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

Uptown and The Pinch began as a bustling subdivision for the wealthy that was nearly destroyed by racist housing policies and government neglect. Now it’s gearing up to become Memphis’ next big thing. 

High Ground News’ On the Ground embedded journalism series is moving from Whitehaven to Uptown and The Pinch District. We begin each new neighborhood with a look at its history and current state to set the tone for our work in the coming months.

As the oldest subdivision in Memphis and one of the newest focus areas for big development, there’s plenty to cover in these neighborhoods. Uptown and The Pinch represent a roughly 150-block area in northern Downtown that includes landmarks like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Pyramid, as well as the neighborhoods and light industrial areas east-west from the Mississippi River to Manassas Street and north to Marble Avenue.

Related: "Welcome to Uptown, the biggest small town in Memphis"

Throughout its 170-year history, the area has been a proving ground for Memphis’ challenging relationships with race, class and public investment. From wealthy origins to becoming a multicultural haven for immigrants, to suburban flight and near total disinvestment, redevelopment efforts beginning the 1990s brought new energy and a new opportunity to create a flourishing, diverse community.


A Grand Idea for the Northern Frontier

In 1843, the U.S. Navy built a depot on the Mississippi River between present-day A. W. Willis and Market streets. The depot quickly drew business to Memphis’ northern frontier.

The growth of river-based commerce caught the attention of a pair of developers, brothers J. Oliver and William Borden Greenlaw, and in 1849 they purchased their first bit of land at the city’s northern border. By 1856, they owned enough for a 30-block development. Plans included wide, tree-lined streets, cobblestones, and granite curbs.

They named Memphis’ first subdivision the Greenlaw Addition and named several new roads after key investors, including (Robert F.) Looney, (John L.) Saffarans, and (E.T.) Keel. 

A map of Memphis in the 1840s shows the estimated area of the Greenlaw Addition highlighted in white. The Naval Depot can be seen abutting the Mississippi River from present-day A.W. Willis to Market Street. (Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library)

Large, stately homes were erected and several prominent families moved in.

By the 1870s, dozens of retailers made their home in Greenlaw including grocery stores and a meat market, a brewery, a druggist, cobblers, a feed store, blacksmiths, a soap maker, a sundry store, a boarding house, an opera house and a doctor’s office. The area was also a center of industry as it boasted a cotton press, steam mill, brickyards and a cottonseed mill. Memphis’ first water utility, the Artesian Water Company, was added in 1890.

The neighborhoods also had an incredible level of ethnic and racial diversity.

The city’s first public school for black students opened at the corner of North Fourth Street and Saffarans Avenue sometime before 1871. And while there were some slaves in the area pre-Civil War, by the 1880’s, there were black home and businesses owners throughout the community.

“In particular, they were small business owners, grocery store owners, blacksmiths, shoe makers,” said Wayne Dowdy, local historian and manager of the Memphis Public Libraries’ history department and archives.

This created a black middle-class that put black residents on a more equal footing with their white neighbors, although there were certainly still rigid social and racial hierarchies.

There were also large populations of Germans, Italians, Russians, Greeks and Polish Jews. The large influx of Irish Catholics fleeing the Great Famine gave The Pinch its name. It was originally a pejorative term poking fun at the emaciated, “pinched” stomachs of the refugees.  

It’s important to note that today we lump all of these groups under the umbrella of “white,” but at the time, they were considered ethnic and religious minorities and set apart from the earlier Protestant, Western European immigrants. The diversity and cooperation among residents of the late 1800s was due in part to a common banner of ‘not white.'

“There is this ethnic-racial mixture in that neighborhood that is probably more unique than any other place in Memphis from the late 1800’s into the early-20th century,” said Dowdy.


The Start of a Slow Decline 

The tides began to change at the beginning of the 20th century.

A 1912 flood deterred the building of large homes, and a second flood in 1937 officially ended the grand days of the Greenlaw Addition.

New homes were now smaller and built for working class families. Larger homes and mansions were dissected for apartments and boarding homes. Many were leveled.

