Keeping It Real 

As part of a Leadership Memphis panel about a year ago, I was asked some questions: What makes Memphis different? What can contribute to our city's success? And what is authentic about Memphis?

I thought about these three questions again after I heard that Target wanted to open in Midtown. Then, as now, I think the answers are intertwined.

Right before I moved to Memphis, I spent a short time in Austin. Dotcom was still very much a bubble. Austin was being called the next Silicon Valley and there was a commonly reported statistic that 100 new cars were moving to Austin daily. But aside from the local music scene and the incredibly gringo pronunciations of Spanish-named streets, there wasn't an abundance of authentic local flavor. How could there be? People were flocking in droves to the city, and corporations from all over the country were opening store after store to serve those consumers. At the core of Austin, there was something wonderful, but as I drove around, I got the sense that it was being plastered over by Wal-Marts and Targets and other big-box - and not so big-box - retailers.

I'm not saying the big boxes are necessarily bad (and if I said I didn't shop them, I would be lying through my teeth). However, I think most American cities are going through a similar identity crisis. As each local mom 'n' pop gets bulldozed, a bit of Gotham rises up in its place.

But if the bare bones of a city are its buildings, ours haven't been broken. Just think of all the businesses in Midtown that operate out of renovated houses, or the downtown warehouses converted to lofts.

In many ways, Memphis has escaped urban homogenization. This is due in part, I would assume, to the amount of poverty here. When Home Depot opened in Midtown last year, the U.S. home-improvement market was about 80 percent saturated. The company had already announced it was expanding to China to find new markets.

I don't like to read too much into things, but how attractive is the Memphis market if we're in the last 20 percent of the country to be developed? And - just barely - ahead of China?

We could lament being left behind (and I know I have) but our authentic nature is as much an asset as a curse - no matter how it happened. It seems as though everything comes in a virtual version now.

Which is why authenticity matters so much. I think it's safe to say we have an authentic music scene, rooted both in Elvis and Al Kapone, among others. And it doesn't have a lot of street cred because it's not "art," but we also have a certain authenticity in our retail and restaurants (the upside of being ignored by national companies is fewer barriers for local retailers entering the marketplace).

What we have is real. It wasn't test-marketed in four major cities and then imported here. And that authenticity sets Memphis apart and can be used as a selling point. I don't think it's a coincidence that several movies have been shot near South Main. No matter what Craig Brewer or Linn Sitler do (and it's a lot of work, I know), you can't sell something you don't have.

I think Memphis - and the surrounding area - is a place with heart and soul. It's scrappy; it's exciting; and it's strange, but it's down to earth. I hope that we can keep growing, but I hope we don't lose ourselves along the way.

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