Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The city went broke in the 1870s. A look at how the Memphis of today compares with this low point
The latter half of the 19th century was a big era for Memphis, Tennessee. Located along the Mississippi at a relatively high elevation, its nearly flood-proof geography made it an important transportation hub, particularly for the slave trade. Besides the river access, it boasted the only east-west railroad in the Confederate States at the time of the Civil War.
The Union claimed Memphis back quickly in 1862 and used it as a supply base. In the 1870s, multiple yellow fever outbreaks consumed the city, killing many and forcing others to flee. By the end of the decade, the tax base became so depleted that the city could not pay its municipal bonds. It ceased to be a city in 1878, only regaining its charter in 1893.
We decided to pull sections from this 1887 map to see how much has changed in Memphis' downtown since those hectic times. Today, the city is still a key transportation hub, hosting the world's second busiest cargo airport and a series of interstates in addition to its railroad and river access.
As transportation methods improved, steamboats became less common along the Mississippi. On the bottom left, we see the tail end of "Mud Island", a peninsula that was developed in the early 1980s.
Facing Mud Island is one of the more iconic structures in Memphis, The Pyramid. Built in 1991, it is already seen as obsolete and has seen many redevelopment ideas fail to materialize. Bass Pro Shops is currently targeting it for a new store. 125 years ago, the site served as a rail terminus, allowing goods to come to and from the Mississippi River.
The FedEx Forum is mostly responsible for The Pyramid's demise. This arena hosts the city's NBA team and most large events. Despite its size and parking demands, its disturbance to the city's street grid is minimal. Steps from the famous Beale Street, a vibrant entertainment district has been established. Compared with the 1887 image, you can tell this section of the city has historically maintained its density over time.
This section of downtown, previously dominated by rail infrastructure and related services has none remaining besides a streetcar route. Since its busier days, a collection of isolated housing projects have formed that fail to integrate themselves into the city's street grid. A pseudo-Corbusien elevated pedestrian area can be seen in the center of the current-era image.
Court Square has remained a constant over time. It still serves as a simple and inviting public space in the center of its historic downtown.
Sandwiched in-between two imposing late-modernist structures rests a Trinity Lutheran church. An odd mix that adds to Memphis' consistently inconsistent building patterns.
Directly north of Interstate 40, Memphis becomes a collection of surface lots and an unexpected, no-frills collection of art-related facilities and restaurants. Despite its hidden gems, this area fails to match up to the vibrant collection of structures it once hosted.
Even as a mid-sized market, Memphis' downtown and inner city is unexpectedly small and lacking in density. The central business district has retained much of its building stock and has slowly built up over time. But as you move north, south, east or west, the change is dramatic.
Much of the city's downtown has evolved into an unpredictable hodgepodge of surface lots and low-density residential developments (a surprising proportion of it public housing). Memphis has maintained its economic importance thanks to its transportation infrastructure but its growth has failed to improve the urban condition of its core.