I know I'm hardly the first person to make this observation about Memphis in the past few weeks, but I gotta say it: Something is going on, and this city is on a bona fide tear. And it feels good.
Never one to be accused of being overly optimistic, I can't stop feeling like Memphis is on the brink of something very cool.
Or maybe we're in the middle of something very cool. Either way, I hope it lasts.
Last week, producers and correspondents from NBC's Today show were in town for the third time in just a couple of months. Yes, some of them were reporting on the flood, but not all of them. One producer had been here in the spring to do a special piece on the Stax Music Academy and Stax Museum (where I work), and while they were here they had lunch at Alcenia's, the cool little soul-food restaurant owned by BJ Chester-Tamayo on North Main Street. They fell in love with it, and with her, and had New York on the phone within minutes suggesting they come back and cover her. And they did. Then they came back again for another story and visited Alcenia's, coincidentally, on the day the Today show piece aired.
It was a madhouse. The producer was on the restaurant's phone fielding calls and cookbook orders from all over the country, while the cameraman was helping mop the floors. All of this because Tamayo was just too busy getting food out to the packed house.
Oh, and by the way, the Today show crew had to stay in Marion, Arkansas, because they couldn't get a hotel room in Memphis. Even the Roulhac Mansion Bed & Breakfast on McLemore Avenue (which has been repaved and now has bike lanes) was full.
The next morning, I was at the Cooper-Young Farmers Market talking with some Jamaican vegan chefs about the Urban Farmers Market going on at the same time at Broad and Tillman, near the new mural commissioned by Bob Loeb of Loeb Properties and painted by French artist Guillaume Alby. The Cooper-Young Farmers Market is just blocks away from the first in a series of "I Love Memphis" murals being created by the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, UrbanArts Commission, some volunteer artists, and others. There should be 10 more murals by mid-summer.
Oh, and while I was at the Cooper-Young Farmers Market, I ran into a friend who said she wasn't going to hit the Downtown Farmers Market that morning, because she didn't have time to search for a place to park. It has been that crowded, and the real summer crops aren't even in yet.
I drove down there, anyway, indeed had to park a little farther away than usual, and got to see the new expansion. It was packed, the line to get coffee was long, there was an Irish band playing, and I was behind a mother speaking Italian to her children. When I left, I drove down Front Street, and there was a crowd of about 50 people waiting in line to get a table at Gus's Fried Chicken.
The next morning I had to be at work at the Stax Museum because MTV's Spike TV was here filming a travel show at locations all over Memphis, including Soulsville.
This is not even taking into consideration the massive crowds for Memphis in May's Beale Street Music Festival in Tom Lee Park before it got waterlogged. It started on a Friday night a couple of weeks earlier — the same night as a Grizzlies playoff game, a Redbirds game, the South Main Trolley Tour, and an already packed Beale Street.
And all of this is without even going into the swell of pride every single person in this city should be feeling about President Obama choosing Booker T. Washington High School to visit and deliver the commencement address. And the Grizzlies coming so, so close to making it to the NBA's Final Four.
Some of you who are close to my age understand why this is all so great. But for those of you who didn't experience downtown in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there's a reason to grab hold of this feeling and run with it. Back then, there was no downtown Memphis to speak of. There were a handful of restaurants, an empty shell of a Peabody hotel, no Harbor Town, no South Main Arts District, no open clubs on Beale Street, hardly any bars, barely any live music, no trolley cars, no arenas, no nothing. It was a dark hole. It's amazing to me what is going on now. I think there's a secret in some of the murals.
More about that in the weeks to come.