A debate as old as the area itself, defining its geographic borders remains as elusive as ever
(Originally written in the fall of 2018; updated in 2023)
The 240 and the parkways.
East Parkway, Lamar, Bellevue, Jackson.
Defining Midtown’s geographic borders can be grounds for arguments that never end. No matter the answers – as Vance Vawter said in a 1978 Memphis Press-Scitimar article – one thing is for certain: “Ask ten people, and you will get ten different sets of boundaries for the area.”
And then, there is this:
“Midtown… is a state of mind.”
Identifying who Midtowners are is yet another debate sure to spark a few more arguments. To some, Midtown is a bunch of liberals, tree-huggers, and hippies. Midtowners may call themselves Activists. Progressives. Artists. Musicians. Beer drinkers.
Finally, the almost impossible: how and when and why the mid-town area became Midtown – Midtown with a capital M.
Late in 2017 it was my honor to be the subject of one of Memphis Type History’s podcasts. During the interview I made a Memphis rookie mistake, allowing myself to fall into the rabbit hole of trying to describe the geographic limits of Midtown.
Caitlin Horton, the intrepid host, gave me a grin that said Let’s see him squirm his way through this one.
I played along. Diplomatically I pointed to the more generally agreed-upon physical borders of oh, pretty much anything between the I-240 and East Parkway, and within North and South Parkway. Mostly. Generally. To most people. I also added a philosophical note. I mentioned one of the first impressions I had of our mid-Memphis, when a friend told me that Midtown was “our version of the Village.”
The friend was referring of course to New York’s famed bohemia that is Greenwich Village, of artists and radicals and folk music and taverns and coffee houses and record stores and book stores. “Yes,” I recall thinking, “it rather is like the Village. Especially Cooper-Young!”
But how did mid-town … become Midtown? Memphis is a town that grew up on cotton and lumber and as a transportation hub, from the steam boat to the railroad to the jet plane. And yes, in clashes of culture, the slave trade and the civil rights movement, and a couple little things called Rock ‘n’ Roll and Soul Food.
The Once and Former… Crosstown?
At the turn of the century over a hundred years ago, Midtown as we know it was still outside Memphis city limits. In 1870 the city limits stopped at Dunlap Street. With annexations of Madison Heights and Idlewild, in 1899 the city limits expanded to Cooper Street. In 1909, with the annexation of Lenox, it expanded to East Parkway.
The area now known as mid-town was then Memphis’ growing streetcar suburbs, when trolleys took commuters on routes east and west along Poplar, Madison, Peabody and Central, and north and south along Cleveland Street and up and down Evergreen. The “dummy line” trolley took commuters and revelers out on Madison, south on Cooper and then east on Young Avenue to what is now the Fair Grounds. One of the primary business districts that formed during these early days of the 20th Century centered off the cross-roads of Madison Avenue and Cleveland. This neighborhood, whose trolley lines served commuters out east and both north and south, became known as “Crosstown.”
The name Crosstown was fitting, as one look at a 1913 Memphis Electric Railway map shows us, the junction of Cleveland and Madison was just about the dead-center of town. The writer Joe Mitchell chronicled the history of this city mid-section in a 1930s “History of Crosstown” series in the Memphis Press-Scitimar. Mr. Mitchell said this:
“Today, the Crosstown area, generally considered to run from Jackson and Watkins on the north to Lamar and Central on the south, and from Waldran east to Cooper, really is the mid-section of the city.” (Waldran Blvd, in case you’re trying to place it, runs north-south in stops and starts directly adjacent to the 240 on its east side.)
It’s worth repeating. Waldran/240 to Cooper west to east; Jackson to Lamar and Central north to south. Our mid-town area was once known as Crosstown.
In Mr. Mitchell’s chronicle however, he sometimes refers to both mid-town and Midtowners and Crosstown and Crosstowners in the same columns. What’s clear in the reading is that Crosstown’s core business district, as it spread from the intersection of Cleveland and Madison, was the heart of the Crosstown area that was part of the mid-section, or mid-town part of the city. At turn of the century it was also renowned for its political influence, and was sometimes known as the “Silk Stocking Ward.” Residents during this era spoke of the area with great pride; they scrutinized every proposed shop or bungalow, leading prominent Crosstowner Mrs. R.W. Parham to say that always “Crosstown remained stolid in architectural dignity and aesthetic scenic bliss.”
