Walking in Memphis

In Sina's Posts, Tamás' Posts, Trips on November 27, 2011 by Tamás

Elvis in an Otherwise Empty Window Front.

We spontaneously decided to go to Memphis for Thanksgiving weekend. The leading question that guided our trip was how the myth of Elvis is commercialized, since Graceland is in Memphis. Which Capitalist perversions would we come across? How does the city deal with the myth of Elvis? We expected to see a thriving tourist city that is paved with Elvis images and trivia.


Abandoned Lot with Remnants of Floor Tiles.

Walking though Downtown Memphis we were often reminded of Detroit, Camden, and Flint. The Memphis cityscape is fragmented and horizontal  lines determine the urban fabric. Downtown, where we were staying, consists mostly of commercial buildings, parking lots, and some abandoned buildings. Although Memphis officially has around 220,000 inhabitants, and a total of 1.2 million in the metropolitan area, we saw few residential houses, and even fewer pedestrians.  We were unsure whether much of the quietness had to do with this being the holidays, or whether it was just normal for Downtown.

South Main, Memphis, TN.

There are efforts to revitalize Downtown with a ‘historic’ trolley, and a European style pedestrian area around Main Street. Yet, South of Main Street is a dilapidated area where abandoned architecture from 1890 and empty lots can be found in equal numbers. Some of the buildings have been transformed into lofts that look for affluent renters, others provide, presumably, affordable space for artists and galleries. Small signs of urban renewal, but the general sentiment seems to be that the ‘real’ Memphis is not Downtown anymore.

Part Abandoned, Part Renovated Lofts.

Memphis is located on the Mississippi river, it marks the northern tip of the Mississippi Delta (not the River Delta!). The Mississippi is probably the largest river either of us has been to, though Sina was at the Don. It is a majestic river flowing though the forest landscape and should be a huge selling point for Downtown, but people in Memphis seem to live with their backs to the river. There are some parks along the river, which is nice, but there’s nothing more. The western bank  of the Mississippi is actually in Arkansas and Memphis never expanded over the river. We wanted to walk across, but we found out that this is a very European thought. There is no proper walkway across any of the three bridges. Technically you can walk across the interstate bridge, but who wants to walk next to a highway with very little security precautions for pedestrians? When we searched for information online, all we came up with was a newspaper article from early 2011 in which the possibility of a pedestrian bridge is being discussed, based on frequent requests by European tourists. ;)

Sina, Old Man & River.

Also, the riverfront is barely developed. It is nothing compared to European cities that enhance their ports or riversides to new thriving neighborhoods, like Hamburg, Münster, Rotterdam, etc. Historically, the river was used to ship cotton around the country and established Memphis as a vital hub in the cotton trade which it even had a cotton exchange. In addition to cotton trade, Memphis was also a place where slaves were shipped, traded, and distributed similar to the English city of Liverpool. In contrast to Liverpool we did not see much engaging with this dark past during our stay. Warehouses and factories were situated with direct access to the river near the riverfront and the dilapidated buildings would constitute great historic landmarks. Fine, but many cities around the world managed to develop lively post-industrial riverfronts, and there would be great potential in Memphis to do the same.

We will post more on Memphis soon. In the meantime, if you want to see more pictures from our first day, including photos of the motel where Martin Luther King was shot and the famous music quarter on Beale Street, check out this link to Tamás’ Flickr album. You’ll also find bigger versions of all the pics in this post there.


One Response to “Walking in Memphis”

  1. […] continued our walking tour on the Savannah River, which is also the state border to South Carolina. Once again, we were close to another state, but unable to cross the river. Down by the River: Savannah […]

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