Memphis has traditionally held the title of “Tennessee’s Largest City,” ever since westward expansion post-Civil War brought settlers across the Mississippi River. But that honor changed hands not long ago. Nashville, the state capital, is now 25,000 people greater than Memphis in population. In fact, Memphis actually has fewer residents than it did in 2000!
What is going on here? How can a city decline in population? And which city is the better one, really? Over the next several paragraphs, I’ll give my $0.02 on which city reigns supreme in categories of location, food, museums, parks and gardens, sports, nightlife, and – most important of all – overall livability.
Memphis is situated roughly midway between New Orleans and St. Louis, on the east bank of the Mississippi River. It was this riverfront setting that made the city a major trading center for Antebellum-era slaves, while its close proximity to the state of Mississippi made it the longtime world headquarters for the cotton trade. In fact, the Cotton Exchange, once as powerful as the NYSE, was based in Memphis for years, although today the offices function solely as a museum.
Modern-day Memphis sits along I-40, which travels almost the entirety of the east-west United States, from Wilmington, NC in the east to Barstow, CA in the west. Memphis is also a stone’s throw from I-55, which runs north-south from Chicago to New Orleans. The flat terrain of Memphis and access to two major interstate highways makes the city the ideal base for FedEx, which has its headquarters in the city center and its largest fleet at the city’s Memphis International Airport (MEM), the second-largest cargo airport in the world (#1: Hong Kong – HKK).
Nashville, roughly 200 miles (three hours) east of Memphis by car, is a much hillier city. Its capitol building sits on a bluff overlooking the city, and can be seen from I-40, as can the city’s “Batman” building, the tallest skyscraper in the state and the regional offices for AT&T. Nashville has surpassed Atlanta as the fastest-growing city in the southeast, and the slowest-moving vehicular stretch of the entire I-40 highway corridor is that which runs through Nashville.
The winner: Memphis.
Memphis is famous for its barbecue. There are two styles: “wet” and “dry.” Wet can be found at casual dining chains like Corky’s, which is above average for what is essentially glorified fast food…while dry-rub ribs, saltier and less messy, are the item of choice at my favorite Tennessee restaurant, Rendezvous. For a smooth adult beverage, try Ghost River Ale, brewed locally.
Nashville has become famous in recent years for hot chicken. Think fried chicken battered with spicy sauce. I haven’t spent as much time in Nashville as I have in Memphis, but I *can* say that its most popular hot chicken eatery, Hattie B’s, is worth the long wait in line. For a tasty side dish, try the mac-and-cheese.
The winner: Memphis.
Memphis and Nashville are quite evenly split when it comes to museums. Both cities are home to several decades of music history. Memphis’s Civil Rights struggles, meanwhile, are as well documented as Nashville’s political roller coaster is.
Memphis is home to Sun Studios and Stax Records. The former is both a museum and a still-functioning recording venue where legends such as Elvis Presley (whose Graceland mansion is just south of the city) and Johnny Cash laid down their earliest hits. The latter, which now exists as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, was where Otis Redding and other soul/R&B greats got their starts; the Stax house band Booker T. and the M.G.’s still tours today. Nashville, not to be outdone, hosts the excellent Johnny Cash Museum as well as the Country Music Hall of Fame, which resembles a piano from the outside, as you can see from the picture below:
The (in)famous Lorraine Motel, where the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was cut short by an assassin’s bullet, still stands in Memphis, but it no longer houses overnight guests. Instead, it is part of the National Civil Rights Museum, an engrossing learning center for tolerance education. I will go so far as to say that the National Civil Rights Museum is arguably the best museum of any kind in the southern United States. Mississippi River life is profiled in wonderful, for-all-ages detail at the Mud Island Museum, built on a natural spit of land on the river itself, a short monorail ride from downtown Memphis. It is while touring this museum that you can see why Memphis was once – and, alas, should still be – the most important transportation and commercial artery in the nation.
You can spend several hours at the Tennessee State Museum, which occupies three crowded basement levels of an nondescript downtown Nashville high rise. Exhibits trace the lives of Cherokee and other Native Americans who lived off this land long before the white man, and the galleries explore, chronologically as you descend to the lower levels, the divisiveness of the Civil War, the legacies of the state’s three Tennesseans-turned-presidents – Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, and James K. Polk – and the rise of a modern state, beginning in 1897 with the city’s role as host of the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition. Speaking of presidents, the Hermitage, 10 miles east of downtown Nashville on over 1,100 acres of land, is the preserved Antebellum residence – and final resting place – of seventh U.S. president Andrew Jackson. A visit to the Hermitage is time well spent.
The winner: a draw.
Parks and Gardens
Neither Memphis nor Nashville are known for their close proximity to nature. That being said, both cities have their share of green spaces. Those in Memphis, such as Shelby Park, lie east of downtown, while the hills that comprise southern Nashville make up a sort of greenbelt all its own.
