History of the Memphis DNA

It was 37 years ago that a band of residents decided to form a neighborhood association. Not that unusual an idea, except there were only three places to live Downtown: 99 Tower built in 1968 (now Renaisance Apts), Timpani Building, a co-op built in 1975 by 4 young downtown enthusiasts, who lived there for more than 30 years, and River Row Condominiums built in 1978. The entire population was less than 200 people.  At that time, we didn't have the Peabody Hotel, FedEx Forum, AutoZone Park, The Memphis Pyramid, the Riverwalk, Trolleys, and much more!  

The neighborhood association became official when it registered with the state as a non-profit in 1981. Within a year, another five residences joined those original three residences, and the population doubled. It set a momentum that has never stopped and neither has the Downtown Neighborhood Association. 

In those early days, just as today, DNA was there to say “hold up, let’s do this instead” or “that needs to be changed”. Imagine what might have happened if DNA hadn’t said “hold up” to a large, rowdy night club that wanted to take up a block near the Orpheum, or the adult entertainment place that thought “no one cares about Downtown, we’ll go there!” Boy, were they surprised when DNA got involved to stop them. And DNA didn’t just halt at stopping one club; they changed the laws and ordinances that would protect the neighborhood from future threats of that kind.

And it wasn’t just threats, sometimes things needed to change just for progress to occur. The first couple to buy a building in South Main were told they couldn’t stay there because of zoning. They had to go to city hall and register as the night watchmen for their building in order to sleep there. It took a while, but by working with DNA, that zoning got changed. That couple formed the foundation for the Arts District you know today. 


In the late-80s and early 90s when the groundwork was being laid for the downtown we know today, DNA was there. By that time (thanks to stellar leadership) DNA was being recognized as a group to pay attention to. When DNA spoke, people listened. It became the “Voice of Downtown.” 

Almost no project was initiated without asking for DNA’s input. That included the trolley. MATA wanted to put big, noisy diesel buses right outside the doors of major residences. DNA joined a group that was proposing electric trolleys instead of buses—and the rest is history. 

The Bluff walk was another project that was changed due to DNA member input. The plan proposed a suspension walkway that protruded out from the bluff. It was not very attractive and made for a place for less than desirable things to happen underneath. The plan was changed to the beautiful and well-functioning bluff walk we have today. 

It wasn’t always big projects that got DNA’s attention. There were times DNA’s voice was needed to help out our fellow residents. For instance there was a long-time downtown restaurant that wanted to build a rooftop deck to showcase music. The only problem was that a small condo unit had been built across from the restaurant the year before. The nine condo owners asked that the deck not be built because of the noise it would create. They were getting nowhere. They asked DNA to help. DNA intervened and the rooftop deck was scratched. It set the precedence for businesses and residents working together downtown. 


Today the DNA is a flourishing community organization with nearly 200 individual members and dozens of business members from across downtown. The organization is a mix of young and old, local and new-to-Memphis, long-time member and brand new DNA-er. DNA provides lots of opportunities for members to stay engaged and influence Downtown issues.

Each month, DNA hosts a membership meeting at a local business and invites a city leader to come speak and answer questions. DNA also distributes a monthly newsletter, Up on Downtown, with the latest news and events to make sure members know what's happening in their community. DNA leaders and members also serve on the boards of other downtown organizations of influence to amplify member voice. Of course it's not all serious business - DNA also promotes a vibrant social community through fun events and monthly happy hours. 

DNA has evolved and grown over the last four decades, but has remained true to its founding intent: to build a true and vibrant neighborhood downtown. Today the DNA still sponsors programs and activities that promote the quality of life of Downtown Memphis and safeguard the unique ambiance of our neighborhood.

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