I moved to Memphis during the Carter Administration, an interesting time to plunk oneself down in a city that’s always seemed to mix hope and despair in just about equal proportions. Not for nothing is our town known as “the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock-and-roll.” The rocking and rolling sometimes makes us all feel a bit seasick. In 1977, when I first got here, the King assassination still loomed large in our civic rear-view mirror, a view confirmed by a largely abandoned downtown, strained race relations, fire and police strikes on the immediate horizon, and a general sense in all quarters that we as a city were going nowhere fast. The New York Times famously labeled Memphis as “the dark spot on the Sun Belt”; a newcomer like me found it difficult to argue with that gloomy diagnosis, especially when the other King up and died just two days after I moved here. But a few things were stirring in 1977, happily, that would make a considerable difference in this city’s future. The Belz family had purchased the closed Peabody Hotel on Union, and had already begun work on that landmark’s renovation. Just north of downtown, a remarkable children’s hospital had been taking shape for over a decade, thanks to an equally remarkable entertainer who had made a special bargain with St. Jude. And in a few nondescript buildings along Airways Boulevard, a handful of visionaries were plotting a grand future for their fledgling, four-year-old air-freight company called Federal Express. A few years earlier, with historic Beale Street in near ruins, five dynamic and half-crazy young entrepreneurs in Midtown decided to celebrate “liquor by the drink” by turning a quiet intersection called Overton Square into the city’s major entertainment district. That was in 1970; when I arrived seven years later, the Square, with its music clubs and fern-bar restaurants, was a box-office success, the bright spot on that “dark spot,” as it were.
In retrospect, it’s quite clear that the original Overton Square was very much a victim of its own success. Its founders had shown that all was not doom and gloom in Memphis, and that sentiment was more than a little contagious.
By 1990, redevelopment efforts were in full swing downtown, and Beale Street was well on its way to becoming the big attraction it is today. Throw in the building of the Pyramid and AutoZone Park, no end of residential construction, and by 2000, no one could dispute that downtown was “back.” The NBA Vancouver Grizzlies’ decision to move to Memphis that year became the cherry on top of the downtown sundae.
The biggest loser in all this was, ironically, Overton Square. Midtown’s once-hip neighborhood found itself consigned slowly but surely to the dustbin of history.
“In retrospect, it’s quite clear that the original Overton Square was very much a victim of its own success.”
But help was on the way. Commercial developer Bob Loeb, along with his brother Lou, remember the heyday of the Square; that’s where they grew up, so to speak, which helps explain why it’s a place for which the Loebs have always had a “sentimental attraction,” as Bob told Marilyn Sadler in this month’s cover story.
Over the past few years, Overton Square’s revival has become something of a mission for the Loebs and their company. Clearly 2014 will be remembered as the year that that mission was accomplished. Drive through the Square late on a Friday afternoon now, and you’ll be astonished at the transformation that has occurred without most of us even noticing. Not only has the old 1970s-1980s entertainment district recaptured the rapture; the new Overton Square is a grander and fuller reiteration of what it once was, now reflecting a wide variety of entertainment dimensions that the original square itself never possessed.
That’s why the selection of Bob Loeb as this magazine’s 2014 “Memphian of the Year” was something of a no-brainer for our editorial staff. In many ways, Loeb’s achievements echo those of another community visionary, Henry Turley, whose seminal Harbor Town residential development downtown celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this year. Let’s all hope we have lots of Loebs and Turleys in Memphis’ civic future.