A History of Memphis’ Most Maligned Street
Union Avenue. The very name strikes shudders and grumblings among drivers, pedestrians and business owners alike.
Today’s Union Avenue, through the heart of Memphis, Tennessee, stretches approximately 5 and 1/2 miles west to east from Riverside Drive at the top of the cobblestone landing to the Poplar Viaduct where it meets Poplar Avenue and turns into Walnut Grove.
Memphis and Shelby County historian Jimmy Ogle, who knows a thing or a thousand about Memphis, has famously referred to Monroe Avenue as “much maligned Monroe.” We certainly won’t argue with Jimmy.
But Monroe, with stops and starts and blockages (by Jimmy’s count eight times) from Third Street to East Parkway since the original Memphis street grid was laid out in 1819, in a way never really had a chance. Union Avenue however once had the potential to be a grand boulevard, what some Memphians generations ago hoped would become a Memphis version of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, lined with elegant mansions, magnificent churches, quaint boutiques and drawing-room restaurants. So much hope was held for the avenue that it was even identified in the Memphis’ 1924 Comprehensive Plan as another parkway for part of a proposed “pleasure drive system” through the city.
With so much hope, long ago dashed, what exactly happened to Union Avenue? How did a once-proposed pleasure drive turn into a maze of hazards for drivers and pedestrians alike? How did this once-grand boulevard become pockmarked – some say blighted – with fast-food signs and billboards?
Historically, Union Avenue doesn’t receive the adulations bestowed upon Madison, Main, Front or Beale. It has no nickname, like Madison Avenue, once dubbed the ‘Wall Street of the South.’ It’s not been fawned over and photographed in every age and every style of dress like its beautiful sister Main Street. No poems have been written in its honor*, like for Front Street, from poet William Johnstone Britton’s Front Street: A Book of Poems. And Union, it certainly doesn’t have the bop and bounce of Beale Street.
*It has been mentioned in poems, such as those by John Brice Harris.
It can’t claim the great department stores like Main Street’s Goldsmiths or Lowenstein’s, the great buildings like the Exchange or the Sterick or the Columbia-Lincoln American Tower, nor the oldest restaurants like the Little Tea Shop, the Arcade or the Rendezvous. And heck, in the Midtown of yore it didn’t even have a trolley like the ones that traversed Madison and Cooper and Peabody and Central.
But it does have the greatest and most iconic hotel in the South in the Hotel Peabody. It can claim at least part of the Farnsworth/Three Sisters Building, now referred to as the 88 Union building on the northwest corner of S. Main and Union. Today it boasts one the best minor-league ballparks in the country in AutoZone Park. It can still claim one of the great mid-city churches in the Gothic Revival style Idlewild Presbyterian between Evergreen and Auburndale.
Union has some of the richest 1920s to ’50s-era automobile history thru the middle of the Edge District, the beating heart of mid-century auto shops and those old canopy-shaded auto dealerships of yore. Those old enough to remember have their fond memories of going to the Pig ‘n’ Whistle, sitting at the soda fountain at Wiles-Smith Drug Store or grocery shopping at Seessel’s, all of them long-gone. And of course, Union Avenue has an exclusive claim to Rock ‘n’ Roll history, as the place where Elvis Presley cut his first records at 706 Union, the legendary and still-thriving Sun Studios.
Nonetheless, Union Avenue today is spoken with a sigh, an exhale when the Friday five o’clock whistle blows and its time to face the weekend traffic. It’s a decision to be made – the interstate or, ugh, Union? – instead of a cocktail and a candlelit dinner on Main or Monroe.
And, it’s the place where Memphis elegance went to die, mansion after mansion felled by fast-food wrecking balls.
Once beloved by its residents, it is now reviled by many a passersby. It’s as if all that could have gone wrong with the development of an avenue over the years did in fact go wrong.
Today’s Union Avenue is a mix of that which works – namely thru downtown – and that which, through Midtown anyway, is a mess. By no fault of its own, Midtown’s Union Ave is a nightmare for pedestrians and drivers alike. Today it never met a left turn, a crosswalk or a curb it liked. It seems it never met a car wash or a drive-thru it didn’t like. For lengthy stretches in some places it is one long free-for-all driveway with no sidewalks in sight.
Its widths and traffic and decades-old zoning and setback rules presents quandaries for urban planners and commercial developers – Do we build to face a highway or a walkable street? It is what the complete-street advocates at Strong Towns would call a “stroad.” According to Strong Towns, a stroad is what happens when a street — a place where people interact with businesses and residences and wealth is produced — gets combined with a road, a high-speed route between productive places. By this definition, we interact with streets downtown; while roads – we’re not talking about quiet country roads here – are more characteristic of our state highways.
In that sense, it can be argued that there are two Union Avenues: a productive, mixed-use street through downtown; and another that slowly digresses into a pedestrian-dangerous, highway-like mix of mini strip malls, parking lots and bank and fast-food drive-thru’s. Lending to this duality is the fact that starting at Second Street and B.B. King Blvd downtown, Union Ave has, like hundreds of other roads like it nationwide, been part of the US Highway system since before World War II*, and a primary route for commuters to and from the Greater Memphis area.
