“Come to Memphis. Learn the lay of the land.” I received this invitation and nugget of advice during one of my first job interviews, in March 1991. I was graduating from college in Boston two months later and considering a move to the South, to my father’s hometown. The straightforward wisdom was that of Memphis magazine publisher Ken Neill. He didn’t hire me. I moved to Memphis anyway.
The lay of the land I came to know best over my first year in Memphis was Harbor Town, the extraordinary (even then) development on the north end of the horribly named (even then) Mud Island. My dad had grown up in Memphis with Henry Turley, and he had told me his fraternity brother was doing some significant things in Memphis. (As Robert Moses did “some significant things” in New York City.) I bought a few ties, shined my two pairs of dress shoes and reported to Harbor Town as an office assistant in their sales center. This was not a glamorous job, but the setting? Off the charts.
My only perk was a key to the golf cart that allowed me to cruise the tree-lined streets — Harbor Isle Circle, River Mist Lane — from one block of new homes to another. Immense mansions along River Park Drive, gazing over the Mississippi River as though they’d stood sentry there for decades. Smaller town homes, aligned with inspiration from Charleston or Savannah.
I took a special liking to the houses along Harbor Isle Circle, on Harbor Town’s southeast. The view across the Wolf River harbor at the shiny, then-new Pyramid somehow combined antiquity with a dose of modernity for a city that seemed ready to embrace both. Every home, regardless of size or location, came equipped with that most Southern of features: a front porch.
I came to know many of the pioneers who brought Henry’s vision to life, builders like Dan Rambo, Greer Collins, and the late Ben Reisman, whose shotgun homes on the site’s northeast corner seemed to make Harbor Town affordable, even to a 22-year-old gofer in a golf cart. Architect Carson Looney was a regular in the sales office, meeting with Henry or the sales team — led by Annette Sharp — to plan the next eye-opening residence, and to the last, distinctive detail.
Among my many duties was opening a home for visitors — potential buyers — when agents like Annette were with other clients. (Traffic got busy on weekends. I missed a lot of football games.) Whether my guests were new to the city or had lived in Germantown for twenty years, they had the same look in their eyes upon entering a Harbor Town home for the first time: “This . . . is Memphis?”
This magazine’s publisher hired me away in May 1992 and has been my boss ever since. Persistence — and a reference from Henry Turley — finally kick-started my career as a journalist. (Henry would not have reached the heights he has if he couldn’t distinguish between a rising real-estate star and a mere scribe.) From my new vantage point downtown, I’ve witnessed Harbor Town’s continued growth as this city’s front porch to the world. What was a field of wind-blown grass in 1991 is now a retail center (behind the former sales office, now a meeting venue), complete with a fine boutique hotel and restaurants, law offices, a health clinic, and of course, Miss Cordelia’s, the grocery story named in honor of Henry’s mother. Two schools are part of the Harbor Town mix, adding the sight and sound of children to help complete a community that, were it not so real, might come across as a movie set.
This September issue is special to me, a celebration not just of Harbor Town’s twenty-fifth anniversary, but of my very first year in Memphis. So if you haven’t taken a Sunday drive through Harbor Town recently, make time to do so. Silver anniversaries are worthy of a salute, especially when celebrating such a milestone in a place that feels so timeless.
I’ve always liked the fact Harbor Town and the man who made it all happen share the same initials. Like Henry Turley, Harbor Town is indeed the very best of Memphis.