Even as a mid-sized market, Memphis' downtown and inner city is unexpectedly small and lacking in density. The central business district has retained much of its building stock and has slowly built up over time. But as you move north, south, east or west, the change is dramatic.
Much of the city's downtown has evolved into an unpredictable hodgepodge of surface lots and low-density residential developments (a surprising proportion of it public housing). Memphis has maintained its economic importance thanks to its transportation infrastructure but its growth has failed to improve the urban condition of its core.
Views of Memphis, 1887 to 2011, 'an unpredictable hodgepodge'
The Atlantic Cities has today a fascinating collection of side-by-side then-and-now photographs of Memphis, then being 1887, after the city had lost its charter in the wake of the yellow fever epidemics. There have been some constants over time, including Court Square, which the writer says "still serves as a simple and inviting public space in the center of its historic downtown." Changes for the worse include "consistently inconsistent building patterns" (hulking modern government buildings sandwiching historic Trinity Lutheran Church) and "isolated housing projects" "that fail to integrate themselves into the city's street grid."