A little more than 100 years ago, a budding city in west Tennessee won a state-legislated bid within the region to bring a teacher's college to the outskirts of the city.
Memphis, Tenn., known as the River City, was given the opportunity to house The West Tennessee Normal School in 1909. The school was a portion of a state-wide grant that also developed universities in Johnson City and Murfreesboro, respectively.
The West Tennessee Normal School was initially constructed on land that was previously used as a sweet potato farm, but its opportunistic location and proximity to the country's largest railway made it the ideal choice for the upcoming school.
'The railroad was hugely important and had a major influence on the decision on where to build the college," said Memphis historian Jimmy Ogle. "During its hayday, the railroad had three different stops in the district and was used to both carry goods and people alike... easily helping Memphis get the school."
Initially, the school was limited to a teaching degree and was contained within a few buildings. It was built on an 80 acre tract of land and serviced a total of 200 students. Though the current campus has far outgrown its initial state and demolished much of the original architecture, Minders Hall and the Administration Building both stand as monuments to the initial 1912 construction, Ogle said.
According to Memphis Heritage, the land became annexed into the city of Memphis in 1929 as the school developed an identity and integrated with the Bluff City. Only 30 years after the University broke ground, it had expanded in size with an enrollment of 1100 students in 11 buildings. In 1941, the school changed its name to Memphis State College.
As the school expanded, so did the area. Farming land turned into residential neighborhoods, commercial space was built and occupied and students, veterans and families gave life to the blossoming University District.
"In the 1940s, the hospital treated over 44,000 patients," Ogle said. "Kennedy Hospital, was a huge boost to the area and saw over 40,000 wounded soldiers between 1942-1945."
Some of these patients went on to purchase property in the area further expanding the size of the surrounding neighborhoods. When the hospital was shut down, the land was bought out by the school and exists today as the University of Memphis' south campus.
During this same time, commercial space became more common. Highland became the district’s commercial street and housed many important Memphis businesses including Park Theatre, Buntyn Restaurant and the country’s first Danver’s, Ogle said.
In 1957, the school gained University status and changed its named accordingly. In the next 15 years, it would progress both internally and socially by offering doctoral degrees and admitting African American students. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the school experienced its most remarkable growth leading to upward of more than 20,000 students enrolled—a statistic that has become the standard of today.
Though the area has seen many benefits from the existence of the school, it is not without issues or concerns. In the time since its inception, the school has grown in such a way to usurp the space of neighborhoods, digesting the land and re-purposing its own ends. Though this has been praised as positive for the school and thus the city, residents of the University District have butted heads with the school on personal property.
According to Memphis Heritage, a plan to change zoning in apartments in 1985 along Norriswood and Watauga Avenues left many residents feeling the school had priority over the area and caused neighborhood associations to lash out and critique the school's policy for consuming its surrounding area.
The constant potential that the school would take over an area of residential space has also negatively affected neighborhoods. The school has stated its wishes to expand westward towards Highland Street.
Though the school has purchased many of the properties immediately west of campus, there are still properties of private landowners who have little to no intention of upkeep as the houses will eventually be destroyed for school property regardless. The result of which is that many of these properties are far behind on maintenance and outwardly look worn, putting a negative connotation on how the U of M affects its surrounding.
"I park on Watauga and it's not an attractive street," said music composition student Chase Mitchusson. "Aside from the frat houses that always have trash out front, the houses seem decrepit and run down."
Regardless of its haphazard negative impacts, the university stands strong in its presence, having celebrated its centennial just two years ago. As the years have gone by, its existence has been crucial to development of the area and will continue to do so for the prolonged future.