MempHistory: Pinch District | River City Rising

MempHistory: Pinch District | River City Rising

There has been a renewed sense of hope for concrete plans to revitalize the area of downtown Memphis known as the Pinch District. Renderings, designs and timelines have been discussed and on July 21 there will be a proposed plan presented to Memphis residents. The focus on this area has at times been fleeting but there are many who simply would not give up on the possibilities that exist within this 12-block historical district built up and bordered by hope.


The district’s name “Pinch” refers to the Irish immigrants who settled here, seeking to rebuild after fleeing their native country in the 1800’s due to the potato famine. Their appearance upon arrival, because of the famine, was gauntly and they hence were referenced as “pinchgut” (miserly person[s] who starves himself or others.) In addition to the Irish immigrants, this district was also the first Memphis home to Greek, Italian, Russian and Jewish immigrant communities. Although Memphis was 1,096 miles south of the iconic Statue of Liberty, the words engraved on its bronze plaque applied to this southern city’s immigrants as well:


“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...”


It was in the Pinch District where the tired and poor did in fact huddle together to create new opportunities for themselves and their descendants. It was here where retail stores and delis lined the streets and where The Bell Tavern, believed to be Memphis’ first hotel, was established. North America’s largest Orthodox congregation, The Baron Hirsch Synagogue, purchased its first permanent place of worship in the Pinch District. Though the façade has changed, the mindset of many rooted here has not.


Restaurant owners of Westy’s, Ferraro’s and Alcenia’s have remained unmoved in the face of ongoing uncertainty about their neighborhood’s future. Residents, though at times disappointed by what they see, or don’t see, usually end up back at that square one called hope. After all, they see what starting at square one did for Danny Thomas, founder of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Arguably the world’s greatest pediatric research hospital, it is named after St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes- and borders the Pinch district. They see what starting at square one did for Henry Turley, who purchased 132 acres on a sandbar in the 1980’s and, along with several other Memphians, transformed what was seen as “a gamble” into an award-winning New Urbanist community. This community, Harbor Town, neighbors the Pinch district.


As I await, with hope, the proposed plan for the Pinch District I also lean into these words that have proved so true over the years:


“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.”


The idea of stone washed jeans making a comeback was a joke. Until they made a comeback. I’ve had to explain to a few members of Generation Z that The Karate Kid starring Jaden Smith was actually a follow-up to the original starring Ralph Macchio. Today there’s the Running Man Challenge; twenty years ago we had the Running Man. Now it’s the Pinch District’s turn to be that which it once was. It was a place for new beginnings, a neighborhood for those who had lost their homes but not their heart. It was a 12-block radius of grit and grind, characteristics that drive its rebirth even today.  The Pinch District gave so very much to Memphis and is fully capable of giving so much more.

We simply need not give up on the possibilities.


- CJ Kirkland, @CJ_Kirkland

Memphis Partners

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