Memphis, one of Fathom’s Top 10 Travel Destinations for 2018, is more than just Elvis and the Blues. The ever-evolving city is merging old and new, tracing its roots in the Civil Rights movement while branching out to new generations of social justice advocates and activists. Want to get swept up in a wave of positive social change? Native Memphian Rachel Knox, Thriving Arts and Culture Program Officer for the Hyde Foundation, encourages you to come on down. We got on the phone with the urban influencer to hear about her favorite hometown happenings (there are many). Consider this your insider guide.
What a great job title. Can you describe what you do?
Basically, the foundation awards grants to organizations innovating in education, livable communities — green spaces, transportation — arts, and culture. We are in the middle of creating Green Print, encouraging bike riding all over Shelby County.
Grant making is really interesting. And the timing around here is, too. There’s a groundswell of new organizations that are doing incredible work and fun things in the community. Opera Memphis, for example, has transformed the way people think about opera in the city. Every summer, they perform 30 Days of Opera in public spaces in every zip code (libraries, playgrounds, parks). They work really hard to introduce people to classic and contemporary operas. I’m excited about a hip-hop opera coming this spring.
What do you love about Memphis right now?
Memphis is all about disrupting industries. That’s our deal. Memphians are very charitable and generous with time and money. People want to fix things and they aren’t afraid to experiment. Legacy is important. Some of the organizations everyone should check out include Collage Dance Collective, who recruit men and young boys to approach ballet from an athletic point of view. (So much toxic masculinity!) The idea is, “Look how strong and incredible and disciplined this is.” They create radical experiences to change daily life. The Center for Southern Literary Art helps fill the literary gap in the city. Two decades ago, the city had a lot of bookstores and conferences. That fell by the wayside, and this organization brings in dynamic authors and writers to speak with high schools, offer fellowships, and start magazines in schools.
What’s the best way to experience the city as a first-time visitor?
You need four days and a car. If you don’t stay at the Madison Hotel or iconic Peabody, stay in an Airbnb in downtown or midtown. If you want to know where the cool things are, do not look at the local paper. The authority on what is happening is the website Choose 901. The Memphis Flyer is a great mix of arts culture and politics. And wearememphis.com will also tell you what’s up. There are a bazillion festivals like Bacon and Bourbon (April/May) and Soulsville Music Festival (near Stax Museum and Aretha’s house). Everyone at Memphis in May competes for BBQ bragging rights (that’s more touristy) and, of course, there’s Memphis Black Restaurant Week.
What’s not to be missed?
Stax Museum. I love that area of town; it’s going through some revitalization. The legacy of who we are and what we’ve done is omnipresent. But I like this area because it has made such an impact on the world of music. Memphis Slim House is across the street.
Do you have a favorite breakfast spot?
Where you go when you need inspiration?
Dixon Gallery and Gardens in the springtime. The museum has tulips in bloom everywhere. It’s off the beaten path and free on Saturday mornings. Rotunda Projects at the Brooks Museum is always changing and great for a cup of coffee and a think.
What’s the new thing everyone’s talking about?
Brooks Museum is moving to the waterfront in a few years. It is an exciting prospect that will be transformative. One of our ballets, Ballet Memphis, just moved into a new space in the arts district (where a lot of arts orgs are housed) in a beautiful facility with lots of studios and classes for kids.
Best spot for people-watching.
Shelby Farms has so many different types of people coming and going. It’s a nice change of scenery too. Down by the riverfront (downtown) and Main Street are good bets.
Let’s say I’m coming to town and you’re picking me up from the airport. Take me on a ride.
I’d pick you up and take you past Clayborn Temple, where Dr. King gave his final speech. Now I Am a Man Plaza is opening next door as a place for reflection. Then we’d go to South Memphis and drive by Aretha’s childhood home. I would be remiss if I didn’t take you by Graceland, then loop back up to Sam Phillips Studio, because the upper floor is unchanged since he left it — it’s all mid-century modern. Then we’d go to Overton Park for a live concert.
Tell us about the most underrated thing in Memphis.
I can’t decide! There are a lot of good things here.
Okay, how about the most overrated?
Graceland. If you are really into Elvis, fine! Mission accomplished. But there’s a lot more soul in other things in this city. It’s certainly not the complete story of Memphis music.
Tell us about some of your favorite local establishments.
First and foremost: Chef Tam’s Underground Cafe for peach cobbler nachos. Memphis has a lot of great eating for a range of prices. Another spot I like is called Scoops Parlor, a creperie and gelato shop. It’s amazing. Everything is locally made and run by a couple: The husband is a firefighter and the wife is a teacher. It’s one of those stories where people are making a profound impact fulfilling their dream, and everyone supports them! 409 South Main FoodHall is good when you’re indecisive: There’s Java Cabana for coffee and Civil Pour for a drink. Upstairs is a place called Magnolia that serves dumplings. The purpose of the space is to create community. There are really large communal tables where people can chat and connect withther Memphians. Everyone is very friendly and the food is delicious. It’s an example of Memphis continuing to grow up as a city.
What is your favorite local icon?
The Peabody ducks are really iconic. No one can explain them, you just gotta go see them. I like it because it shows the quirkiness of the city.
Current local buzz word?
A lot of people, when they are working, are bringing their soul to the work. It’s not just something you are passionate about. It’s like, it has to be done and needs to get done. That’s why Memphians respond strongly to people who are trying to make the city better. We can feel that soulfulness as part of the work.
No trip to Memphis is complete without...
Barbecue. But you can ask ten different Memphians and you will get ten different, passionate answers. Payne’s Barbecue is my pick because it’s so authentic. That is the place — soulful! Real small. Everyone knows you. You’re treated like family. That’s what it’s all about.