I n the wake of a troubling outbreak of youth violence at Poplar Plaza in September, an editorial appeared in our sister publication, the Memphis Flyer, decrying the violence and noting the importance to Memphis not only of the Poplar-and-Highland intersection, site of the upscale Plaza, but of Poplar Avenue itself, characterized as Shelby County’s true “main street.”
The editorial went on to trace the itinerary of Poplar, all the way from the Mississippi River to the Mississippi state line in the southeastern-most corner of the county. An attentive reader, however, pointed out that Poplar did not in fact, as the Flyer editorial had suggested, veer off into Mississippi in tandem with U.S. Highway 72, its partner for much of the way. Rather, said the reader, “our grand boulevard” takes leave of 72 just west of Collierville proper and, after bisecting the breadth of Shelby County’s most rapidly ascendant suburb, becomes synonymous with another thoroughfare, Highway 57, which continues due east in Tennessee. As such, it leads in short order to the environs of both the Shiloh National Battlefield and Pickwick Lake, connecting thereby a veritable glossary of local highlights with other glories elsewhere.
The Flyer and our attentive interlocutor were not alone in praise of, and concern for, Poplar. At a recent legislative forum, Shelby County Commissioner Heidi Shafer vowed to make “rejuvenation” of the avenue’s infrastructure — particularly that stretch of it that lay within her East Memphis bailiwick — a first priority, something that had to happen, Shafer declared, because Poplar Avenue is the veritable “spine” of Shelby County, not to mention its being “a big money producer.” A huge proportion of the county’s taxes are earned from within a half mile north and a half mile south of Poplar, she said. “That’s my love, Poplar Avenue.”
Needless to say, Poplar Avenue is not in the same league as the Fifth Avenue immortalized in Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade,” or for that matter Ocean Boulevard further south in Miami Beach. But it is more versatile than either — equal parts commercial space, highway, parkland, governmental nexus, and prime residential area. Not to mention its being a place of reckoning: The expression “201 Poplar” signifies more to locals than simply a facility downtown that houses courtrooms, law enforcement offices, and detention space; it is shorthand for a place to be avoided, at all costs.
Political weight? The avenue begins in a complex of city, county, state, and federal buildings. Soaring architecture? Clark Tower out east is a proper synecdoche for that. Tony neighborhoods? Chickasaw Gardens and other prime locations embody the realtors’ maxim of “location, location, location.” Restaurants? They run from the most posh (Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Folk’s Folly, half a block up on Mendenhall, are but tips of that iceberg) to the modishly au naturel (within the last year, Whole Foods has doubled its already impressive footprint across much of a city block that also includes the ever-popular Houston’s and the swank Paradiso movie theater). Culture and entertainment? A spot check from west to east gives us — all along the avenue or within that half-mile span cited by Shafer — the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Germantown Performing Arts Center, and much else.
This is not to suggest that Poplar lacks a common touch. Far from it! Along its 30-mile length in Shelby County are to be found convenience stores, shopping malls, modest mom-and-pop storefronts, and every species of fast-food eatery known to mankind, the latter in virtually endless replication. Banks? They vie for the worker’s coin and the capitalist’s purse alike in a myriad of establishments large and small. Places of worship? They are all there. Final resting places, too.
Perhaps nothing stands for the permanence of Poplar in the city’s history and imagination like Overton Park — that antique expanse of some 350 acres which Richard J. Alley of MBQ: Inside Memphis Business (yet another sister publication) described in 2013 as “an oasis among asphalt, concrete, cars, and steel.” The parkland encompasses, as Alley noted, a greensward, Rainbow Lake, formal gardens, Veteran’s Plaza, the 126-acre Old Forest State Natural Area, and an East Parkway picnic area, as well as the aforementioned Brooks, the Levitt Shell, the Memphis College of Art, the Zoo, and a 9-hole golf course, where innumerable citizens, duffers and future pros alike, hazarded their first strokes.
It is part of the city’s pride that not even “progress,” in the form of the I-40 expressway, was allowed to intrude on Overton Park, most particularly not on that portion of the park that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Peter Taylor once described (in “The Old Forest”) as “a densely wooded area which is actually the last surviving bit of primeval forest that once grew right up to the bluffs above the Mississippi River,” containing trees “older than the memory of the earliest white settler.” Had the Park’s boundaries been breached in the 1970s and the city bisected by I-40, Poplar Avenue would have become merely an afterthought, rather than anything like the spine of the city it remains today.
How appropriate, then, that “our grand boulevard,” the embodiment of so much historic memory and current purpose, should itself be named for a tree.