If I learned anything about Memphis in the years since attending college there, it was that the city was famously unchanging. Known almost exclusively for fall-off-the-bone ribs and smoky blues clubs on Beale Street, the Tennessee river city was like a time warp. This theory fell apart on my most recent visit, when Memphis felt undeniably different. The city hit a significant turning point in 2009, when mayor A. C. Wharton vowed to focus on quality of life and community by adding green spaces and making the city safer--a longtime issue for Memphis. "He uncorked pent-up urban energy," says Pat Brown, a local who co-owns the T Clifton Art gallery in the booming Broad Avenue Arts District. This paved the way for game-changing chefs, innkeepers, and shop owners to open businesses, diversifying and elevating the city. Here are the recent standouts.
Urban Escape: Shelby Farms Park
At 4,500 acres, Shelby Farms Park--a former prison farm on the far eastern edge of the city--is about five times the size of Central Park. Designed by the team behind New York's High Line, it includes the remote Outback, with pastoral meadows and equestrian trails, and the Uplands, with a playground for kids to blow off steam.
The Shelby Farms Park Conservancy's executive director, Jen Andrews, walked me through the Uplands. Its recycled-steel arbor weaves through the playground and is webbed with wisteria and vines. Andrews, who came for college in 2002 and never left, recalled the 2010 opening of the park's 6½-mile Greenline, which connects the park to the center of the city by bike trail. "There was a palpable sense of optimism and positivity," she says. "People thought to themselves, 'Memphis can have amenities like this.' "
A major addition to the park will debut this fall with an expanded 80-acre lake with boat rentals and cypress-fringed islands; an events space for thousands; and an outpost of the Kitchen, the upscale Colorado restaurant chain from chefs Hugo Matheson and Kimbal Musk (brother of Elon). It all jibes not just with the park's mission to draw the community outdoors but with a citywide trend toward a healthier, more active way of life.
Center of the Action: Broad Avenue Arts District
I met with local journalist Stacey Greenberg, a college pal, eight miles west in Midtown's burgeoning Broad Avenue Arts District. She and most other Memphians agree that Broad Avenue is by far the most interesting place in the city right now. "It seems there's always something new opening here, or someone doing something new," she says. In the past decade, the city has taken major strides to redevelop the street into an arts district, with a row of new businesses. There's Wiseacre Brewing Co., where you can sip a Tiny Bomb beer in a colorful wooden taproom, and the Cove, a nautical and deliberately divey bar with smooth brown spirits, oysters at midnight, and killer live bands. A few doors down, you'll find crafts workshops at Five in One Social Club and fashion at the high-end 20twelve. On the other side of the street, a swooshy geometric mural painted on a working warehouse reads this is me. this is you. this is we. At night, the warehouse's loading dock doubles as an events venue.
Greenberg and I took in the view with smoky salted-caramel lattes at City & State, a boutique and coffeehouse where college students hunch over laptops at tables. (With my alma mater, Rhodes, nearby, I couldn't help comparing this coffee shop to the only option we knew as students, a 24-hour Perkins.) Lisa Toro, a California transplant, opened the place with her husband last year. "There's great opportunity here," she says excitedly. "It's much more interesting to be a part of the change and to help bring it about, than to move to another city that has already established what it is."
Where Old Meets New: South Main Arts District
Downtown, not far from the city's western border along the Mississippi, Memphis's rebirth is being played out on a smaller scale around Beale and South Main Streets. On Beale, everything is as it has been for decades. Street performers flip over streets; neon signs take on their trademark glow; guitar riffs and sweet boozy smells spill out of old yet always exciting clubs. You can even walk into the same bar where, say, you worked as a server some 20 years ago and find a bartender you knew back then, still slinging drinks.
But stroll down South Main and it's a different story. The South Main Arts District has exploded with galleries and shops, many in protected buildings. Recent openings include the Blues Hall of Fame (which is across the street from the excellent National Civil Rights Museum) and Stock & Belle, a department store in miniature comprising a salon, an organic grocer, and a clothing and furniture store. This month, chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman of the award-winning Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen open their latest restaurant, Catherine & Mary's, in the historic Chisca on Main building--once a hotel where Elvis made his radio debut, and now South Main's newest residential complex. "Memphians want to eat different styles of food," Hudman explains. "This challenge is very intoxicating and you have this sense that it starts to push everybody." Catherine & Mary's menu is inspired by the chefs' Italian grandmothers. They will serve classics such as creamy pasta carbonara alongside bruschetta-like Southern toasts--including griddled corn bread topped with peaches, Kentucky ham, and hot mayo.
History Revised: Victorian Village
A five-minute drive from the South Main Arts District is the formerly rough-and-tumble Victorian Village, where the James Lee House, an elegant B&B, opened more than two years ago. The five suites come with remote-controlled Tempur-Pedic beds; several have views over a fountain to a neighboring historic mansion, and 300-square-foot marble bathrooms with chandeliers. This is momentous in a city that has long had a dearth of great places to stay.
"Memphis is exciting right now," says B&B owner José Velázquez while pouring me a freshly roasted coffee. Elsewhere on the breakfast table were pains au chocolat from a nearby bakery, a parfait layered with Greek yogurt, and Meyer-lemon marmalade made by his wife, Jennifer.
"Most people now see the potential that we've been talking about for a long time," Velázquez says, rattling off the names of more districts reaping the fruits of revitalization. This fall Graceland will open a 450-room hotel, and the new walkway on the Harahan Bridge will allow pedestrians to cross between Memphis and Arkansas. "You don't have to imagine it anymore. It's happening."
The Details: What to Do in Memphis, Tennessee
James Lee House
This five-suite B&B offers rooms overlooking the fountain and red-brick courtyard of the historic mansion next door. Doubles from $250.
Enjoy the rooftop bar at this downtown hotel, where views of the orange horizon over the Mississippi at sunset can't be beat. Doubles from $239.
Restaurants & Bars
Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen
Sit at the candlelit marble bar and order the "A|M breakfast": poached egg, pork belly, and polenta. Entrées $10-$30.
City & State
Browse the boutique and order a salted-caramel latte at this Broad Avenue shop.
This divey, nauticalthemed spot is hopping on nights when favorite local band Hope Clayburn's Soul Scrimmage performs.
Wiseacre Brewing Co.
A brewery run by native Memphians and brothers Davin and Kellan Bartosch. In warm weather, join the crowd that gathers on the industrial back porch.
Stock & Belle
Virtually everything you see in this multifaceted store is for sale--the art on the wall, furniture on the floor, and flowing Lace & Whiskey skirts. 387 S. Main St.; 901-734-2911.
T Clifton Art
Check out stunning contemporary glass art by more than 20 artists.
Choose from among designers like Giambattista Valli and Rosie Assoulin at this high-end retailer.
National Civil Rights Museum
After undergoing a $27.5 million renovation, the site--encompassing Martin Luther King Jr.'s room at the Lorraine Motel--has added more than 40 new films, oral histories, and interactive exhibits in the past year.
Shelby Farms Park
Families visiting Memphis can explore the 4,500 acres of green space that has disc golf, laser tag, paintball, and even a herd of buffalo.
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--By Nina Kokotas Hahn