The Memphis Botanic Gardens are among the best of their kind in the world. Their 96 acres comprise a lakeside swath of Audubon Park, and the Japanese and Children’s Gardens are especially pristine. Almost directly across the street, Dixon Gallery and Gardens are home to an additional 17 acres of gardens, these featuring rotating sculpture art. The on-site museum was closed for a private event during my visit last summer, but is said to house a collection of Monets, Manets and other Old World Masters. In Nashville, Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art, located in the wealthy hills south of “ring road” Old Hickory Boulevard, is where you’ll find 55 privately-owned acres of landscaped gardens, as well as a museum of indoor art similar to what Dixon Gallery has on display. Pride of place goes to rotating garden art, such as the giant Jaume Pensa heads seen below:
The Mississippi and Cumberland riverfronts in the heart of each city have a series of small parks and green spaces. Memphis features Beale Street Landing, a long-delayed viewpoint over the muddy Mississippi. Here, you can rent segues, splash in fountains, and take paddlewheel river tours (summer only). Nashville’s Riverfront Park, which starts and stops along both sides of the Cumberland River as it negotiates bridges and railroad tracks, is a great place for a sunset stroll, while the adjacent Ascend Amphitheater hosts has-been and up-and-coming entertainers; September’s lineup includes Boyz II Men and Joan Jett.
The aforementioned Shelby Park, in eastern Memphis, is a sprawling expanse of farmland with jogging, cycling, and equestrian paths. I have yet to find Nashville’s equivalent. Memphis ultimately gets the edge in this category, however, as urbanites will seldom get a better workout than by spending a day walking around the Memphis Zoo. I once read in a Lonely Planet guidebook that “all zoos are animal prisons,” but I would consider Memphis Zoo, one of the best in the world, to be something of an exception to those impassioned words.
The winner: Memphis.
This is a tough one. Memphis hosts the Grizzlies, of NBA basketball fame. They were originally an expansion team based out of Vancouver, but relocated to Memphis in 2001. The Grizzlies are perennially awful, though they’ve played better ball in recent years than during their first 10 seasons. They originally played – briefly – at the Pyramid, but moved to the FedEx Forum following its opening in 2004. The FedEx Forum is also home to the University of Memphis NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball, and that team, the Tigers, often draws larger crowds than the Grizzlies themselves!
A few blocks up the road from the Forum, AutoZone Park is home to Memphis Redbirds, the Minor League, AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals (hence the team name). Their intimate stadium, in the heart of downtown, is like a smaller version of Oriole Park in Baltimore, and is nicer than many major league stadiums. Nashville, which has its own AAA team, the Sounds, also boasts the College World Series-winning Vanderbilt Commodores.
Nashville does not have an NBA team, but it does have the Tennessee Titans, a ranked-dead-last NFL team that fared better when they were the Houston Oilers. Their venue, Nissan Stadium, boasts a spectacular setting along the Cumberland River, directly across from downtown Nashville. “Nash Vegas” also has the Predators, an NHL expansion team. How a southern city can support a professional hockey team is anyone’s guess, but the Predators have been post-season contenders every year since as least 2010-11.
The winner: Nashville.
Memphis boasts the world-famous Beale Street, featured in movies such as “The Firm” and known for having three consecutive blocks of eating and drinking establishments. BB King’s and Blues City Cafe are just two of many. Aside from Beale Street, however, Memphis nightlife is practically nonexistent, and even Beale Street really only hops on weekends and during the summer.
Nashville has its own Beale Street equivalent: Broadway. Rather than blues clubs, honky tonk is the name of the game here. But Nashville nightlife thrives in other quadrants of the city as well. East Nashville’s “5 Points” area hosts several uppity bars, and college kids won’t have to stumble far from their Vanderbilt University dorms, west of downtown, to find some suds.
The winner: Nashville.
In a way, the “which city is better” question comes down to one deciding factor: which city is more livable?
On the surface, Memphis and Nashville seem well-matched. Memphis has a huge international airport, abuts two U.S. states (Arkansas and Mississippi), and is at the crossroads of two of the most important interstate highways in the country. Although its property tax is a bit steep at 3.4% of 25% of the appraised value of your home (confused yet?), general home mortgages are affordable on even a modest salary of, say, $60,000/year. Nashville, on the other hand, has prices to match its rapid population growth. Nashville residents must also contend with heavier traffic, higher fuel prices, and greater precipitation (though it – like Memphis – seldom receives snow).
But Nashville is growing, while Memphis is losing people by the thousands. That, ultimately, is very telling. The nightly news in Memphis is filled with depressing stories about gang violence, and Memphis often feels like an angry city. A visit to Nashville, on the other hand, fills me with a sense of hope. What is happening in Memphis? Is the local government corrupt or merely incompetent? Are the city’s tax dollars carelessly spent, or is someone skimming from the top? Is it, dare I say, racial tension? Memphis still has a lot to offer the recreational visitor, including several world class museums and the best barbecue in the country, but I sure wouldn’t want to live there. While Nashville is on track to become the Chicago of the southeast (I’ll consider that to be a good thing), if Memphis continues on its present course, it is sadly destined to become the next Detroit.
The winner: Nashville!
Have you ever visited Memphis or Nashville? If so, which city is your favorite?