During these decades and even through the 1940s, anything near or beyond Cooper Street was considered “out east” or, to some, East Memphis. We can see evidence of this in the old East End Park, which sat where the Turner Dairy is now at Madison and Morrison, and the old Esso service station that was known as the East Memphis Motor Company, at the northeast corner of Madison and Cooper.
Annexation and the new East Memphis
In 1928 and ’29 the city annexed parts of what are now Vollintine-Evergreen, Binghamton, Hyde and Hein Park, High Point Terrace, East Buntyn, Orange Mound, Glenview and South Memphis. Through the ‘30s and ‘40s the eastern limits of the city ended at Goodlett St. south of Walnut Grove, at Graham St. north of it. The years 1950 and ‘53 marked two major city annexations. This time it was the areas of what became North Memphis, and farther out to the new subdivisions north of Summer Avenue and south of Park Avenue, including the neighborhoods of White Station and Colonial Acres.
From 1953 to ’64 another flurry of annexations pushed the eastern city limits to the areas that are now bounded by Interstate 240 at Poplar Avenue, north into Frayser, and south into Parkway Village and the expanding Memphis International Airport.
The city was moving out and east. Around the country, the term “white flight” was coined, when the white middle-classes moved increasingly away from downtowns and inner cities into the developing and sprawling suburbs now accessible by interstate highways. In Memphis, by the early 1960s the automobile and city buses had completely taken over our transportation needs. Sadly, most of the trolley system had by then been disassembled. The new commercial developments became rooted in suburban living – Poplar Plaza at Highland, a new Goldsmith’s department store and a new Sears out at Perkins and Poplar – and continued to attract more and more of the population to the suburbs: a new and improved East Memphis.
The neighborhoods and commercial districts of Crosstown and the old East Memphis were in the 1950s being referred to as “mid-city,” or even the “mid-town sector” of town. The term “mid-town” (and even midtown without the hyphen) appeared more in print and in city directories. And to many Memphians, the name Crosstown was increasingly being used in reference to the neighborhoods directly surrounding Sears Crosstown.
But with large portions of the middle-class population moving east – and staying put – the neighborhoods north and south of Union through mid-city west of the East Parkway were showing signs of decline. Downtown was being hit hardest, as businesses and corporations abandoned the city core, setting up shop in East Memphis or away from the Memphis metro area altogether – defining the era when many Memphians thought of downtown as almost completely boarded up. As many Memphians who grew up in East Memphis in the ‘70s would later say, “We never went downtown, for anything.”
From downtown to midtown, crime went up, property values went down.
Parts of the Evergreen neighborhood and the areas in and around Overton Park saw increases in drugs and theft. Some of the older, established business along Union Avenue saw increasing turnover or worse, demolitions that made way for fast-food establishments. Poplar and Union avenues became the primary thoroughfares for commuters traveling out east, and the faster the better. Real estate agents took their clients east and away from a “midtown area” that carried a negative stigma. The book Cooper-Young, A Community That Works, called it a period of “urban decline,” when families leaving the area to move east “stranded older and poorer residents, and encouraged absentee ownership.”
What was left, however, were core residents that were more diverse – and, many will agree, more liberal and even defiant – than those who had escaped to the eastern suburbs.
They were the midtown and Evergreen activists who successfully stopped Interstate 240 from ripping through Overton Park. They were the young businessmen who brought us TGI-Friday’s and helped to define what is now Overton Square. They were the stalwarts and family-run businesses continuing to occupy storefronts along Cooper, Madison, and even Monroe. They were, as the book Central Gardens – Stories of a Neighborhood reminds us, the new generation “of politically influential citizens” of homeowners who “knew that renovation of older neighborhoods could be successful.” They were, as told in A Community That Works, the holdouts who were instrumental in Cooper-Young’s eventual renaissance – the artists, musicians, poets, and yes, even medical students – “enticed by its proximity to downtown and the affordable housing.” These were the pioneers who “recognized the assets of the place,” who would later play a huge part in revitalizing the neighborhood.
It was this late ‘60s and early ‘70s new bohemia that gave us “Midtown.”
“What is this place called Midtown?”
During the swinging ‘70s decade, Midtown was in full comeback, and everyone in this Mid-Memphis area was getting into the act. Campaigns both formal and informal were underway in various circles to re-establish Midtown as the very heart of Memphis. People had a sense of dedication to their Midtown, and pride swelled.
