The Soul of Memphis

Despite setbacks, the Mississippi River city has held onto its rollicking blues joints, smokin’ barbecue and welcoming, can-do spirit

A throbbing two-block entertainment district is all that is left of old Beale Street, most of which was razed in urban renewal schemes. (Lucian Perkins)
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“Anyone here from the Show-Me State?” Ms. Nickki asked the crowd between songs. A 40-ish woman in a low-cut dress raised her hand.

“You look like a show-me girl!” Ms. Nickki said, to raucous laughter. Then she piped up: “I was born in Missouri, ’cross the line from Arkansas / Didn’t have no money, so I got in trouble with the law.”

Actually, Ms. Nickki was born in 1972 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, like the emcee had said. Nicole Whitlock is her real name, and she didn’t even like the blues when she was growing up. “My real taste of the blues came after I got to Memphis,” she told me. “Back home, we were church folks—gospel, gospel, gospel.”


Henry Turley’s office is in the historic Cotton Exchange Building at Union Avenue and Front Street, once known as Cotton Row. Turley told me a high percentage of the nation’s cotton trading still takes place in Memphis, and the traders have the same damn-the-torpedoes attitude that gave Memphis so much of its character through the years.

“They’re wild and free, and they do what the hell they want to do,” Turley said. “A lot of these cotton guys, they’re mad gamblers, you know, betting on cotton futures with money they never dreamed they had, leveraging things at a huge multiple.”

Turley describes himself and his approach to real estate development in more modest terms. “I have small ideas,” he said. “I tend to think those are better ideas, and I tend to think that they become large ideas if they’re replicated in discrete and different ways, sufficiently. My small idea is to create neighborhoods where life is better, and richer, and more interesting and just more fulfilling for the people who choose to live there.”

Turley seems to know everybody in Memphis—from the mayor to the musicians and the street people. It’s impossible to drive around with him without stopping every block or so for another friendly exchange.

“Hey, you’re lookin’ good, man,” he called out to a young black homeowner in Uptown who’d been ailing the last time they spoke. Within the next five minutes, they swapped spider-bite remedies, Turley dispensed some real estate advice, and the man passed on a suggestion about putting more trash cans in the neighborhood.

“I knew a guy who once said to me, ‘You know, Memphis is one of the few real places in America,’” Turley said. “‘Everything else is just a shopping center.’ He’s right. Memphis is a real place.”


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