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25 Things You Should Know About Memphis

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Between Elvis lore and pulled pork cookouts, Tennessee’s biggest city has a lot to offer. Why not prepare for your next visit with some southern-fried Memphis trivia? 

1. Andrew Jackson is regarded as one of the city’s founders. In 1819, Old Hickory teamed up with two other land speculators (judge John Overton and General James Winchester) to establish Memphis as a hotspot for commerce. Its beginnings were humble—the place initially consisted of nothing but a fort, a trading post, and a handful of cabins.

2. It’s named after Memphis, Egypt, which served as that civilization's ancient capital until Alexandria took over the role sometime around 320 BCE.   

3. The 1862 Naval Battle of Memphis pitted two Union fleets against a lone Confederate one. Each of the three was commanded by an officer with no prior experience in river-based warfare. Even more incredibly, two of those men lacked any sort of military experience whatsoever.

4. Meat-lovers recognize four primary BBQ styles: North Carolina, Kansas City, Texas, and (of course) Memphis. In western Tennessee, barbecue chefs relish a distinctive and rather sweet sauce. This topping exposes Memphis for the major port it’s always been—while cooks in other southern cities used whatever local ingredients they could find, early Memphians could have choicer ones shipped up or down the Mississippi. Thus, molasses became a popular cornerstone in Tennessee BBQ sauce.

 


5.
 Robert R. Church Park was created by (and named after) one of America’s first black millionaires. The former slave bought a huge chunk of land near Beale Street in 1899. A grand community center for African-Americans, the park boasted an auditorium with over 2000 seats that Church personally financed. 

6. Mark Twain once called Memphis the “Good Samaritan City of the Mississippi.” Nowadays, it usually goes by such nicknames as “Bluff City,” “Hoop City,” and “The Home of the Blues.”

7. One of 1912’s biggest hits, “Memphis Blues” by W.C. Handy, was the first commercially successful blues song ever written. Handy based the tune on a campaign jingle that was used by Memphian mayoral candidate Edward Crump.

8. Congress officially recognized Beale Street as the “Home of the Blues” in 1977. Given that every icon from Louis Armstrong to Muddy Waters to B.B. King performed there at some point, the choice was a no-brainer. 

 

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9. 
We can all thank an unemployed bear for Memphis’ world-class zoo. Like many baseball clubs, the now-defunct Memphis Turtles used a live mascot, frightening home crowds with an ursid named “Natch.” A gift from businessman A.B. Carrathers, Natch’s career didn’t last long and he was promptly returned. Unable to accommodate the beast at his home, Carrathers chained him to a tree in Overton Park. Soon, a number of other unwanted pets joined him there. This prompted Col. Robert Galloway—who headed the parks commission—to request funding for a zoo in 1906.

10. Once upon a time, American shoppers couldn’t peruse grocery aisles for themselves. Instead, customers had to give their lists to their grocers who’d then turn around and gather the items. Enter Piggly Wiggly, the nation’s first self-service grocery store. After the original outlet opened in Memphis on September 6, 1916, it became a widespread chain.

11. Often regarded as the first rock 'n' roll record ever made, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston was produced at the historic Sun Records Studio (a.k.a. “Sun Studios”) on Union Street in 1951. The establishment then became a hit-generating machine, churning out smash singles such as “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins, “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” In 1960, it closed its doors, finally re-opening nearly three decades later after the necessary renovations were complete.

12. Back in 1953, Sun Studios would let any passerby record an album for $3.98 plus tax. That summer, a teenage trucker from Mississippi walked in and made one for his mother’s birthday. Present at the session was studio founder Sam Phillips, who was largely unimpressed by this greenhorn singer. His secretary, however, heard something she liked and, at her recommendation, the artist was invited back for a second session on July 5, 1954. Five hours in, he dazzled Phillips with a little song called “That’s All Right.” And thus began the meteoric rise of one Elvis Aaron Presley.

 

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13.
 Johnny Cash worked in town as a door-to-door appliance salesman before his music career took off.

14. After retiring from showbiz, the original MGM lion was moved to the Memphis Zoo, where he passed away in 1944.

15. The last home that Elvis ever owned is now a prime tourist magnet. Every year, Graceland is the second most-visited private home in America, trailing only the White House.

16. By the way, Graceland’s name has nothing to do with The King. Originally, the property belonged to S.E. Toof, a newspaper publisher who named it after his daughter, Grace. Presley bought the place in 1957 and never re-branded it. 