This pride was exemplified by the publication of a glossy, mini-magazine from First Tennessee Bank that appeared between ’75-77, which used as its tagline “Some Things Improve With Age.”
“The blending of old spaces and contemporary lifesyles,” it said, “has worked up a special spirit among those who never left, those who have returned and those making (it) their first place to live. Call it unity.”
The same sense of unity and pride prompted Memphis Flyer writer John Branston to coin the early-90s phrase “Midtown is Memphis,” when Midtown leaders rebooted some of that early-70s spirit and initiated another community development campaign. The same pride surfaced again in 2008 when Overton Square was set to rebound from the ’08 recession. For his 2008 Flyer article, Branston wrote that “Midtowners are a diverse, activist, and choosy bunch – fiercely loyal to what they like and fiercely critical of what they don’t like.”
It’s a loyalty that carries forward with each new generation of Midtowners. For long-time residents today, it means something to say “I grew up in Midtown – I am a Midtowner.”
“I believe there are Midtowners living in the ‘burbs, just trying to escape.”
This takes us back to that question – What’s Your Midtown? – and to Vance Vawter’s 1978 Memphis Press-Scitimar article. In it he wrote that “While the geographical boundaries are hard to determine, the sociological boundaries seem even harder to grasp.” A sociologist would have a field day in Midtown, he said, where “every block has its own character.” Certainly no one in Midtown would argue that statement.
But the border debate continues: Where do those blocks of Midtown character begin and end?
Dewanna Lofton, in a 1999 Commercial Appeal article on Midtown shopping, defined Midtown as bounded by Interstate 240 and Bellevue on the west, Vollintine and Jackson on the north, the Illinois-Central Railroad on the east (just east of the Fair Grounds) and South Parkway on the south.
Wayne Risher’s 2000 article, about a Midtown improvement initiative in The Commercial Appeal, described it as bounded generally by Bellevue on the west, Jackson or Vollintine on the north, South Parkway on the south and Hollywood on the east.
In the fall of 2018, MidtownMemphis.org surveyed a couple hundred Midtowners and Midtown stakeholders – residents, business owners, community leaders, etc. – from all over Memphis, asking them to define their Midtown and if the community they identified with could or should be included in Midtown. The results? Predictably, they were all over the map. As far east as Highland, as far north as Chelsea Ave.
Based entirely on stakeholder responses, the survey identified a few loose distinctions, generally categorized under representation, identification and pride in place. Hence, the Crosstown neighborhood, despite its historical and geographical connections to Midtown, generally identified and represents itself as Crosstown, emboldened by the neighborhood anchor in the restored Crosstown Concourse and with a new Crosstown Memphis CDC (Community Development Corporation). Likewise, neighborhood leaders in Klondike-Smokey City, in establishing their own CDC, did not clearly identify themselves as part of Midtown. Orange Mound, whose residents and leaders take great pride in the history and legacy of their neighborhood, considered themselves outside of Midtown, more associated with the Fairgrounds on the north side of Southern Avenue, than with Midtown proper.
Conversely, survey responses from stakeholders in neighborhoods like Glenview (south of Southern), Hein Park (north of North Parkway and Summer Avenue), and even Binghampton and Broad Avenue, possessing a strong pride in place nonetheless consider themselves part of Midtown, and found strength in being represented by and associated with Midtown and MidtownMemphis.org.
What resulted was a map that reflected the feels and associations of Midtown stakeholders who valued their Midtown connections and felt the need to be represented as part of Midtown:
Midtown boundaries as identified by the MidtownMemphis.org survey of Midtown stakeholders (in 2018*): I-240 to the west, Cypress Creek to the north, the Illinois Central R.R. and Scott Street to the east, and parts of the Lamar Avenue Corridor to the south (from MidtownMemphis.org). *Since this survey and map was completed, Crosstown formed its own aforementioned Crosstown Memphis CDC.
Finally, in his 1978 Press-Scitimar article, Vawter made his own declaration. He said that “roughly, Midtown is bounded by East Parkway, I-240, Jackson and Lamar.” And he took the added step to present a drawing of a Midtown map, which clearly define the borders he described.
240-Jackson-East Parkway-Lamar… Okay.
Bellevue–Vollinitine-Hollywood-Southern/Lamar… I can see that.
Cypress Creek-Illinois Central R.R.-S. Parkway-240 … That feels about right too.
And, A State of Mind… Most definitely.
Mark Fleischer is the founder and executive director of StoryBoard Memphis.