You know Memphis’ greatest hits, but there’s so much more to love in the Bluff City than blues and barbecue. We dug a little deeper to uncover some places, brands, products and more that are unique to – and just as unique as – the city of Memphis.
The urban park that fought back
It seemed like a done deal. Houses had already been knocked down to make way for the extension of Interstate 40 through Midtown Memphis and Overton Park. But a dedicated group of (literal) grassroots protesters, who referred to themselves as “little old ladies in tennis shoes,” sued the U.S. Secretary of Transportation for failing to consider feasible alternatives to routing a highway through our George Kessler-designed oasis and its 10,000-year-old forest.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the decision in favor of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park affirmed that “protection of parkland was to be given paramount importance.” So while it’s not the only lovely urban park in the country, Overton Park is historically relevant on a national scale and a reminder of the power of Memphis’ local passion.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is known internationally for its policy of caring for children regardless of their ability to pay. As a member of the St. Jude family, film director Tom Shadyac (whose father and brother both served as CEOs of ALSAC, St. Jude’s fundraising arm) wanted to bring this principle into the broader Memphis community. Memphis Rox is the first of its kind: a world-class rock-climbing gym — as well as fitness space and juice bar — that operates as a pay-what-you-can nonprofit.
Located in the Soulsville neighborhood, Memphis Rox builds strength, health and resilience from the inside out. Gyms based on its model are already being planned in other cities around the country, but the concept is all Memphis: It welcomes anyone with the will to ascend.
The vertical urban village
Sears, Roebuck and Co. built a number of enormous distribution centers throughout the United States, and while more than half a dozen have been renovated for contemporary use, only Memphis’ 1 million-square-foot (and growing) redevelopment goes beyond the concept of “mixed-use” to create a space that serves and builds a community.
Housing some of the city’s most visionary organizations like Church Health and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital alongside private businesses, nonprofits, retailers, restaurants, its own YMCA branch, high school, theater and arts development program, not to mention apartments and hospitality space, Crosstown Concourse represents the huge, paradigm-shifting ideas Memphis is known for while actively fostering a place that will create even more.
The cheese dip
Okay, yes, we know. Pancho’s Cheese Dip wasn’t exactly created here. Technically this Mother Sauce of Memphis is an import from across the river, where it was originally crafted by Arkansan dip artisans. But every Memphian knows exactly where to find the Pancho’s display in their nearest grocery and have all worn a path to that refrigerator case when they need to get a party going fast. Reminiscent of Rotel dip, another regional delicacy made by infusing melted Velveeta with canned peppers and tomatoes, Pancho’s cheese dip is two kinds of wrong but three kinds of right.
The endless Summer
Beale may be the city’s most iconic street, but if you’re looking for its realest roadway, it would be hard to get more Memphis than Summer Avenue. Launching from East Parkway on the edges of Midtown, Summer’s straight path crosses through communities like Binghampton, The Heights and High Point Terrace on its way to Bartlett and beyond. Summer is rich with both the highs and lows of Memphis history, with a marker recognizing the first Holiday Inn location and a newly consecrated memorial to lynching victim Ell Persons.
The street is also representative of Memphis’ multicultural depth, with restaurants serving everything from Ethiopian, Japanese and Israeli fare to an array of Latin American specialties like Colombian arepas, Salvadoran pupusas and Mexican paletas. Oh, and if you need to buy something, it’s there – antique and thrift shops line the street along with super-specialized shops covering the retail gamut from ornamental iron to cake decorating supplies. And you can end a full day with a double feature at the Summer Drive-In, a multi-generational movie fixture that still operates year-round.
The hardest-working group on Beale
Like anything in Memphis, Beale Street is nothing without the people who bring it to life. And without question, its liveliest denizens are the acrobatic troupe known as the Beale Street Flippers, who have been hurtling through the smoke-and-soul-tinged air for 30 years. The act originated by Rarecas “Rod” Bonds in 1986, who began flipping solo for tips and then gathered family members and kids from other neighborhoods to join him.
Since then, the Flippers have accrued a list of accomplishments as long as the expanses they fly over — a Guinness World Record, NBA All-Star game appearance and “America’s Got Talent” quarter-finals spot among them – but their roots are always firmly planted right here.
The best-wrought plans
If we suggested you check out the Metal Museum, you might naturally think it’s a third — albeit off-kilter — addition to the Stax and Sun music tour. But no, the only hits in this collection are coming from the metalsmiths in the forge outside. The National Ornamental Metal Museum is truly unique, the country’s only institution dedicated to the advancement of the art and craft of fine metalwork. Works are not only displayed but actively created in the museum’s beautiful blufftop campus, and their “Repair Days” invite Memphians to bring in any busted old piece they hope to make new again. The view of the Mississippi from the grounds is its own masterpiece.
The weird barbecue
Alright, we’re sneaking it in. Yes, Memphis barbecue is a given, but the innovative spirit of Memphis comes through in its most famous food, too. From the barbecue tofu nachos at R.P. Tracks to the iconic Cornish game hen at Cozy Corner to the magnificently bizarre amalgamation of barbecue spaghetti found on menus across town, Memphis takes its sweet, spicy signature to whole new places.
Memphis is the home of countless entrepreneurs, but perhaps the most colorful is the Virginia-born transplant who built a giant pink-marble estate and opened a chain of supermarkets called Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Stores. Of course, this was after said Saunders had already made (and lost) his fortune with the original self-service grocery concept, Piggly Wiggly.
When Sole Owner stores declared bankruptcy, the Pink Palace was abandoned and became Memphis’ first museum. Saunders spent his remaining years working on concepts that he never saw completed but eventually made it into the market as automats and self-service checkouts. The genius of Clarence Saunders lives on in the Pink Palace Family of Museums, and his eccentric pride lives on in the heart of every true Memphian.
Say book. Say bookin’. There, now you can say jookin. But it’s much easier to pronounce than perform. Born of Memphis’ underground rap scene in the 1980s, the dance form – also called gangsta walking or buckin’ – had a renaissance in the early 2000s when Memphis artists brought it to larger cities and gained recognition for its distinctive bounce and impossibly effortless slide.
When dancer Charles “Lil Buck” Riley combined his New Ballet Ensemble training with a background in jookin, he became a global phenomenon, earning millions of YouTube views, commercial appearances, and a role in Disney’s recent retelling of The Nutcracker. Riley recently announced that his Memphis Jookin Arts Academy will be partnering with the renovated Cossitt Library to share his craft with the city’s youth. If there’s anything more uniquely Memphis than buckin’ with books, we haven’t heard about it yet.
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