The advent of World War II saw increased industrialization. The Firestone plant opened as did General Motors, G.E., Kroger, U.S. Rubber, and National Biscuit. So many factories within a few square miles attracted an influx of blue collar workers, juke joints, and night life deemed unsavory by upper class residents.

An older Uptown home. (Brandon Dahlberg)

Those families began leaving the area in the 1920s and 1930s, taking with them their political power. The area lost much of its clout within local government and political neglect set in. The government’s decision to close Highway 51 at Second Street and scrap the flood-damaged Wolf River Bridge brought a serious decline in street traffic and customers for the area’s businesses.

The physical isolation of Uptown and The Pinch is still a struggle today. In particular, the Cook Convention Center and Interstate-240 at the southern edge of The Pinch separates it and Uptown from the rest of Downtown. Hotels would rather send their guests to the bright lights of Beale Street and Downtowners won’t walk under the poorly lit Front Street overpass.

But there were some bright spots in Uptown's heydey. Musicians including W.C. Handy and the North Memphis Brass Band were based in the area as was the Knights of Pythias, an early fraternity founded during the Civil War. The first king of the Cotton Makers Jubilee, Eddie F. Hayes, lived in Greenlaw and owned a funeral home.

A.D. Byas was a prominent black doctor practicing and living in Greenlaw in the early 1900s. He owed extensive land, and his family remained prominent in the area for decades.

White Flight and the Fall of Greenlaw

Post-WWII saw one of the greatest cultural shifts in U.S. history that ushered a fast decline for center-city neighborhoods across the country.

While Jews, Irish Catholics, Eastern Europeans, and others were considered second-class citizens stateside, the military segregated by only one distinction — white and black. When G.I.’s returned, they brought their new ideals of whiteness with them.

To stimulate the economy post-war, the federal government created programs like the G.I. Bill and underwrote home loans through the Federal Housing Administration that allowed millions of Americans to own homes for the first time.

They also reinforced these new racial ideals by creating a system known as redlining, wherein predominately black and brown neighborhoods were systematically devalued and depressed. Suburb developments sprang up across the country and quickly declared themselves “whites only.”

“Starting in the 1940s and into the 1950s, you start to see more unease for whites living next to African-Americans, when in the '20s no one seemed to mind,” said Dowdy.

In Greenlaw and The Pinch, working-class white families left in such numbers that in the 1950s the government attempted to anchor them by constructing a state of the art, all-white public housing project — Hurt Village.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made redlining and housing segregation illegal, but the damage was done. Center-city neighborhoods had been devastated by the loss of their neighbors and the tax base and property values they took with them. Greenlaw and The Pinch were no exception.

“We want to think that the war makes change and brings about the Civil Rights Movement, and it does. But it also hardens racial attitudes that didn’t exist before. It doesn’t mean that before the war was some sort of utopia because it wasn’t. But the strife was based on different things, it wasn’t based on where you lived,” said Dowdy.

The Hurt Village public housing project constructed in the 1950s was for whites only. (Affordable Housing Institute)

One notable exception in an otherwise dark time in Uptown’s history, St. Jude opened its doors in 1962 and was the first integrated hospital in the region. It also demanded that hotels desegregate if they wanted to house St. Jude families.

Also of note, Elvis Presley and his family lived in Lauderdale Courts, another public housing project in the area, from 1948 until 1953. During that time he attended Humes High School, now Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School, and developed his unique sound practicing in the basement of his family's apartment.

By the early 1990s, Greenlaw the The Pinch were shells of their former selves. Boarded up houses, shuttered businesses, and vacant lots were plentiful. Crime was high and rising, and Hurt Village was drug-infested and falling apart.


Becoming Uptown 

In the late 1990s, the Memphis Housing Authority and the City of Memphis submitted a Hope VI application for the redevelopment of Hurt Village and Lauderdale Courts. Hope VI was a competitive grant program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development earmarked for the revitalization of distressed public housing. Developers Jack Belz and Henry Turley were chosen to lead the development.

“It was a really ambitious project,” said Mairi Albertson, senior program administrator with Memphis’ Housing and Community Development agency.

The idea was to create an attractive, economically integrated community that could begin restoring the tax base without completely displacing the current residents and gentrifying the neighborhood.

