During a late-afternoon thunderstorm in August, one of our senior editors — yes, that would be me — drove up and down Madison, Cooper, Union, Peabody, Central, and smaller side streets in Midtown with a legal pad and a pen. Computers and Google can be mighty handy, but sometimes you just have to just get out and gather the information you need. Even though the rain was coming down so hard I could barely see across the street, I took a legal pad and scribbled together a list of every single thing that a visitor could possibly see or do in the Overton Square and Cooper-Young areas.
The result: some 270 different establishments — far more than I expected. That included places that provide, dispense, or sell anything and everything from yogurt to yoga, medicine to metalwork, along with murals, churches, a public park, the famous train trestle, and even a giant eyeball (painted not real).
The point of this task? I wanted to take a closer look at Cooper Street, which for years has linked two of our city’s “hottest” entertainment districts. Some of our longtime readers remember Overton Square in the 1970s, when it had so many shops that it was possible to do all your Christmas shopping at the intersection of Cooper and Madison. I know this to be true, because I did it year after year (the Book Cottage will always be a favorite memory, along with John Simmons’ Swings).
Afterwards, I could mingle with my fellow shoppers at Friday’s, stroll the streets during the “Dickens Christmas” celebrations, and watch the ice-skaters in the rink set up on Madison, as snow-blowing machines transformed Overton Square into a winter wonderland.
Now we don’t blame all that ice and snow, but Overton Square began to cool off. The charming shops moved away, and the skating rink closed, along with landmarks like Burkle’s Bakery. Then Friday’s. Then Paulette’s. The exodus, it seemed, had begun.
Meanwhile, it seems all the energy had moved a mile south. Cooper-Young, mostly known as a residential neighborhood, began to attract the young crowds that had apparently deserted Overton Square. I clearly remember the first time I dropped a quarter into the “Elvis Shrine” outside Java Cabana, and stepped inside to enjoy the quirky coffee shop atmosphere (and aroma) — the same kind of special charm that had captured my senses in the old shops at Overton Square.
And so, for me and so many Memphians, it became a “fact”: Cooper-Young was alive, Overton Square was dead.
It’s true that the Square many of us remember was clutching at the edge of the grave, with plans for big-box grocery stores, parking lots, and other developments that would have obliterated the special “feel” of Overton Square. But then Loeb Properties stepped in, with lots of good ideas and money and energy, and it looks like Overton Square is on its way back. If you don’t believe us, just walk around there on a Saturday evening.
But that doesn’t mean Cooper-Young is on the decline. It’s not an either/or situation. As my rainy drive showed, an astonishing number of businesses are thriving in both areas, and it’s not fair to regard these as separate districts anymore. The entire length of Cooper Street, and all the side streets branching off it, has evolved into the heart of Midtown.
A word about our cover. If it seems familiar, you may remember the famous New Yorker cover designed by Saul Steinberg in 1976, depicting New York City as the centerpiece of North America. We borrowed the concept, modified it just a bit, and applied it to Midtown.
My meandering drive in the rainstorm provided the names of more than 270 businesses. Space prevents us from including all of them here, but we hope our guide on pages 47-59 shows that the Cooper Street Revival is well under way, with plenty to see and do along what we like to call Midtown’s “Magic Mile.”