Is Memphis a City Stuck In The Past?

Late night on the strip at Beale Street, Photo source:

‘Of all places, why did you come to Memphis?!’

‘Umm, free school (Duh).’

Thanks to a gentleman by the name of David Queck, I earned a scholarship to compete and study at the University of Memphis.

During my tenure, this was a common question I found myself inundated with as a foreigner trying to navigate their way through the enclave of Tennessee’s second-largest city.

Memphis is a city brimming with a rich history. You will find the Downtown Beale St. area plastered with tributes to Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Memphis-style BBQ, Blues Music, and the Civil Rights Movement. Although these iconic images invoked an impression of uniqueness and pride, it was also shrouded with an unsettling feeling of obsoleteness.

As a proud British-Nigerian hailing from a small town in Surrey, United Kingdom, I observed the dynamics of the city from an objective lens and began asking myself the pressing question;

Is Memphis a city stuck in the past?

Rather than celebrating its history, is it desperately clinging to the good ‘ole times?

In recent years, Nashville has since surpassed the once-thriving blue-music capital, to become Tennessee’s epicenter for business, technology, education, arts, and entertainment.

Nicknamed the “Athens of The South”, Nashville is home to more than 300 health-care companies, including the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) and the prestigious Vanderbilt University and Medical Centre. Its healthcare industry contributes over $30 billion per year and 200,000 jobs in the city’s greater economy area.

It should come as no surprise that the nation’s №1 city for ‘Economic Growth Potential’ is luring precocious talents away from neighboring cities and into its own Broadway show.

And it is working as people from Memphis are flocking over to Nashville in droves.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 30,000 people have left Memphis between 2010 and 2017 — which equates to roughly 357 people each month.

We have since many great cities in the US fall into obscurity due to outmigration. Could this be the impending doom for a city like Memphis?

Let’s take a look.

5 Reasons Why Memphis Is NOT Stuck In The Past;

№1: Tiger Football

Only in the US would you find that a good football team connotes to a successful program, as it often boosts the notoriety of its respective city.

NCAA sports generate billions of dollars in revenue, which in turn drives funding for most academic institutions. While I do have my reservations about the issues underlying collegiate sports, it’s a customary fact that college football does breed culture and has a tremendous influence on the local economy.

Since 2015, the Liberty Bowl has been a fortress for the Memphis Tigers and the team has perennially featured in the nationally renowned AP College Football Top 25 Rankings.

The most notable performances occurred last year when ESPN College GameDay came to Beale Street to watch the Tiger notch an emphatic win over the undefeated SMU Mustangs. I was there to witness the victory send shockwaves across Memphis, demonstrating the power sports have to galvanize the heart of an entire city.

Coupled with its dominance on the field, UofM recently achieved its highest ever placing in the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings for top public universities. The program slotted in at №126 and is the №2 -ranked public university in Tennessee.

Memphis is indeed climbing!

№2: Fred Smith and His Planes

From drawing up the initial concepts in his term paper, as an exceptional graduate student at Yale Business School, Fred Smith’s tenacity has seen FedEx pioneer a delivery system that has revolutionized the logistics industry.

For 47 years, FedEx has proudly headquartered in Bluff City. Along with its sponsorship of the FedEx Forum, the logistic powerhouse has poured millions into the city over the years, and Fred is not showing signs of slowing down any time soon.

A $1.5 billion modernization project to expand its primary hub was announced in March 2018. Set to be completed in 2025, the mission has significant job creation opportunities and reflects FedEx’s continued support to the city.

If that’s not enough, FedEx has partnered with the UofM global department to launch the LiFE Program that offers its employees a pathway to higher education with little-to-no tuition cost.

It will take continuous effort from big players like FedEx, AutoZone, and International Paper to pull the city in a progressive direction.

‘Set your house in order before you criticize the world’

— Jordan Peterson

№3: Battling Blight

Although the best-selling author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’ was referring to the internal turmoil we face as humans trying to figure out the thing called ‘life’, this message does take precedence here.

A friend of mine once described Memphis as a checkerboard. While one street is filled with blighted houses, the next street over has some of the nicest neighborhood you’ve ever seen.

Just like Checkers!

Blight deters investors, who look to pool their resources into more stable metropolitan areas, like Nashville. Consequently, Residents will leave in search of greener pastures, Memphis will shrink even further, thus cementing its status as a relic of the past.

Not to fret, several non-profit organizations backed by the Memphis Affordable Housing Trust Fund have taken up arms to combat the issue of blighted homes all around Memphis.

The campaign will not occur overnight but should ignite a new lease of life into a once-thriving community.

№4: The Digital Sphere

Technology has become interwoven into our way of life. There is more readily available data now than ever before. Cities that leverage the use of data for the benefit of their constituents have a distinct advantage over those that do not.

‘In my kingdom, you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place’

— The Red Queen

If effective measures are not taken to educate your citizens about the importance of technology in the modern era, then you WILL most certainly be left behind.

Thankfully, there are startup tech companies in Memphis like Tech901, Preteckt, and Dev/Con Detect ushering the city’s charge into the digital sphere.

Tech901 was founded by community developers to facilitates IT business growth in Memphis, through recruitment and training a pipeline of highly-skilled individuals to fill positions in this growing sector.

We only need to look at the clamoring need to gather, interpret, and analyze data, during this pandemic to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Tech is important, but even more so is Memphis’ effort to respect the zeitgeist and foster the IT prowess of future generations.

№5: Straight GRIT and GRIND

History is littered with examples of cities that displayed unparalleled resilience and determination in the face of unprecedented adversity. The US bombed Tokyo and other major Japanese cities in World War II, crippling its economy. Decades later, Tokyo bounced back and became a key global player in the industry of electronics and automobiles.

So, a global pandemic? Economic downturn?

Pfft! GRIT and GRIND are the lifeblood of the city and are traits that embody what it truly means to be a Memphian.

It embodies me!

Only a select few know the true depth of the challenges I faced to get to Memphis. After leaving secondary school, I found myself trapped in a barren space for four-years without a glimmer of hope. I demonstrated true grit, bit down on my mouthpiece, and landed in a place where a new beginning was possible. Memphis!

So in truth, I will not belittle it down to “Free education, duh!”. While others may view Memphis as being stuck in the past, to me it was a glimpse into a better future.

A coming of age.

Memphis is NOT stuck. It is a place prominent with history but also teeming with opportunity, talent, and the willpower to achieve something truly special. I truly believe it can take back the mantle from Nashville. But first, someone needs to have a conversation with Mayor Jim Strickland about filling those potholes.



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Olushola Olojo

Olushola Olojo

Combatting Poverty & Bridging Inequality