Poplar when he looked around and remarked, "This is a terrible city."
But because of a week-long community-design session, the neighborhood is closer to finding itself.
The Intown area, as it's now being called, was competitively selected as the site for this year's Knight Program in Community Building at the University of Miami charrette, sponsored locally by the UrbanArt Commission. Spanning roughly from Danny Thomas to I-240 and North Parkway to south of Poplar, the study area includes Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center, Victorian Village, and Dixie Homes and abuts St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
"We wanted to define three walkable neighborhoods of the medical center and develop each with a main street or central square to achieve district-wide connectivity," said noted new-urbanist and team leader Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Other recommendations included more green space and recreation facilities, a better pedestrian environment, and a more visually defined area.
Rusty Bloodworth, executive vice president at Boyle Investment, is a Knight Fellow and the person who suggested the program look at Memphis.
He says the area probably beat the competition -- namely, an Austin, Texas, neighborhood -- because it has problems that neighborhoods all over the country struggle with, such as an interstate system that cuts through a residential area and a growing medical district trying to co-exist with historic homes.
Even with the problems plaguing the area, the charrette's specific recommendations were fairly simple. Plater-Zyberk called it a "light touch," explaining that "we keep hearing how little money your city has."
But even if the suggestions are not earth-shattering (because, frankly, that gets expensive), they seem to be workable solutions that will pay off in the long run.
"There were thrusts to reinvent Poplar, and there are a lot of ways to do that that are very expensive," said Bloodworth. "The charrette team deliberately chose the simplest means."
After studying Poplar's capacity and traffic flow, the team recommended changing it to four lanes and adding a six-foot center median along with parallel parking and trees lining the sidewalks. The changes would slow traffic, which would make the street more walk-able. (Pedestrians don't like to walk where cars whiz by them -- with an 85 percent chance of death if you get hit by a car going 40 mph, it's not hard to see why.)
And having a more pedestrian-friendly area was one of the dominant themes of the charrette.
Sure, there are a few people walking in the area right now, but they're not exactly whom planners -- or the neighbors -- had in mind.
Intown has a daytime population of 30,000 employees and students from the nearby medical institutions, but most eat in their respective cafeterias. Most don't have a lot of time for lunch, but if half of them could walk somewhere and spend $5 on lunch, it would mean about $18 million a year spent in the neighborhood.
The planners also want to see common characteristics -- the same light fixtures, paving, trees -- to connect and identify the neighborhood, pedestrian-friendly hospital borders, and a unified signage system to direct people to each of the medical facilities.
Could a few trees, more people on the streets, and some signs revitalize a neighborhood? Possibly.
"Hopefully, the first moves of streetscaping will inspire private investment," said Plater-Zyberk. And with over 50 percent of the area vacant, there's room for growth.
But the recommendation that seemed to excite planners the most wasn't on the ground. The idea was to have all the medical institutions in the area -- Le Bonheur, St. Jude, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, the V.A. Medical Center -- build bell towers to give a visual guide to each institution.
"One of the things we were concerned about was wayfinding. How does a sick person get to the building they need?" asked Bloodworth. "The use of towers and elements at the top of the skyline would help define the individual character of the neighborhood."
And if people could see the neighborhood from miles around, there'd be nothing lost about it.