Founded as "The Great Metropolis on the American Nile" in the 1830s,
Memphis has experienced one of the most colorful histories of all American cities.
From the boom and bust cycle of cotton, to destruction during the Civil War,
a yellow fever epidemic, and the pain of civil unrest, Memphis has survived it all.
Today the city enjoys one of the nation's most stable economies and a quality-of-life arguably among the country's best.
Founded in 1819 by three Nashville land speculators - war-hero and soon-to-be U.S.
President Andrew Jackson, Judge John Overton, and General James Winchester -- Memphis didn't
start out as an economic power. In fact, it wasn't until the Navy yard opened in 1845
that the city's existence as a river port was secured. Next, the Memphis & Charleston
Railroad connected the small river town to the Atlantic Coast. With two major
trading routes established, the population was bound to grow. Today,
Memphis continues to strive as a growing residential, business, and entertainment center.Early Days in Memphis
Just after the Civil War, the city's population blossomed to approximately 55,000, making Memphis the sixth-largest city in the country. But, the boom wouldn't last long. The yellow fever epidemic ravaged the city to such an extent that by the end of the decade, Memphis was bankrupt and nearly vacant. As a result, the city lost its charter in 1879. It began to slowly recovery when river trade resumed in the 1880's. Soon thereafter, Memphis once again gained its footing and was on its way to becoming the world's largest hardwood marketer and the cotton center of the South. From that beginning in distribution, Memphis has evolved into one of the world's most important centers of logistics/distribution, ranking number one for the past 11 years in a row in terms of air cargo and among the leaders in most other categories too - inland marine, interstate highway, and rail.
W.C. Handy fashioned a new style of music out of the
inherent pleasure and pain of Memphis. Beale Street would,
eventually, become home to a truly American music form - "the blues."
As the affluent spread to the suburbs, city leaders decided to 'clean up'
Beale Street by closing most of the saloons and pool halls, as well as illegal
gambling halls and houses of prostitution that had been "winked at " for years.
This resulted in a slow strangulation of creative energy for the blues, but it
was not to be the last time the "Memphis Sound" would have an impact on the nation.
In the 1950s, Sun Records would make its home in the blues capital.
Music industry greats such as Elvis Presley, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee
Lewis, and others would record chart-topping hits at the downtown studio.
In the 1960s, two other recording studios maintained Memphis' presence on the national music scene.
STAX Records was located about a mile south of Beale Street.
It was here that the phrase "Soulsville, USA." was coined.
STAX received national recognition, thanks to such artists as
the Barkays, Booker T. and the MGs, Otis Redding, and many others.
Hi-Records was most successful with the artist Al Green.
Racial discord continued to afflict
the city throughout the mid-20th century,
yet city development progressed. Construction on an expressway
system began in 1958, and work began on St. Jude Children's Research
Hospital about the same time.
Also, an expanded metropolitan airport
was opened in 1963. But, the city received negative attention in 1968 when
a sanitation workers strike brought escalating racial tension to a head.
In Memphis to lead a march protesting the workers' condition, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. That site is today the National Civil R
ights Museum, termed by USA Today as "one of America's top 10 treasures."
Due to riots and fires, large areas of Downtown Memphis fell victim to neglect.
By the 1970s, buildings on virtually every block were vacant.
Beale Street had been boarded up, and even the Peabody Hotel,
one of the nation's most celebrated hotels, closed its doors.
The City of Memphis began rebuilding by constructing
a European-style pedestrian corridor along Main Street. Later,
the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) invested in a trolley
system and redevelopment project along what is now the Main Street Mall.
Those events served as the catalyst for what has been one of the most
dramatic central business district revitalizations in recent American history.
The Downtown Renaissance began when Belz Enterprises,
Tennessee's largest development company, purchased
the Peabody Hotel for $75,000 in 1975 and began a
$24 million renovation of the historic hotel.
The hotel reopened in 1981, becoming the first.
Belz eventually purchased eight city blocks near the Peabody Hotel
to create an area called Peabody Place, now composed of offices,
apartment buildings, restaurants, retail space, and night clubs.
The most dramatic and long-awaited element of the project,
the Peabody Place Entertainment and Retail Center, opened in the summer of 2001.
In the late 1970s, the City of Memphis bought nearly all of the properties along
three blocks of Beale Street and began much needed redevelopment as a music-oriented
entertainment center. In 1983, the first club reopened on Beale, and slowly, clubs and
businesses moved into renovated spaces. In the last 20 years, Beale Street has gone from
being an urban eyesore to being Tennessee's number-one tourist attraction.
At least three
other Southern cities have subsequently based redevelopment of historic entertainment zones on the Beale Street model.
In 1991, the Pyramid Arena opened at the north end of Downtown,
distinctive as the first-in-the-U.S. modern building built as a true
pyramid. Clad in shimmering stainless steel, the arena is used for
University of Memphis basketball games and hosting top performers.
In the late 1990s, AutoZone Park, cited by many observers
as the "best AAA ballpark in the nation" opened; and the new NBA FedEx arena to
house the Memphis Grizzlies is scheduled to open in 2004.
Tourism can not, by itself, support the development that Downtown is experiencing
now, although it has played a major role in Downtown Memphis' success.
Residential growth in the area has been a surprise,
but so successful that more persons now live in Downtown
Memphis than in the downtowns of many other, much larger
American cities - including Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Phoenix.
A desire to live on the river and/or closer to the
city's governmental and arts districts created a market for housing units.
Early developments, in the limited space, were in such great demand that
larger developers took notice. This gave way to new construction,
renovation, and other residential projects.
Now, over 22,000 persons live in the Central Business Improvement District.
About 5,000 of those live in the traditional downtown core.
Today, Memphis is a dynamic city that is still growing.
In each of the past five years, the city has experienced more
than $1 billion in new capital construction; and, with over $2 billion
in development projects scheduled to begin or already underway, Memphis
is experiencing another dramatic period of progress.