5 Star Stories: Downtown Memphis alleyways turned into neighborhood spaces

Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 10:36 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - While most of us look to official landmarks to commemorate history, seminal moments in all urban cities also take place in other unlikely places.

Urban planners in Memphis and beyond are now recognizing the importance of our country’s alleyways. One of those uniquely Memphis spaces is a downtown Memphis maze called The Artery.

In the days of yore, communities used alleyways to discard trash. As the years passed, they became critical access points for firefighters and utility companies. In the modern days of new urbanism, cities have turned some of these hidden pathways into neighborhood spaces and Memphis is one of those forward-thinking cities.

“Our alleyways connect people,” explained Downtown Memphis Commission President Paul Young. “We’ve been able to preserve some very difficult-to-reimagine spaces and so, preserving that history is really important. We preserve it through the structures, but we also preserve it by telling the story through art.”

Young says, in 2017, the commission enlisted the help of local artists to activate key alleyways with murals, lighting, and music.

“When we can pull people through our alleyways, it makes things safer, because you have more people, and it makes it attractive and it makes it interesting, and we believe it shows the character of our city,” he said.

The four alleyways called The Artery showcase both the city and its artists, like Jamond Bullock, whose creation graces Maggie H. Isabel Alleyway.

“Adding bright color changes the mood of something that’s in a dark space, and also makes it more inviting,” said Bullock.

Downtown tour guide Robert Montgomery uncovered the history behind this downtown Memphis labyrinth.

“The backs of the buildings remain relatively unchanged,” he pointed out. The most famous, of course, is Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous Alley, named for the world-famous restaurant founder.

“In the basement of a building, he started slow-smoking these ribs and he started tweaking the seasoning a little, bit by little bit, using the old coal chute to let the smoke out of there,” explained Montgomery.

Seventy-three years later, the Rendezvous chimney serves as a BBQ beacon for locals and tourists alike to an alleyway running north-south between Monroe and Union avenues.

“[The alley] just adds to its mystique a little bit,” said Rendezvous Manager Anna Blair. “You come in an alley and then you go down into a basement to eat barbecue. It’s just a Memphis thing. I don’t think there’s anything else like it.”

Intersecting Rendezvous Alley is General Washburn’s Escape Alley. Montgomery says the alley got its name after Confederate cavalrymen, who were hunting union generals in Memphis, rode into the lobby of the then Gayoso House Hotel where Washburn was staying.

“General Washburn heard the commotion going on outside. He jumped out of the window of his hotel room and ran down the alleyway to escape the Confederate forces,” he added.

Cross over Monroe Avenue along Rendezvous Alley and The Artery turns into Maggie H. Isabel Street that got the name from a push by downtown’s white-collar workers.

“Maggie H. Isabel was a seamstress in downtown Memphis for years, and years, and years,” said Montgomery.

The alley has a display window where the city shows artwork beneath the Madison Avenue pocket park. Around the bend from Maggie H. Isbel Alley is Stereo Alley, which has gone through official and unofficial name changes.

“Before it received a traditional name, it was referred to as Whiskey Chute Alley because of all the bars and saloons that were located along it.”

It’s called Stereo Alley because it’s where you’d hear the tunes of radio station KLYX in the 1960s.

There are also many alleys worth mentioning outside The Artery. The alley, uniquely named, November 6, 1934 Street runs east-west between Second and Main streets, marking a historic vote.

“When Memphis plugged into the TVA as our power source,” explained Montgomery.

Eighty-seven years later, the vote still sticks.

Another noted alleyway outside The Artery is Barboro Alley, running east-west from Wagner Place to B.B. King Boulevard. It’s named after Italian immigrant and health care hero Anthony Sebastian Barbaro.

“In 1878, when Memphis was hit by the terrible plague of Yellow Fever, he turned one of his grocery warehouses into a makeshift hospital,” said Montgomery.

There’s also Floyd Alley, on the edge of “he Artery, that runs along the east side of Paula & Raiford’s Disco. Two Memphis College of Art students had Robert Raiford in mind when they came up with the colorful creation painted as a tribute to Raiford’s vibrance and impact on downtown Memphis.

Center Lane is perhaps the longest alleyway dotting the landscape north and south, from West Court Avenue to South Main Street, serving up shortcuts through the heart of the city.

“Why walk a block, when you can walk half a block?” asked Montgomery.

With many more alleyways outside The Artery and many more stories of Memphis’ hidden history, urban planners hope their efforts to date to put a finishing touch on these unsuspecting treasures go a long way.

“We have a vibrant downtown with a lot of cool places to go,” said Young. “It’s important to mark the history because that’s what we are.”

Click here for more Downtown Memphis Commission projects in the works to elevate Memphis’ downtown area.

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