Let’s face it, we’ve all either lived in or visited cities with problems: poverty, traffic, homelessness, drug addiction, pollution, empty downtown areas… the list goes on and on. And Memphis is no different; we did observe the city to be facing many of these same challenges. What was different, however, was what we came to recognize as Memphis’ internal drive to be more. In fact, while staying there, Claudio and I repeatedly said to one another, “This city just doesn’t quit trying.”
Our month Memphis stay
What gives us the “right” to make that statement? Well, I would say that, over the course of our one-month stay in Memphis, we truly spent some ‘quality time’ exploring a city with which neither of us was familiar nor about which we held any particular expectations. During our visit, we took an 11-mile walk from where we were staying to the downtown area and back. On another day we completed a 40-mile bike ride around the circumference of the city. And on a yet different day, we biked from our rental apartment 15 miles to the outskirts of Memphis and back…we can safely say that we truly did experience many sides of Memphis. And everywhere we went, we chatted with locals regarding the state of the city. Everything we saw, all that we experienced and each conversation we had further supported our conclusion that this city is on the move. Things are happening in all corners 24/7/365.
Urban Art Program.
As we understand it, Memphis was struggling with a graffiti problem. Creatively, the city met this challenge by launching a mural program and now, instead of something unsightly, there is art everywhere! Some works celebrate the city’s sites; some are dedicated to the famous people who have left their indelible mark on Memphis; others spring straight out of the artists’ imagination. But all bring brightness and color to unexpected corners. The murals are also tourist attractions. We couldn’t help but photograph ourselves in front of the enchanting butterfly wings located on Main Street. And I felt compelled to offer my own, smaller version of Warrior One under the bridge near the Cooper-Young neighborhood. And, I must confess, the “violators will be towed” threat was much more tolerable when surrounded by bursts of reds and blues. As we wandered about, we would routinely stop, admire and photograph these larger-than-life works of art. You can visit https://www.downtownmemphis.com/downtown-mural-guide/ to see where some of these stunning images may be found.
What can you say about Beale Street except for the fact that there is always a song to be heard and beer to be enjoyed all along this music-lovers street. Because it is blocked to traffic, it is comfortable for pedestrians wishing to amble past live music venues or stroll over to Schwab’s for a classic malted milkshake or play dress-up on the store’s 3rd floor. Day or night, the blue arched B-E-A-L-E S-T-R-E-E-T sign directs people down this famous street. Yes, we were walking in the land of the Delta Blues with our feet 10-feet off of Beale. Floating along in sheer enjoyment.
Main Street puts on its luminous best every evening. The pedestrian, historic portion of this road, as well as the horse and carriages that travel along it, are adorned with twinkling lights which make you think to yourself, “How fabulous is this? I wonder what else I will see if I wander here for a while.” And so, we did. In our wanderings we found interesting art galleries, delicious smelling restaurants, cute boutiques --and of course, more of those fabulous murals!
There is a trolley car that takes you from one end of Main Street to the other for only $1. What we didn’t realize is that these brightly painted vintage cars were resurrected only a few short months ago (April 2018). Dare I say it again –Memphis always keeps improving.
Peabody Hotel and Ducks.
And where else but in Memphis would you find hundreds of people crowding into a hotel lobby twice a day for a duck parade. Really. A parade… of 5 ducks! The Peabody Hotel has built an entire business around the ducks that spend the days in its lobby fountain…including a Duckmaster! Since 1940, the Duckmaster, sort of a combination ringmaster and parade marshal, has been responsible for the strictly regimented 11am shepherding of these pampered water fowl from their penthouse accommodations, down a ducks-only elevator and across a red carpet to their fountain (accompanied by the music of John Phillip Sousa’s King Cotton March, no less) and for reversing the entire exercise at 5pm. People gather up to 45 minutes in advance to get a good spot along the carpet, although I think the best seats are taken by those who opt to sip a refreshing beverage (adult or otherwise) at the tables that ring the fountain. And if you are wondering if it is worth the wait, I have to say, the Duckmaster is a showman par excellance. He is entertaining, informational and humorous in his hearty retelling of the Peabody Hotel’s duck history.
Actually, I think that the Duckmaster is not unique in his warm, welcoming manner. I get it –he is a showman; however, take away the dramatics and you have, what we found, to be the modus operandi (MO) of any everyday Memphian: warm and welcoming. Whether we were speaking with Damien at the FedEx store; or chatting with Marqis, a photographer who was doing a performance art shoot, the Catherine & Mary’s restaurant manager, Alex; or conversing with the National Civil Rights Museum guide, Logan; the people of Memphis showed us genuine hospitality and pride in their city. Even after leaving Memphis we continue to talk about Janiqua, whom we met at SoulvilleUSA, the annual Stax Museum festival celebrating soul music and local entertainers. She literally took us with her to each of the music venues to ensure that we heard “the really good stuff”. We laughed, clapped, hooted and cheered together for a wonderfully memorable afternoon.
That Memphis is actively working on itself is undeniable. Everyone we met emphasized the city’s efforts to build a sense of togetherness, bring in investors, increase the number of diverse community events –as well as the continuing effort to highlight Memphis’ claim to fame: music and food! The Orpheum Theater presents more touring Broadway shows than any other theater in the country. The Crosstown Concourse, once a dilapidated Sears warehouse, is now a bustling center for everyone in the community. South Main Street and Broad Streets are buzzing with new restaurants, galleries and boutiques.
Since its monumental renovation in 2014, the National Civil Rights Museum is, quite simply, spectacular!
Pride in the 901 (Memphis’ area code) is real. You see the 901 referenced on websites (choose901.com), on murals, in the name of Memphis’ sports team, on clothing… there is even a 901 Day, described as “the unofficial grassroots holiday in which all Memphians are encouraged to celebrate what they love about their city” by “turning their love of the city into action”. When is 901 Day, you ask? September 1st of course. 9/01 –get it?
It’s for sure that this city gets it.This city’s people most definitely get it. And I think that after truly reflecting on all that is Memphis, I get it too. Memphis’ newest nickname is “Grind City” (from the city’s NBA team’s motto “Grit and Grind”). A more perfectly suited mantra couldn’t exist.