Uptown & The Pinch

In photos: See Memphis’ past, present, and future in The Pinch


From the historic buildings of Front Street to the distinct pink of the world’s leading children’s research hospital, The Pinch is where Memphis’ past meets its future in a visually striking way.

The Downtown Memphis Commission defines The Pinch District as the area north-south from A. W. Willis Avenue to Interstate-240 and east-west from the Mississippi River to Danny Thomas Boulevard. It includes Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid, St. Jude Children Research Hospital, and the roughly 15 blocks of commercial real estate between them.

Mural near northern gateway of Pinch District. (Ziggy Mack)

The city unveiled a redevelopment vision for the nine-block core of the Pinch, and if brought to fruition, it would radically alter the existing landscape.

But for now, the area is a curious juxtaposition. It’s a place of thriving businesses and vacant lots. Its desolation and industry set against the natural wonder of the Mississippi River and the city’s gleaming Downtown core. It’s the collision of our past and progress, and it’s a truly beautiful sight to behold.

Memphis Area Transit Authority bus hub located on north end of Memphis Pinch District. (Ziggy Mack)

In 2015, swaths of vacant land and commercial parking crept to the radar of the National Historic Register of Places, the state branch of which threatened to revoke the Pinch District's designation.

The Memphis Flyer wrote that the commission said the area had lost many of its buildings, and "has lost the significance for which it was listed and no longer retains integrity of location, setting, design, materials, workmanship, and feeling."

The Pinch District ultimately prevailed and kept its historic designation. Future redevelopment plans promise to preserve the visual culture of buildings, especially along North Main Street. 

“I have an affection for strong lines and rhythm in photo compositions,” said photographer Ziggy Mack about the visual character of The Pinch. 

Interstate-240 crosses over the gateway to Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid. (Ziggy Mack)

Lines are something that can be found in abundance in The Pinch. There’s Main Street with its trolley lines above and rails below. There are the strong rectangles of the historic buildings on Front Street, and the hulking roads of Interstate-240 overhead. There are the slopes of the world’s six-largest pyramid and the lines of the iron fences surrounding the world’s most renown children’s research hospital, St. Jude.

Unfortunately, there’s also a whole lot of vacant space to interrupt those lines.

Originally developed in the early 1800s, the original aesthetic was neat rows of one to three-story brick buildings featuring ornate crown moldings and hand-painted signs advertising the first-floor businesses and apartments above. 

Memphis bus trolley passes in front of Balinese Ballroom in Memphis Pinch District. (Ziggy Mack)

Related: "Uptown & The Pinch: How Memphis’ oldest subdivision became its newest boom town"
 

The 1950s saw a mass exodus from The Pinch, and in the 1990s many of its historic buildings were leveled to make way for parking for the Pyramid arena (which was then abandoned in 2004 for the larger FedEx Forum).

But drive through The Pinch and you will also see success stories among the dominant vacancy.

Alcenia’s started serving its southern fare in 1997. Unassuming from the outside, inside the space is a blast of bold colors and delicious smells. The cozy tables sit atop checkerboard floors, and large paintings are interspersed between framed articles and awards highlighting the business’s success.

Inside of Alcenia's restaurant in the Memphis Pinch District. (Ziggy Mack)

Westy’s is another long-operating restaurant but with a distinctly different feel. Its dark interior has a pub-like atmosphere with a large, wooden bar and every available inch of wall space covered in an eclectic collection of art and artifacts.
 

Related: Westy’s turns 35 as The Pinch turns a corner
 

Around 2013, Design firm Harvest Creative renovated the historic building next door to Westy’s, giving it a bright yellow exterior and large windows along its storefront.

The Balinese Ballroom offers luxurious wedding and event space in a beautiful two-story, 142-year-old building with flowing, arched window moldings. It’s one of the best remaining examples of the original neighborhood.

New industry meets old standby as design firm Harvest Creative renovated in 2013 the historic building next door to Westy's, giving it a bright yellow exterior and large windows along its storefront. (Ziggy Mack)
 

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital broke ground in 1962 and has continued expanding its campus (and its uniquely pink buildings), becoming one of the two dominant focal points of the area.

The Pyramid still stands as the area's other impossible-to-miss anchor, and its recent transition to the flagship Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid breathed new life into the structure. Inside, it is truly a sight to behold. Designed to mimic a freshwater swamp, the retail space features trees, wildlife, aquariums, and low lighting that gives the space an “eerie” feel, according to photographer Mack.

Inside of Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid. (Ziggy Mack)

The Bass Pro at the Pyramid offers a unique comment on urban development versus preservation of the natural environment. Outside of the sleek, glass and metal structure silhouetted statues of deer stand watch as Downtown continues to develop.

“The juxtaposition of the two elements also has the ability to initiate a discussion on the future impacts of humans on lands, [including] urbanization, repurposing of areas once abandoned, or the wild retaking the land,” said Mack.

Silhouette statues of deer look towards the Hernando Desoto Bridge from the Bass Pro Pyramid parking lot in the Memphis Pinch District. (Ziggy Mack)

It also boasts some of the most stunning views of the city and the river from its 28-story observation deck, again offering comment on the timeless interplay of natural and development present since our city’s first days.

According to Mary Claire Borys, community developer for The Pinch with the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development, the first of neighborhood’s infrastructure redevelopment will begin by next year, marking the beginnings of what is hopefully a remarkable revitalization.

View of Memphis Pinch District from Bass Pro Shops Pyramid lookout. (Ziggy Mack)

The goal now is two-fold: fill in the holes but maintains the best part of the neighborhood’s visual character – its historic buildings, strong lines, and unique businesses – and foster a vibrant community that recreates the bustling, diverse community of The Pinch’s first days.

“I am very fond of people in images. I believe that people add life to an image as well as a desire for someone to visit,’ said Mack.

It’s the combination of old and new, structures and people that will make The Pinch’s perfect picture.

The iconic pink brick exterior of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. (Ziggy Mack)
 

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and applied anthropologist. Since 2011, Cole has worked as a researcher, strategist, and community engagement specialist across the city's private, public, and non-profit sectors. Passionate about storytelling, they began contributing to High Ground News in 2017.
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