I was driving around downtown Memphis recently, looking at all the new- and fairly new- developments that have opened, such as Carolina Watershed. As I wondered what else was near completion amongst the many ongoing projects in the downtown core, my casual drive led me to the discovery of places that are an important part of Memphis, and Memphis history. They are untouched spaces that, even in the midst of downtown’s rebirth, lend to a richness that makes this part of our city so unique.
For the first time in seven years of living here (most of the time!) I visited Martyrs Park, an accidental discovery during my self-guided downtown tour. It is a beautiful park on the Mississippi River and is dedicated to those who lost their lives while helping Memphians affected by the yellow fever epidemic of 1868. The commemorative plaque reads:
“With some outside help, citizens of all races and walks of life, recognizing their common plight in this devastated, bankrupt community, tended 17,600 sick and buried the dead. As a result many of them lost their lives, becoming martyrs in their service to mankind.”
As a huge proponent of the notion “nothing just happens” it was not coincidental that I would learn about these martyrs shortly after attending the MLK50 commemoration for perhaps the most famous martyr to fight for Memphis citizens’ rights: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It appears that even in the absolute worst of times for our city there were many who believed that better days were possible and they were willing to sacrifice their lives for those possibilities to be realized. Now, people are flocking to the very place where at one time 60% of the population fled for fear of dying.
Downtown Memphis has become home to global companies such as ServiceMaster and AutoZone. The culinary scene is vibrant and full of life thanks to James Beard-nominated chefs at the helm of Catherine & Mary’s and The Gray Canary. Millennials (TIME ranked Memphis “no. 4 among the top 25 cities where millennials are moving”) can walk from their homes to the Memphis Farmer’s Market in the morning and social gathering spots such as Loflin Yard in the evening. Had it not been for those martyrs who are reflected in the sculpture at- and very existence of- Martyrs Park, this city may not be what it is today. I’m certain that some of those 17,600 sick whose lives were saved went on to become successful dreamer s and doers who then passed their successes down through the generations and here we are…a city reborn.
I often reflect on the time I spent living in downtown San Diego when I see all that is transpiring here in Memphis. My husband and I lived in a high rise in the heart of the city; an area, he shared, where just a decade prior no one wanted to visit. We often ate at one of his favorite restaurants, Valentine’s, which has remained a staple in the community, continuing to thrive even as “newness” encompasses its old but welcoming structure. Valentine’s is a neighborhood gem to those who moved downtown following its revitalization and to those who frequented it before the core’s changes took place. I thought of Valentine’s when we left “the new” Carolina Watershed a few weeks ago and stumbled into “the old” Memphis Cash & Carry- right next door.
Had it not been for Carolina Watershed I’m certain I would not now shop at Memphis Cash & Carry, a locally-owned warehouse club (sans the fees) that has been open for the past sixteen years, in the same location, owned by a Memphian named Cello, and has sold products at warehouse prices to area residents and business owners. It was a reminder, just as Valentine’s was and just as Martyrs Park is, that even as we create new spaces that will attract new residents, we should continue to honor those who stuck around through even the worst of times and helped usher in the better times.
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