*The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1925 was the first in a series of legislations mid-century that established our unified, universally-recognized systems of numbered highways across the country. We will explore the impact of the US Highway system on Union Avenue throughout this series.
The old highway system conjures up romantic images of car travel – think Route 66 – but in today’s urban and mixed-use environments, the system is indeed dangerous, and has produced increases in pedestrian fatalities nationwide. Nicholas Oyler, Memphis’ bikeway/pedestrian program manager, said in 2018 that “for decades when we designed and built streets in Memphis, like in most American cities, we prioritized the efficient flow of car traffic over the needs of any other users of the streets, and that led to the detriment of people who were walking, people who were biking or taking public transit. Speed and safety do not go hand in hand.” (Commercial Appeal, June 29, 2018)
Union Avenue: Once beloved by its residents, it is now reviled by many a passersby. It’s as if all that could have gone wrong with the development of an avenue over the years did in fact go wrong. The roots of this discontent came to life a hundred years ago, in the spring of 1920, with a man and his used-car lot, when Union Avenue residents east of Fourth Street protested against “the invasion by business industries” (Commercial Appeal, 1920) that catered to the oncoming automobile.
But the seeds of auto-centric confusion were planted longer ago, well before 1920s zoning battles, when Memphis was in its infancy, before and during the Crump machine, before the automobile and the U.S. Highway designation, before street-widening, before the wild west-east traffic signals, and long before the first fast-food restaurant opened its drive-thru window.
Ironically, the new Union Row mixed-use development (currently on a temporary pause because of the pandemic) and the upcoming Memphis Innovation Corridor are in effect attempts to return a productive street life back to Union Avenue, back to a little of what it once was, and forward-return to the kinds of mass-transit that was once so efficient.
So while Monroe Ave may be much maligned, we can’t think of a street today that is more maligned – disparaged, bad-mouthed, knocked – than Union Avenue.
What exactly did go wrong on Union? How and when did elegance give way to the dangerous mess we see today? Was there any one development that forever altered its course, or was it simply a series of events that brought about discord? It’s a fascinating history, a case-study in urban planning mistakes, a look into the impact of the automobile and our attachment to car travel. Our Union Avenue Anthology series will attempt to tell Union’s story once and for all. It’s full of passion, romance and heartbreak, longings and nostalgia, frustrations and sad endings of piled up mortar and broken bricks.
Finally, what does the future hold for Union Avenue? Despite the pandemic slowdown, plans are still in place to move forward on the billion dollar Union Row development that will transform Union from Fourth Street to Danny Thomas, and the new Memphis Innovation Corridor, which will bring a rapid transit bus route that transports travelers from downtown to the University District and back, and reduces parts of Union from six lanes back to five.
As anthologies go, our series will capture as much writing as we will be able to dig up – with readers’ help as well, among others willing to contribute; and full bibliography is referenced below – that will give Union Avenue its due: from the Paul R. Coppock books; the historical writings of Robert A. Sigafoos and G. Wayne Dowdy; the architectural musings of Johnson & Russell; planning history from Josh Whitehead’s Creme de Memph blog; the resources and archives of the “DIG Memphis” Digital Collection and the Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Libraries, the Shelby County Archives, the West Tennessee Historical Society and the Library of Congress; history and stories from Charles W. Crawford and Perre Magness; the musings and lectures of Memphis legend Jimmy Ogle; and original writings of our own Charlie Lambert, yours truly, and a host go others.
It’s a series that answers the questions of generations of drivers, sitting at that stoplight at McLean, “What ever happened to Union Avenue?”
Our selected bibliography is below.
Bibliography, Resources, Personal Assistance
- The MidSouth books of Paul R. Coppock (6 in all)
- The books of G. Wayne Dowdy, author, historian and Manager of the Memphis Room of the Main Benjamin L. Hooks Library
- DIG Memphis: the online digital archive of the Memphis Public Library. DIG Memphis
- Cotton Row to Beale Street, by Robert A. Sigafoos
- The City Plan of Memphis Tennessee, 1924, Harland Bartholomew
- The West Tennessee Historical Society papers
- The lectures of Memphis historian Jimmy Ogle
- Josh Whitehead’s Creme de Memph city planning and design history blog
- Charles W. Crawford’s Yesterday’s Memphis
- Metropolis of the American Nile, by John E. Harkins
- James Roper’s The Founding of Memphis, 1818-1820
- Central Gardens, Stories of a Neighborhood, by Barbara Viser
- The Commercial Appeal archives, from Newsbank
- The archives of the Library of Congress
- Assistance and fact-checking from Wayne Dowdy, Jimmy Ogle, Joe Lowry Jr., Willy Bearden, Jamie Corson
- Contributions from regular StoryBoard writers John Matthews and Margot Payne
- The resources of the Shelby County Archives and online archives of the Shelby County Register of Deeds
- The resources of Ancestry.com
- Input and assistance from The City of Memphis’ Division of Planning and Development and the Division of Engineering
- Personal collections and photographs from StoryBoard readers and members of various Memphis history social media groups