They began by leveling Hurt Village and Lauderdale Courts and constructing new, mix-income apartment complexes that were one-third public housing, one-third subsidized housing, and one-third market rate housing.

They also cleared condemned homes and vacant lots for single-family homes dedicated to public housing, which extended the mixed-income model into the neighborhood. The new houses kept the aesthetic of the historical homes. Covered porches with narrow pillars, high roofs, and bright colors helped restore visual appeal and cohesiveness.

The city and developers renamed the area Uptown and redrew the area’s boundaries to include several previously distinct neighborhoods. Initially some residents of Greenlaw, Bickford, Harbor Town, and other micro-communities were angry at the loss of identity, but Albertson said it was a necessity.

“I think there’s still opportunity for those unique identities, but because [Hope VI] was so competitive, there was a need to rebrand for the application,” she said.

Another key part of the strategy was building a TIF district (Tax Increment Financing). TIFs allow for part of an area’s property taxes to be reallocated to development of a distressed neighborhood. The goal is to build infrastructure and amenities that will attract small business.

By most accounts the development is seen as a success.

Extending subsidized housing development to single-family homes helped activate the entire neighborhood, as did extra TIF funds that allowed for infrastructure improvements and a program to rehab blighted, privately-owned homes in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity. This was especially beneficial for seniors on fixed incomes and with limited ability to do the repairs themselves.

“It was more than just something for the housing authority,” said Albertson. The Hope IV efforts had spilled over to a whole-community lift.

The development has also attracted private investment as it intended, though somewhat slower than expected. Albertson said private business development was the long game that’s finally paying off as dozens of small business like The Office @ Uptown and The African Place open up shop in Uptown.

Albertson, whose HCD office has been located in Uptown for 20 years recalls when there were few people in Uptown and even fewer businesses and sees the stark difference today.


The Future of Uptown and The Pinch

The Turley-Belz master developer contract recently expired but development continues. Leadership has now moved to the Community Redevelopment Agency, the county-wide agency that oversees TIF funding. The CRA recently wrapped a series of community input sessions in Uptown and The Pinch to ensure that any future development centers the desires of residents. 

Newly constructed homes in Uptown. (Brandon Dahlberg)

St. Jude is planning a major campus expansion into The Pinch. The hope is that this development, along with the Bass Pro Shop at the Pyramid, will anchor new small business growth.

Housing and Community Development’s project manager for The Pinch, Mary-Claire Borys, said that the city is also preparing for major infrastructure investment. The plan is to upgrade the aging utilities, make street repairs, and create “bread crumbs” (lighting the underpass at I-240 and Front Street, new pedestrian bridges and walkways) that will encourage foot traffic to the northern end of Downtown.        

All signs point to an area on the brink of another wave of explosive growth.

For all its brights spots, there are still challenges. In April, residents reported in a High Ground community input session that outsiders are often either unaware Uptown exists or perceive the area as dangerous. There is still a lack of some basic amenities like a grocery store. There are many nonprofit organizations and community centers in the neighborhood, but there’s always a need for more activities, especially for youth.

And with new investment comes a renewed importance to consciously work to respect the needs of existing residents alongside the newcomers.

Still, the community is close-knit and committed. People walk the streets and greet their neighborhoods. They throw alley and block parties. They support their local businesses and attend meetings to lend their voice to the vision of their neighborhood.

Over the next several months, High Ground will embed in Uptown and The Pinch exploring these complex histories and current realities. We’ll also highlight key players, hidden gems, and neighborhood institutions. Places like Slave Haven, a former stop on the Underground Railroad and now a museum is celebrating its 160th year. We'll also talk about Roxie’s, a hole in the wall corner store with the best burgers in town and a fascinating connection to the Turley family.

Throughout our coverage, our hope is to elevating the voices of the community, raise awareness of the triumphs and struggles of this dynamic and historic area, and be a record for the future at this important moment in Uptown-Pinch’s story.


In addition to Mr. Dowdy, a special thank you to archives of the Memphis Public Libraries’ Memphis and Shelby County Room and the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association’s publication, “Greenlaw Rediscovered: A History,” for their contributions to the early history featured in this piece.

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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.