17. The former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968, has been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum

18. If you check out the famous Orpheum Theater, be wary of the mezzanine’s northern side. Rumor has it that “Mary”—the shoeless ghost of a 12-year-old girl—can often be seen enjoying shows from seat C-5.

19. Several prominent celebrities hail from Memphis, including Morgan Freeman, who was born there on June 1, 1937.

20. The city's annual Cooper-Young festival attracts over 130,000 people every year. Visitors can enjoy live music, art sales, and an ocean of craft beer.

21. When gazing at the city skyline, one building sticks out like an ancient sore thumb. The modern re-imagining of Egypt’s architectural wonders, the famed Memphis Pyramid, was built in 1991. Originally conceived as an indoor sports venue, it’s now a hotel and Bass Pro Shops megastore. Inside, visitors can hitch a ride on America’s tallest freestanding elevator, which stands 320 feet tall and stops at 28 floors.

 


22.
 In 2012, Justin Timberlake became a minority owner of his hometown Memphis Grizzlies. Beforehand, Bluff City’s favorite son occasionally rocked Lakers gear. Awkward.

23. The University of Memphis’ athletic teams are known as the Tigers. In 2012, to honor the school’s centennial, 100 differently-painted tiger statues (including one whose design was modeled after Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”) were displayed on campus. If you’re in the mood for an adventure, know that most of them are now viewable at various locations around town. 

24. FedEx—a company that ships up to 22 million packages per day—has been headquartered there since 1973.

25. Memphis is home to the most spoiled ducks on planet earth. Bluff City’s ritziest five-star hotel is an establishment called “The Peabody.” In 1932, manager Frank Schutt and his hunting buddy decided to amuse the customers by placing five live ducks in the lobby’s water fountain. Schutt’s guests adored these feathered friends, and today the Peabody is the home of an all-new flock. The birds mostly while away their days inside a $200,000 duck penthouse. However, every day at 11 a.m., they’re escorted by an impeccably-dressed employee down to the Italian marble fountain for a six-hour swim.

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Germany Wants to Fight Air Pollution With Free Public Transit
Michael Gottschalk, AFP/Getty Images
Michael Gottschalk, AFP/Getty Images

Getting people out of their cars is an essential part of combating climate change. By one estimate, getting people to ditch their two-car household for just one car and a public transit commute could save up to 30 percent in carbon dioxide emissions [PDF]. But how do you convince commuters to take the train or the bus? In Germany, the answer may be making all public transit free, according to The Local.

According to a letter from three of Germany's government ministers to the European Union Environment Commissioner, in 2018, Germany will test free public transit in five western German cities, including Bonn. Germany has failed to meet EU air pollution limits for several years, and has been warned that it could face heavy fines if the country doesn't clean up its air. In a report from 2017, the European Environment Agency estimated that 80,767 premature deaths in Germany in 2014 were due to air pollution.

City officials in the regions where free transport will be tested say there may be some difficulty getting ahold of enough electric buses to support the increase in ridership, though, and their systems will likely need more trains and bus lines to make the plan work.

Germany isn't the first to test out free public transportation, though it may be the first to do it on a nation-wide level. The Estonian capital of Tallinn tried in 2013, with less-than-stellar results. Ridership didn't surge as high as expected—one study found that the elimination of fares only resulted in a 1.2 percent increase in demand for service. And that doesn't necessarily mean that those new riders were jumping out of their cars, since those who would otherwise bike or walk might take the opportunity to hop on the bus more often if they don't have to load a transit card.

Transportation isn't prohibitively expensive in Germany, and Germans already ride public transit at much higher rates than people do in the U.S. In Berlin, it costs about $4 a ride—more expensive than a ride in Paris or Madrid but about what you'd pay in Geneva, and cheaper than the lowest fare in London. And there are already discounts for kids, students, and the elderly. While that doesn't necessarily mean making public transit free isn't worth it, it does mean that eliminating fares might not make the huge dent in car emissions that the government hopes it will.

What could bring in more riders? Improving existing service. According to research on transportation ridership, doing things like improving waits and transfer times bring in far more new riders than reducing fares. As one study puts it, "This seldom happens, however, since transport managers often cannot resist the idea of reducing passenger fares even though the practice is known to have less impact on ridership."

The same study notes that increasing the prices of other modes of transit (say, making road tolls and parking fees higher to make driving the more expensive choice) is a more effective way of forcing people out of their cars and onto trains and buses. But that tends to be more unpopular than just giving people free bus passes.

[h/t The Local]

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