On a map, Poplar Avenue looks like a bent jackstraw tossed along the east-west axis of Memphis. Along with parallel streets Central and North Parkway/Walnut Grove, it forms the "Poplar corridor," a swath of mostly middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods that extends to the Germantown border.
The corridor has proven immune to the suburban flight and neighborhood decline that has plagued much of the rest of the city. Housing prices and neighborhoods are stable. Many businesses have thrived in the same location for years. So why do some neighborhoods endure while others decline?
The tendency in Memphis is to attribute every socioeconomic trend to race. In this case, I don't think that answer works. In the west half of the corridor — Harbor Town, downtown, and Midtown — there is lots of racial diversity. Most corridor public schools are thriving — Central High at one end and White Station and Ridgeway at the other — and they are racially mixed. So why does the corridor work?
I'm no expert, but since I did stay at a Holiday Inn Select last night, I offer a few reasons I think are legitimate.
Anchors: A look at the map of the corridor shows several major hospitals, five colleges, and numerous private, parochial, and public schools.
Amenities: Three museums, five theaters, several movie houses, four golf courses, Overton Park, dozens of independent restaurants and small businesses, boutiques, grocery stores, banks, etc. within walking distance or a short drive.
Diversity: A mix of ages, from college students to young families to seniors; a variety of ethnicities and "genders."
Housing: Lots of apartments, condos, and traditional homes in a wide variety of sizes and prices to suit a broad range of income levels.
In short, there are two models of the future Memphis sitting before our eyes: One is "mall and sprawl," with its perpetual road-building and stretching of government services and tax dollars, followed by the inevitable decline of mall-based neighborhoods. The other is sustainability — ensuring that existing neighborhoods have anchors and amenities and schools that provide livability and reasons to stay.
The choices we in Memphis make in the next few years will create the city and county of the future. Do we want more Poplar Corridor-type neighborhoods or more Cordovas? Do we want to sustain and grow or sprawl and die? Ask your local mayoral candidates where they stand.