The roots of the Edge District give life to new investment

As the "heart of Memphis, the Edge of downtown," the Edge District has been an intersection of industry and culture since the city's earliest days. An examination of the neighborhood's history--from logistics hub to music mecca to art and entertainment district--reveals why the unique area has evolved, and where it's going next.
 
With the world's second-busiest cargo airport, five Class I railroad thoroughfares, easy access to one of the largest rivers in the world and the crossroads of two major national interstates (as well as the future site of two others), Memphis is not only considered "North America's Distribution Center” but also "America's Aerotropolis."

In 2011 alone the airport handled 3.9 metric tons of cargo, 90 percent of which FedEx carried. Its position as a major transportation hub, however, dates back much further than Fred Smith's storied "C"-grade paper outlining an overnight delivery service, which he wrote while studying economics at Yale.


In 1857 the Memphis and Charleston Railroad was completed and for the first time connected the Atlantic Ocean with the Mississippi River. This east-west rail link across the South played a major role in establishing Memphis as the hardwood capital of the world. These rail lines and that river would help deliver hickory to London, walnut to Munich and oak to Tokyo, according to the Lumbermen's Club of Memphis. Many of those rail lines would bleed into what is now known as the Edge District of Memphis and create an involved fabric of warehouses, a network of strangely laid-out streets and eventually a funky district attractive to artists and featuring a healthy nightclub scene.

Now roughly defined by Autozone Park, Sun Studio, Jefferson Avenue and Beale Street, the Edge District was from the very start a mixed-use neighborhood. The earliest rail branches, or spurs, shouldered up to large warehouses in this area outside of the "city limits," where lumber, coal and other goods waited to be loaded and delivered around the world.

"This was a large loading area for trains to carry raw materials," said Andy Kitsinger, local design consultant and architecture instructor. "There used to be a main rail corridor that led to a train station at Jefferson and Danny Thomas. You can still see the spur that comes up to Beale Street behind the Commercial Appeal."

"The Frisco line, one of the major lines, came right into the heart of the Edge heading south," said Scott Blake, Executive Director of Victorian Village Inc.’s Community Development Corporation and a museum consultant. "You can still see remnants of it at the overpass beside Kudzu’s."

The industrial rail lines proved to be formidable obstacles to necessary street design as the city expanded outward from its original 300-square-foot town center, resulting in a few configurations that depart from the usual gridded street system.

"The railroad is what made the streets so wonky. You hear people ask, 'Why did the city planner make the streets do this?' Because he was dealing with the railroad line that came into the city," Blake said. "That's why the area is filled with so many weird intersections and little alleys."

At the same time, the Gayoso Bayou served as a sewer for those who lived in the area, mostly "poorer residents," who would throw anything and everything into the canal. The canal fed into the Wolf River to the north, running from Walker Avenue in the south and roughly following the route of today's Danny Thomas Boulevard. Ultimately the bayou acted as the main culprit in the yellow fever epidemic, breeding the mosquitoes which took out 8,000 of the 30,000 Memphis residents in three weeks in 1878, causing the city to lose its charter and become a taxing district for the state.

"Union Avenue is flat to Madison, then it drops off between Madison and Jefferson. That was a bottom, swampland, where it would tend to flood and the Mississippi River would back up," Blake said. "They would throw household waste into the bayou. It was pretty nasty. They had these great mud cliffs, and the streets were made of mud where horses would get stuck and just die."

Eventually the bayou would be bricked and channeled, creating an existing underground system of concrete rooms and tunnels and which still serves to drain the eastern part of downtown and the western part of the Medical District.

The area saw an eight-acre train yard where now sits Paul Borda Tower near the corner of Madison and Neely avenues and which inspired low-income housing in the area for rail yard employees. At the same time, some of the wealthiest residents were building some of the grandest mansions in the city in what was then considered the suburbs and is now called Victorian Village on Adams Avenue.

"Downtown grew so quickly before the yellow fever epidemic; the very wealthy wanted to get outside the city and the mess and hubbub and flies," Blake said.

Memphis' First Garage
In keeping with its identity as a transportation district, the Edge evolved alongside technology and commerce and became Memphis' Automobile Row. Lined with as many dealerships as there were brands, Monroe and Union avenues served up new Buicks, Pontiacs, Lincolns and Mercurys as fast as Memphians could buy them. Huge showrooms took the place of lumber sheds, and everybody who was anybody shopped on Automobile Row.
Tracy's auto service
"After World War II, there was a new creative working class and a big economic boom that was described by, 'A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.' There was a big upswing in the production of automobiles for the working class," Blake said.

Many showrooms exist today on and around the corridors, repurposed as auto repair shops, clubs, restaurant supply shops, galleries, artists' live-work spaces and any number of businesses and residences.

"It's always been a very eclectic mix of different types of businesses and residences. At one point there were two-story Victorian clapboard houses next to what is now Kudzu's, which used to be a gas station with pumps out in front of it," Blake said.

A very notable point in history happened as a result of the automobile boom: Johnny Cash found his Tennessee Two at the Chrysler dealership where LIT Restaurant Supply now hangs its hat. "Johnny's older brother worked there and knew Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant were budding musicians. They were auto mechanics working at the dealership, so he introduced them," local historian, tour guide, artist and Edge resident Tad Pierson said.

