Between the Lines II: Turning Memphis' alleys into hidden destinations

Built to be hidden parts of the city, alleys are reimagined by developers and artists as places to show off Memphis' creativity. 

A recent energy has emerged in neighborhoods such as The Edge District, Crosstown and the Downtown core that reimagines alleys as points for underground destinations. 

The development trend, though recently picking up steam, is not new. 

In 1964, Memphis’ Downtown Association released a plan to make each alley a “little museum” to Memphis. The spirit of those ideas has been spearheaded by who want to highlight Memphis’ creative capital.

Read more about the history of Downtown's alley system in part I of Between the Lines. 

With the low cost of living and a strong music culture well over 100 years old, the creatives are discovering a big city that has not gentrified them into a distant memory. And the alleyways are turned into mini galleries to show it off.

In Crosstown, a tiny alley between 430 and 438 North Cleveland Street is only a few feet deep. It takes an artist’s eye to even notice such a neglected spot and definitely takes an artist’s eye to see its potential.

A temporary mural backed by The Moonpie Project brightens a corner of Crosstown.

The Moonpie Project through Crosstown Arts aims to sweeten this tiny spot of Midtown through a series of murals.

“It’s an ongoing, rotating mural series curated by Michael Roy in memory of muralist Brad Wells,” stated the Moonpie Project group. Wells, originally from Chattanooga died in December 2015.  A whimsical mural that makes the spot was put up in May and future art will follow.

Floyd Alley between Danny Thomas and Fourth is not known to most but runs behind some familiar places.  On the west is the downtown YMCA and Autozone Park. Head east and pass Fielder Square Apartments and then into and alley with backs of 100-year- old-plus businesses. It looks like a classic neglected alleyway.

Well, not exactly. On April 29 it became a destination for The Edge Gets Lit Party where bands played and 1,000 feet of lighting was added to make the seldom visited area between 4th Street and Danny Thomas Boulevard activated. 

The Edge Gets Lit Alley Party brought Memphians to an overlooked side of The Edge District.

The aim of the party was to show off the potential of Memphis' underutilized spaces. 

And perhaps that is the theme of the other alley projects as well: to notice the place that was designed to be pushed into the background of city design.

The Downtown Memphis Commission also had an alley party around the same time.

In May, the Artery Alley Party, hosted in Barboro Alley, showed off the artistry that elevated the humble brick alley into a horizontal art gallery of colorful paintings and lighting installations.

Eszter Sziksz (R) and Stephanie Cosby (L) work on "Skywalker", an art installation in Barboro Alley.With music, games libations and mild weather, a neglected pathway comes to life. The parties end, the art remains and the potential for redevelopment endures. 

There is another theme of alley art and that is boldness. No subtlety, zen or contemplation pieces in these projects. The colors, lighting and contrasts are bold or evoke motion. The paintings are whimsical and fun.

Alleys were designed not to be noticed, so more subtle works would get lost with the bricked-in windows we see lots of in Memphis alleys.

Take Joseph Boyd's work on Barboro Alley, whose colors jump out at passerbys. About the only thing one would welcome jumping out at them from an alley is bold art, and here it does, thankfully.

“Skywalker” by Stephanie Cosby and  Eszter Sziksz adds the illusion of motion as
the skyscape changes as the viewer passes.

Another new addition to Memphis alley art is on Maggie Isabell Alley just south of Madison. In September 2015 a former Burger King that had closed was knocked down and leveled to build a small park. In spring 2017, it opened as a small but attractive venue where movies can be shown under the night skies while sitting on picnic blankets and grass. In an alley below the park, a shadowbox type design shows off local art.
 A sketch of the Edge Alley commercial project, which will be located near the site of the Edge Gets Lit Alley Party.

Alleys are leading development in The Edge District. Developer Timothy Barker plans a micro-retail project that squeezes retail, a coffee shop and a restaurant between Marshall and Monroe avenues. The project is called Edge Alley and an opening is planned for July 2017.

Because alleys are often left untouched in redevelopment, they can show a backdoor to the way Memphis used to look. Increasingly, alleys are turning into entryways for businesses and residences and canvases for music and live events.Perhaps those members of the old Downtown Association were on to something.

With alleys being turned into destinations, we may see a future where parents are less than horrified to find out their kids are passing the time in an alley Downtown. 

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Read more articles by Devin Greaney.

Devin Greaney is a Memphis-based freelance writer and photographer who has been published in the Memphis DowntownerDeSoto Magazine and others. He works full time as an Emergency Medical Technician and had an extensive knowledge of the history and geography of the MidSouth area.