That was the title that scholar James C. Cobb gave to his sweeping 1992 history of the Mississippi Delta. His is a claim that’s difficult to dispute, given the Delta’s distinctive geography, its racial dynamics, its truly checkered past, and its dynamic musical heritage. And since the Delta does indeed begin in the lobby of The Peabody Hotel, as journalist David Cohn famously wrote in 1935, Memphis can correctly consider itself very much a part of this most distinctive of American regions.
Perhaps that’s why Memphis just might be the most Southern city on earth as well. No other major metropolitan area in the country, for example, can claim to be more racially diverse or divided (depending on your perspective) as the Memphis SMA, with almost exactly half of its population being African-American. That single statistic quite literally colors everything we do, from politics to pop culture, from recreation to religion. We are a city unlike any other.
Memphis looks different in other ways as well. Given the fact that it grew relatively slowly during the second half of the twentieth century, our city has retained — for better and worse — more of a distinctively Southern look than most of its peers. Atlanta’s midtown area was largely obliterated during that city’s skyscraper-building boom; our own pre-World War II Midtown survives more or less intact, while our downtown — where only three or four high-rises have been built since 1970 — has a unique mid-century skyline. Nashville and Birmingham’s skylines better resemble those of Des Moines and Indianapolis. And while New Orleans certainly looks Southern, the millions of tourists who descend annually upon the “Disney World for Adults” that the Crescent City has become put that city in a world all its own.
Whatever about our differences, then, we Memphians can all take comfort from the fact that we are decidedly different, and can lay legitimate claim to that “Most Southern City on Earth” title. Indeed, we were thinking along these lines last year when we came up with the idea of putting together an annual “Culture Issue” of Memphis magazine, whose purpose was simply to celebrate all things “Memphis-y.”
We like to think last year’s Culture Issue was a success, and we’ve beefed up this year’s by placing "Wind Gap," the winning entry in our annual short-story competition within this June’s edition. For over twenty years, Memphis magazine has been sponsoring this fiction contest designed to encourage and foster good writing throughout the Mid-South. Special thanks to senior editor Marilyn Sadler, who has administered the program since its inception, and congratulations to this year’s winner, Courtney Miller Santo.
Please take note that, aside from this column, there’s not a single bit of pontification in this issue as to what it means to be a Memphian. We deliberately have avoided making any kind of definitive statement as to what Memphis culture is all about, but instead simply tried to let “who we are” speak for itself within these pages.
Our task is simply to put on the table something of a smorgasbord of all things Memphis, hoping there’s at least something in this issue to satisfy every appetite. Enjoy!