The 6-mile mid-city stretch known as Summer Avenue has been the home to hundreds of local shops and restaurants over the years. In 1952, the first Holiday Inn in the United States was placed on Summer, at the corner of Mendenhall. The first McDonald’s in Memphis was on Summer Avenue, where you could get a hamburger for fifteen cents. They have both since been demolished.
The Malco Summer-Drive In is one of the few drive-in movie theaters left in the U.S. Almost anyone growing up in the Memphis area in the 70s and 80s can remember bowling at Imperial Lanes or skating at Skateland. Summer Avenue has had many names throughout time: A.W Willis, Highway 70, Bristol Highway, The Highway of America, and now most recently known as Nations Highway. Since the creation of Summer Avenue, the ethnic diversity of this area has grown significantly.
The history of Summer Avenue runs deep, and although it may not all be beautiful, it has created a place for merchants from around the world to plant their roots in Memphis.
The 1960s began the integration of Memphis City Schools. This led to white flight – large-scale migration of white people from areas becoming more racially or ethnoculturally diverse. Taylor Wright, who has lived in Berclair for as long as she can remember, said she remembered conversations her family would have during this time.
“People in Memphis were not as open and accepting to this change as you would think,” she recalled. “I remember it seemed like every other day someone was moving out of our neighborhood, no one wanted to be there… It was very sad for me to see even as a little girl. My parents constantly talked about the changes going on around us, and I remember it went downhill for a while. Stores were closing all around Summer, but things finally started to pick back up.”
Wright was correct, things did begin to pick back up. So much so that the Summer Avenue Merchants Association (SAMA) named Summer Avenue as the first international district of Memphis. In 2019, 6.2% (nearly 40,400 out of 651,000) of the Memphis population were foreign-born. Since then, the number of businesses owned by merchants of other nations on Summer Avenue has grown significantly. Mexican, Israeli, Greek, Chinese, Salvadorian, Japanese and Vietnamese are just a few of the different types of cuisine you can find on Summer Avenue. Raed Radwen, owner of Jerusalem Market and Restaurant on Summer, reflected on the growth in diversity of business of Summer Avenue.
“There were not many of us at first. I remember it being us, a Japanese restaurant and a small Mexican place. I never thought it would look the way it does now… Very different from before.”
Jessica Yager, a frequent visitor to Summer Avenue, said she started to notice more diversity in the businesses on Summer very quickly.
“I come here all of the time, my job is right down the road and, if you know Summer, you know that you will find some good food down here… Well I just started seeing signs on the doors in different languages. Some were in Spanish, some in Arabic… I liked that Memphis was starting to be a place for everybody. That’s why I love Summer Avenue.. People can say what they want, yeah it’s not always perfect, but most of these people are just really good people, man.”
The Tennessee Department of Transportation, in 2021, awarded an urban transportation grant to the City of Memphis’ Division of Planning and Development to develop a Complete Streets Plan to help guide Summer Avenue’s future development. The sound of construction can be heard as you drive down Summer today, as many changes are being made along the avenue. The well-known Memphis potholes are being filled and crosswalks are being put in place.
Junior, a man who often walks the streets of Summer Avenue, says this will be a big help to him. “Listen, we live in Memphis, you know folks don’t pay attention when they drive. I’m homeless so I gotta cross the street all the time and it’s just too much having to worry about other people. So yeah I’m glad they are gonna put something out here to keep me from getting hit. It’ll help. It’ll help.”
Taylor Wright says she hopes the construction will help bring more people out to Summer. “It is no secret that Summer Avenue isn’t the most beautiful place in Memphis, and that’s okay. But everybody has to end up somewhere, and this is where I’m at. The people here work hard and put their all into what they do. They deserve the recognition, they deserve to be packed like all the restaurants you see downtown. I hope more improvements start to happen here because it could turn out to be a really great thing.
“What’s that saying? There’s someone for everyone? Well there’s some place for everyone too, and this is mine,” Wright said with a giggle.
Hanging from the light poles down Summer Avenue, flags from different countries can be seen lining the sidewalk. These flags signify the diversity and inclusion that has taken place in this community over the years. The Summer Avenue Merchants Association says it is called “Nations Highway” for a reason.
Despite the unflattering elements of Summer, there is something beautiful about people from all around the world coming together to support one another through all the adversity Summer Avenue and its merchants have faced throughout time.
“You hear people say things all the time about Summer. They say it’s run down, there’s too much crime, there’s nothing but strip clubs and liquor stores, but at the end of the day that’s not true. Those are all over Memphis, not just here,” Yager said. “You have people out here working and doing all they can to make this place better, and until the whole city of Memphis pours into the communities that need the support most, of course things won’t change. Support your local businesses, and if you want Memphis to be a better place, go show your love to the people who are trying to make it one.”