The well-known reports of Elvis Presley buying Cadillacs and giving them away all happened on or near the motor strip. "There was a Cadillac dealership at the 300 block of Union, and one salesman said (Elvis) bought at least 60 from him," Blake said.

A Rock and Roll Incubator
None of these fun tidbits of celebrity-infused trivia would be traded around had it not been for the next chapter in the area's history--the birth of rock and roll.

Mostly due to its affordability, Sam Phillips rented a building at the corner of Union and Monroe so that he could pursue and record the type of sound that he wanted. "It was very DIY. It was the first independent label, as opposed to the industry towns. It was all about the heart of it. He didn't care what it looked like. He chose a tiny hole in the wall among car lots to get it done how he wanted to," said Jayne Ellen Brooks, Operations Manager and Public Relations Director for Sun Studio. "It was a hole in the wall surrounded by Cadillacs."
Sun Studio
Formerly the site was a bakery and was divided up into three slots during the Great Depression, which became Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records label business in January of 1950 as well as a restaurant--Miss Dell Taylor's--and the same boarding house.

"The boarding house would put up a lot of musicians who weren't from Memphis. Roy Orbison might have stayed there," Brooks said.

Miss Taylor's would serve as Phillips' office during the hot months--it had air conditioning--as well as the only eatery for several blocks.

"Elvis signed his first contract there," Brooks said. "We still get three MLGW bills."

Phillips' lease was up in 1959, and to keep up with technology he moved to a more efficient studio down the street at 639 Madison, where Phillips Recording is still in operation today. A few businesses, including a barber shop and a scuba supply company, would try their luck at the Sun location, until it became apparent to Gary Hardy that rock 'n' roll pilgrims were not going to dissipate.

Hardy reopened the venue as Sun Studio, turning it back into a recording label and a tourist attraction. Sun Studio is now owned by John Schorr and greets more than 125,000 visitors per year as a tourist attraction and active recording studio.

The 1960s introduced urban renewal projects to Memphis, and in the 1970s busing became a part of the Memphis story, which prompted tens of thousands of white residents to flee east, north and south. In 1974 Memphis had the largest private school system in the nation and a wounded city core and public school system.

The automotive dealerships followed and left behind massive amounts of real estate up for grabs for cents on the dollar, which ushered in the most recent chapter of the Edge neighborhood.

A Home for Artists

Artists needed big spaces to work, and contractors wanted large swaths of warehouse property, while the club scene developed a trend of setting up shop in sites of massive square footage.

Visionaries such as local artists Pinkney Herbert and Mark Nowell jumped in and set up studios and galleries in the former dealerships and warehouses and installed public art on street corners, in alleyways and on storefronts.
Marshall Arts
"I needed an inexpensive studio space, and I found a huge space with 10,000 square feet here. I couldn't afford that, so I divided it up and rented it to other artists to help pay for it," Herbert said, who returned to Memphis after experiencing similar spaces during a stint in New York. "I loved the location between downtown and the Medical District. I knew things would happen here."

Mike Todd of Premiere Contractors Inc. snatched up several properties to store supplies and rent to artists in search of spaces where they could stretch out and hone their craft. "I was a contractor, and my partner was an electrician, so we were able to buy stuff nobody else wanted and so get a really good price on it," Todd said.

So much confluence of activity in the area led to an informal neighborhood association and a moniker for the area, which Todd coined as "The Heart of Memphis, the Edge of Downtown." Regular meetings and a vested interest in where they lived, worked and played kept residents and business owners poised and ready for the next evolution in this funky, eclectic and edgy pocket of Memphis they called home.

But the investment was mostly stalled in the 2000s as a result of the Great Recession and a heavy focus on other neighborhood revitaltization projects in areas like South Main and Broad Avenue. With any further investment to the Edge on hold, stakeholders like Todd and Herbert continued plugging away at the businesses and waited things out. All the while, an array of clubs opened and closed in the district, from gay and drag bars to dance clubs to music venues, importing young people to the area from Midtown, East Memphis and beyond.

The neighborhood's connection to the transportation industry remained vital over the decades via a heavy convergence of auto repair shops, some of them multi-generationally owned and serving surrounding Memphians as well as those from across the Parkways.

Now the Urban Land Institute hopes to conduct some concerted revitalization around the Edge, and Livable Memphis will be spreading its special flavor of neighborhood enhancement during its next Better Block-style MEMFix event on October 18. As South Main recently unveiled a new brand for itself, Broad Avenue experienced an out-and-out facelift, and Crosstown steadily fills up with new businesses while the Sears Crosstown building transforms into a vertical village, what will be the next chapter of this backyard to downtown Memphis?

"I always felt like the area was important geographically. We think it's the best location of all of the neighborhoods. We hope over the years it will continue to appreciate, but we don't want to see it gentrified. We have to have something to help the neighborhood be sustainable. You can't be a poor cool neighborhood forever. You have to have some upward mobility. But we want to remain eclectic, a mix, unique," Todd said. "We want to see it become a more mature urban area that's very interactive."

Read more articles by Lesley Young.

Signup for Email Alerts