It Just Might Work: More downtown residents

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Beale Street is for tourists, which we don't really have around here.
Beale Street is for tourists, which we don’t really have around here.

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.

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  • Paul

    Over 23,000 people and growing live Downtown Memphis. There are 1000s of residential units under construction or in development currently In Downtown Memphis. Downtown Memphis for years has been looked to for lessons in how to attract residents. The challenge Downtown Memphis has is not enough office workers, but that is turning around too. Get more facts at http://www.downtownmemphiscommission.com

    • Brian Clarey

      Hey Paul. Thanks for the info and the link. My piece was more about my big-city friends’ reaction to what they consider a small city. It was my fourth visit to Memphis — the last was in 2000, and it seemed to me there were a lot more people walking around downtown. Didn’t see much at all besides tourists on Saturday. But I was likely seeing just one part of the elephant.

  • Darrin Hillis

    Thank you Paul well said and though we welcome you Brian and as many friends you want to bring back for a repeat visit I agree with Paul that you need to do a better job on your research. You are correct that we shine a BIG light on Beale Street since it is where almost every form of modern music either started or was where people came from all over the nation to let their genre be heard. Our other problem with Beale Street getting so much attention is simply out of our hands – especially since USA Today has crowned Beale St. as the most iconic street in the nation in a recent poll from their readers. As Paul suggested a quick visit to http://www.downtownmemphiscommission.com will do all the research for you when you do your next piece on Memphis or educate your friends on downtown Memphis. We certainly hope that someday our “Rust Belt City” may even be as cool, cutting edge and full of urban creatives living here and being the heart beat of our historic downtown as Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Sorry for tongue in cheek sarcasm – it’s all in good Southern rust belt charm ; )

    • Brian Clarey

      I hear ya. Greensboro and Winston-Salem could learn something form Memphis. We’re discussing an entertainment district in WS, and Greensboro has been talking about closing Elm Street to traffic on weekends for decades. We have virtually no tourism, though — at least compared to Memphis and my former home, New Orleans.
      On that note, I think every form of modern music comes from the Treme. Ernie K-Doe told me so.