by Brian Clarey
My recent trip to Memphis with some old friends — none of whom has spent much time in the South — brought me to the downtown streets of that Southern city, a familiar sight for me but one that jarred my more urbane friends who spend their time in New York City and San Francisco.
“Where is everybody?” one asked.
Because besides some pedestrian action on Beale Street and a thick crowd at the Peabody Hotel to watch the ducks ride the elevator, there was very little street life in Memphis.
I explained to my friends, who weren’t really interested, that like just about every other Southern or Rust Belt city, downtown Memphis was devastated by white flight in the 1970s, when everybody with the means moved out to the suburbs, leaving the inner city to rot in crime and poverty. Eventually all the residential buildings were torn down or converted for commercial use, and now in Memphis most of the people on the streets don’t even live there.
But unlike Greensboro and Winston-Salem, which have been actively trying to bolster the ranks of downtown residents for the last 20 years, Memphis has been focusing on tourist attractions for its dwindling base of visitors: Hotels, attractions, sports arenas and the like. So while our cities — excluding High Point, which has shown no interest in having residents in downtown — have been constructing apartment buildings and converting existing properties for residential use, Memphis built a gigantic pyramid for its NBA team that sat dormant for years after the FedEx Forum arena was built in 2004. Now it’s the world’s largest Bass Pro Shop.
Greensboro and Winston-Salem have been building on those downtown numbers, with each housing about 2,000 residents. But critical mass for a downtown, according to urban planner Patrick McDonnell, is 10,000 residents, at which point the commercial concerns — restaurants, retail and grocery stores among them — have enough of a market to really make a go of it.
Of course, compared to Memphis, Greensboro and Winston-Salem have virtually no tourist action, so it wouldn’t make sense to create entire districts like Beale Street for people who are never going to show up.
But we can further develop our downtowns to beef up those residential numbers, and that’s exactly what’s happening. Almost 1,000 new residences are in the pipeline in downtown Greensboro, with a similar number on tap for downtown Winston-Salem. That doesn’t put us where we need to be in terms of critical mass, but unlike Memphis we’re moving in the right direction.
And though we don’t have a giant pyramid that sells fishing lures, we do have more people walking around on our streets than Memphis, with the possible exception of Beale Street.
But that’s all tourists anyway.