi, landing in Memphis on a warm Friday afternoon as most people were heading home from work. As I approached downtown I was compelled to stop at Tom Lee Park, a broad sweep of open space with a view of the river and skyline. The late afternoon sun shone on the water. I am always struck at how wide and powerful the Mississippi is downstream. In Minneapolis it is in a picturesque gorge. In Memphis it is broad and fast moving.

I checked in to my hotel and walked to Beale Street. I hadn’t been to Memphis in 15 years and saw only Beale Street at that time. There are few places I know of that have so much live music in one area. For that, Beale Street is a treasure. Unfortunately, it was still too early in the evening for music, and the scene consisted mostly of a bunch of guys standing outside the various restaurants imploring people to come in for some variation of authentic food and music – mint juleps, ribs, soul food, soul music. There was no disinguishing one establishment from the next. The only song I heard anywhere was Mustang Sally piped through a PA. All I wanted was ribs and a beer at a fair price. I found a firefighter who was monitoring the Beale Street crowd and asked for directions. He told me to avoid Beale Street and check out a rib joint called Rendezvous. I thanked him and was on my way.

Rendezvous was fantastic. I had a rack of ribs accompanied by a couple of cold lagers and was quite pleased with myself in a bloated sort of way. After dinner I wandered through the Peabody Hotel. I love lobbies in beautiful historic hotels. They are so ornate, but buzzing with happy rich people checking in, arriving back from a big day, or drinking and mingling at the bar. I stood there taking in the scene before returning to my modest and less ornate hotel for the night.

In the morning I ventured out to the loft district, south of downtown to see how the urbanites live. I first passed through Peabody Place, a relatively recent shopping mall in the center of downtown. It is dreadful. It is largely an interior mall, turning its back and sucking the life off the sidewalks surrounding it. I’m sure it was proposed as a way to bring back downtown as a destination, but seems to have achieved the opposite.

Luckily south Main Street and the area around it were a bit more true to urban form. There was a mix of renovated buildings, gift shops, coffee shops, a farmer’s market, the Amtrak station, lofts, and the Memphis Streetcar running down the middle of it all. I quite liked that. The farmer’s market was fledgling – more gifts than produce – but nice. I ate breakfast at the Arcade restaurant. It has been there since the 1920s and I highly recommend it.

Afterwards I wandered in to the silent Amtrak station, aware from a recent presentation on intermodal facilities that it was possible to take a train in to Memphis and catch the trolley in to the core of downtown, though there are no signs it involves stepping out of the station and actually seeing the trolley. In other words, the only people who know this are those who saw that presentation on intermodal facilites. The operation of the historic streetcar in Memphis is not predicated on its stop near the Amtrak station. The problem with Amtrak is just that – there is no compelling reason to ride it, outside of Boston, New York and DC. This was evidenced by the timetable hanging prominently on the wall. It was dated 1960! I couldn’t find a more recent timetable anywhere. Worse, in most cities and towns Amtrak stations are located far from anywhere important or any means to get somewhere important except to be picked up by a relative with a car or by taxi – if you can find one. Luckily things are beginning to change on this front, but alas, that is a topic for another day.

I strolled part way up Main Street to the Lorraine Hotel, the place where Martin Luther King was killed. The death of King was of course tragic, but so is the story of decline in the area around the Lorraine, which has only very recently seen any economic activity at all. The renovated lofts and coffee shops in the area sit somewhat uncomfortably next to this memorial, although the more recent memorial park between Main Street and the Lorraine is a pleasant urban open space.

Harbor Town is one of the many developments on Mud Island, an island that formed in the Mississippi early in the 1900s. It was reinforced much more recently and the Harbor Town development began there in 1980s. But before venturing there, I stopped at Mud Island Park, which features a half-mile long interpretive recreation of the lower Mississippi, complete with flowing water. Each tributary (the Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas and Upper Mississippi) gets a mention and a map, and water flows from these in to the little river itself. You can walk along its course, hopping from side to side and reading signs about its history, and along the way the grid of every major city is shown. The “river” eventually empties in to a one-acre Gulf of Mexico at the tip of the island. It is very much a “man conquers river” type of display, with no mention of the ecological problems of the river or the dead zone in the gulf. Nontheless, it is a wonderful interactive display and I loved it.

On to Harbor Town. I parked my car and had a walk around. In the 20 or so years since it was started, it has matured well. Trees are now tall and some of the gardens were beautiful. The yards, parks and little town center felt lived in. It also feels like somewhat of an enclave. It is so close to downtown yet removed from the problems of the city. I spoke to one resident who agreed, and was actually looking to move in to downtown because there was more action there in terms of restaurants and clubs.

The town center provides a really good example of the scale at which retail and services can survive. With nearly 1,000 housing units the town center supports a small grocer/deli, a pizza place/video rental/bar, dry cleaner, a couple other retailers and assorted offices. Perfect. I ate lunch at the pizza place/video rental, predictably named Movie & Pizza Company. I noticed most people picked up pizza’s and many of them arrived not on foot or by car but by golf cart. I commented to my waitress and she said because the Movie & Pizza Company is the only place that serves drinks in Harbor Town that she sees a lot of tipsy guys driving home in their golf carts.

The best part of the town center is Miss Cordelia’s, the grocer/deli. The layout and attention to detail is remarkable. The deli entrance is at the corner facing the street and sidewalk, and the grocery entrance is at the back facing the shared parking lot (shared with the adjacent apartments). Pedestrian amenties abound. Sidewalk tables are provided in front of the deli, and in fact the sidewalk actually passes through the sidewalk seating. The grocery entrance faced the parking lot but was near the street and sidewalk for pedestrian access, and has bike racks, newspaper racks, landscaping and a shaded area under an overhang with a cash machine, tables, a porch swing, ceiling fan, and even a bird feeder.

What was impressive about Harbor Town is the town center is well planned. Retailers combine businesses under one roof – grocer, deli and catering, and video rental, pizza and a bar. Plus, they are well suited as far as access and traffic is concerned. You can get there by car or on foot. Together, this makes the area successful. It also results in a sort of community center – clearly people know each other and it is a place to meet.

After lunch I walked through the neighborhoods. I marveled at the lush yards and small parks. A few people were out enjoying the day. The homes and yards seemed to be all very well tended. Harbor Town is one of the best examples of new urbanism I have seen. It has aged well and seems lived in and not contrived, particularly its town center.

I barely scratched the surface in Memphis. There are certainly some great up and coming neighborhoods in and around downtown, and although the city faces many challenges, it is a great place. For starters, the entire stretch of Main Street hold much promise. I look froward to returning some day to actually take in some live music that forms the soul of that city.

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.