After the Civil War, London was slow to recover, but reconstruction and immigration from rural areas brought in new development by the turn of the century. But the early neighborhoods which led from the parkways had already begun their dismantling, as the middle and upper classes headed to the “suburban” areas of Annesdale Park and Overton Park. Planners from Chicago and St. Louis carried the City Beautiful movement into the city. Under their guidance was begun the construction of a new parkway system fanning out from the river, and linking as it progressed, most of the city’s public amenities: its parks, a zoo and a horse racing track.
Consequently, the boosterism of city officials enthused with the promise of a lucrative “new South”, plunged Downtown into one grand scheme after another. By and large, the projects undertaken were destructive to the old central neighborhoods. Between 1900 and 1920, developers cleared extensive sections in central Memphis to make way for new office buildings, hotels and stores, most of which never materialized. Shortly thereafter, the city tried to modernize its physical and social structure on the basis of a comprehensive plan done in 1923. The plan tried to transform the central city from a disparate collection of commercial, civic, and dying residential areas into a functionally integrated central business-civic center. Interestingly, Mud Island which had been considered a nuisance by public officials, was described for perhaps the first time as an opportunity for the city, albeit in the form of yet another municipal park. More importantly, this plan called for riverfront residential neighborhoods and commercial areas; an idea which was to take sixty years to take shape. Meanwhile, urban renewal programs in the 1950s were particularly damaging to the central city. Officials elected on campaign promises to reverse the economic decline of the central city, began an aggressive renewal program which placed little faith in rehabilitation of older neighborhoods and buildings. Ambitious plans for the transformation of Beale Street from a decaying community center for black life into a tourist attraction also included a riverfront expressway, high-rise apartments, and a huge covered commercial mall. To accomplish the task, massive clearance was begun with little regard to historic buildings or the residents being displaced. In the end, only the fortuitous designation on the National Register had prevented two small blocks of original buildings on Beale Street from being demolished.
Surrounding it, lay almost 120 flattened acres. The clearance area, according to historian Christopher Silver “looked like bombed-out Berlin”, and remained that way for years afterwards as the city tried unsuccessfully to revitalize the activities it had killed off. 1 The timing of these failures coincided with the start of a difficult period in Memphis in terms of the already strained race relations in the central city. In 1968, the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King on the balcony of a downtown hotel was followed with riots and the destruction of property. The following year, a busing order handed down in a school desegregation case, resulted in large incidents of “white flight” out of the city neighborhoods. Moreover, the completion of a modern expressway circumventing downtown — yet another of the well-intentioned urban renewal projects — served mainly to expedite this residential outflow.2 At one point, there were no more than 500 residents of the downtown area. Much of this population consisted of college students and adventurous loft dwellers who worked, primarily, in the downtown medical complexes. But this scattered population could not sufficiently provide a market for the services expected in a livable urban neighborhood. Main Street, which once served as the shopping mecca for the entire mid-south was on its “last leg”. It was effectively killed for good when its was remade into a pedestrian mall in 1977. Even at present, it supports no more than a handful of discount stores. Until the impetus started by Harbor Town, downtown was simply not a place to live except for some rundown public housing areas. Midtown, the Victorian Village and Central Gardens were residential neighborhoods in the central area, in which gentrification had taken place earlier. But these were located too far from downtown to have any effect on its quality of life. Downtown to most Memphians was a place of crime, of bad schools, and of poor city services. Memphis, it seemed had survive too long without a downtown neighborhood, for Memphians to believe that downtown living was even possible. With neither the tradition, nor the amenities to support downtown neighborhoods, the problem for Memphis remained that it was still imperative for central city, residential renewal to happen somewhere. The idea for a neighborhood on Mud Island was first suggested to the city by the Philadelphia firm of Venturi-Ross-Scott-Brown in the late 1970s. Mud Island had been a feature of the downtown landscape since its formation at the turn of the century by an accumulation of silt in the river bed. Still, the low-lying sandbar had been seen as useless to developers because of its frequent flooding and its lack of accessibility. The Port of Memphis saw it as a nuisance to river traffic, and at one point considered its complete removal. The city fielded proposals from time to time which generally resulted in plans for parks and zoos, a football stadium, and even a downtown airport, which it did become for a short period of time, until the height of an adjacent federal highway bridge limited that use. One proposal for a river-oriented museum and educational theme park was eventually built as a tourist attraction at the southern tip of the island in 1982.
Automobile access was still not possible, however, since the decision had been made to connect the theme park to downtown via a monorail system. It was not until the city and downtown promoters had successfully lobbied the state to build the $10 million bridge from Downtown in 1987, that development of Harbor Town could proceed. 3 When news of Harbor Town’s development became known in the late 1980s, it was greeted with skepticism even at a national level. Everything about its development, so the press and suburban developers said, was headed against the conventional wisdom about where people wanted to live and the kinds of homes they might live in. It took the conviction of several developers to gamble that if homebuyers would try something new, the quality of the neighborhood had to be unique and the location would have to offer something special. In Memphis, Turley was convinced, that spot would be the river, and the neighborhood would have the design quality and established feeling provided by a neo-traditional community. Turley hired RTKL Associates of Baltimore to produce the design, the engineering and the landscaping for the site. He also created his marketing and research group to determine how to approach potential buyers. Today, in less than ten years since its planning was begun, Harbor Town has achieved the unbelievable feat of making a family neighborhood in downtown Memphis, by attracting a variety of middle class residents, including families with children. Moreover, the success of Harbor Town has spun off to other downtown residential projects, including South Bluffs — a $100 million, 450 unit residential neighborhood of single family homes on the mainland, along downtown’s side of the riverfront. Moreover, the population living in downtown Memphis which had never topped 500 people as of 1977, now boasts a population of over 5,000 people — a figure which is expected to double in the next two years, as continued development such as Peabody Place and the Gayoso House projects proceed.
Today, Memphis is a city of 610,000 residents which makes it the largest city in Tennessee. As a regional center for transportation and health care, nearly one million people comprise the total metropolitan area. And, although some 50,000 people work in the professional and government offices of downtown, the efficient highways leading out to the eastern suburbs, have created the mixed blessing that 60 % of the metropolitan area can live within a 15 minute drive from downtown. Unlike larger American cities, therefore, Memphis has not had an easy time at building a residential population downtown — much less one comprised of middle class families. Neither its meager retail and cultural offerings, nor its supply of downtown employment have offered compelling reasons for Memphians to live in the city. Moreover, there have rarely been the kinds of environment comparable for those willing to exchange a suburban lifestyle for residency in the city. From the very start, then, Harbor Town was intended to be a familyoriented “suburb-in-the-city”. Earlier attempts to bring residential neighborhoods downtown had succeeded mainly in the adaptive re-use of older commercial buildings turned into condominiums. These fared better than skeptics expected, but as essentially high-rise apartments they were seen never to attract Memphis families. Harbor Town’s designers were conscious of these problems when they began. But aside from their knowledge of the local market, the developers of Harbor Town took their faith in the project from a consultant’s study years earlier which stated that a neighborhood on the island, would have the potential to become a “Germantown on the River.” The association of theses elements made a strong impression on them because of its paradoxical implications. Germantown, a suburban jurisdiction outside the city to the east, was the quintessential middle class suburb for Memphis. It was widely esteemed as a desirable location for families and children, and had experienced an explosion of residential development during the 1970s and 80s. The idea stuck, however, and by the time that Henry Turley and his development consortium hired RTKL Associates of Baltimore to do the masterplan for a neo-traditional neighborhood, it was understood by everyone involved that a family-environment next to downtown was to be Harbor Town’s goal.