Summer Avenue, a six-mile section of US Highway 70, one of the first paved, signed highways in the US, has been known by a number of names over the years — the Broadway of America, Bristol Highway, and most recently, Nations Highway. But for the market owners, restaurateurs, and retail owners in this oral history collection, Memphis is simply home.
In the mid twentieth century, lined with restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and shopping facilities, Summer Avenue reflected the growth of the automobile industry and the consumer needs of travelers. The first Holiday Inn in the United States opened on Summer Avenue in 1952 and when McDonald’s came to Memphis, one of the first locations opened here. The 1960’s brought school desegregation and white flight from Summer Avenue and much of Memphis. And, during the last 50 years, like many other southern cities, the demographics of Memphis changed. Andrew Gattas remembers when his father Fred P. Gattas relocated a second department store location on Summer Avenue in 1970. He witnessed the change firsthand. “All of a sudden you start seeing signs in Spanish that I didn’t notice before,” Gattas recounts. “It’s just like the frog in the pot of water that just keeps getting hotter. Then, all of a sudden, you realize, oh, it’s changed for sure.”
During the last decade, Summer Avenue has increasingly attracted restaurants and other businesses that are owned by merchants from around the world. 40,358 Memphians (out of a total population of 651,932) are foreign born. Since Abdullah Mohammed opened Stone House Market in 2016, he noticed the growing diversity of businesses along Summer Avenue. “On the Shelby Center, it was only me from Middle East,” he remarked. “And there is next to me Tokyo Grill, which is Japanese, and a guy from Iraq invested. And then a lot of people started to move.” The top five countries of origin for Memphis’ foreign-born population are Mexico (14,508), Guatemala (2,489), Honduras (2,309), Vietnam (2,131), and India (1,782). Summer Avenue business owners migrated from these countries and many others including Yemen and Colombia.
The concentration of foreign-born merchants and the presence of restaurants offering cuisine from different parts of the world led to an initiative by the Summer Avenue Merchants Association to brand a section of the avenue as Memphis’ first international district – a move to embrace the community’s diversity, further revitalize the corridor, and make the avenue a destination location. In 2021, the Tennessee Department of Transportation 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 Merchants Association works to inspire more investment in the community, foster a sense of place, and attract new customers and businesses to the area.
When Mirna Garcia, co-owner of Mi Tierra restaurant moved to Memphis in 1995, the Latin American community was small. “There was hardly anything here,” relates Garcia. “There was one or two restaurants. It was a long way to have a Mexican plate, and it was just Mexican.” Regardless of their national origin, narrators have carved out a space to belong on Summer Avenue. Their markets and restaurants provide familiar ingredients, community, and belonging for newcomers to Memphis.