Downtown Duo

Share a week with one prominent couple, and the vast neighborhood they've come to love.

Cynthia Ham and Jeff Sanford have been married for 16 years, a relationship roughly half as long as their respective bonds to downtown Memphis. As president of the Center City Commission (CCC) since 1998, Sanford has managed to harmonize his lifestyle — virtually 24 hours a day downtown — with his career. And it would hardly be an exaggeration to say Ham has been an eyewitness to the reshaping of downtown over the last quarter century. From her days as the first marketing director for Mud Island to her current role as chief PR Officer for archer>malmo, Ham has made downtown Memphis her life's canvas. Stand on the balcony of the couple's blufftop home and you get a sense of the dynamic colors — the brushstrokes, you might say — that have come to make downtown life so glorious.>>>sanford describes bike rides to Tom Lee Park in the mid-Eighties — when he first lived downtown, in a high-rise apartment – as nothing short of spiritual. "I was at a conference in St. Louis [in April] attended by professionals from downtown organizations based in other river towns," says Sanford. "They asked me what I attribute to the sudden interest in living in downtown Memphis. I would like to say it's a result of good planning, or the result of economic incentives we've offered developers. But in the end, I only had one answer to give: It's due to the Mississippi River. There's a magnetism, an allure to that river, and even if you don't have a direct view, you're just a few blocks away. Once you've seen a sunset on the river, you don't want to go home anywhere else."

Among the joys of living downtown for Ham and Sanford is the amount of green space — quiet space — that remains despite the rapid pace of development. Whether it's the immense riverside parks both north and south of downtown, or a more hidden sanctuary, downtown's 24-hour buzz can be softened when need be. "There are so many wonderful ways to escape," says Sanford, "including the Bluffwalk. Places to walk or bike. Martyr's Park is a real treasure, particularly in the early morning. You may even see a fox or two."

Ham describes her childhood (in Park-way Village) as one where she was simply unaware of the river's magic and the pull it has for so many who have fallen in love with downtown Memphis. "There really wasn't good access," she explains, "and we were more concentrated on Main Street and the mall. You just didn't have a sense of the river.

"When Mud Island opened [in 1982], it really served an important purpose, that of an anchor. It was animated, interesting, and different. It turned people's attention back toward the river."

Before joining archer>malmo in 1997, Ham spent a decade as the director of Memphis in May, a series of events that added to the allure of the Mississippi — and downtown — in ways shops and restaurants could not. "Before Memphis in May, our citizens had literally and figuratively turned their backs on the river," says Ham. "When we started having the barbecue contest and the Sunset Symphony down on the river, it was the first time Memphians really got a sense of place. Aha, this is what we're all about. I feel a real connection to that river."

After living in Midtown the first eight years of their marriage, Sanford and Ham moved into a downtown condominium in 2000. Three years later, they discovered their current palace — actually a duplex — overlooking Tom Lee Park.

The hub of their home — three floors over 3,600 square feet that they share with their beloved Shih tzus, Bluff and Samba — is the ground-level living room, surrounded by windows that bring the river and a healthy dose of sunlight into the house. With a kitchen that opens into the room, this has become a central living area not only for the residents, but for guests, be they a crowd large (for Memphis in May events) or small (an impromptu business meeting). With balconies off the second-floor master bedroom as well as the third-floor entertainment room, Ham and Sanford have managed to marry tranquility with the frenetic pace of downtown life.

"There's a peacefulness here," says Ham. "We get the best of both worlds. It's sort of resort-like when I look west, but when I walk out my door, it's this urban area."

Sanford emphasizes an ironic, small-town charm to the six-and-a-half square miles that encompass downtown (an area that includes Harbor Town and the medical center). "I was born in Denver," explains Sanford, "and grew up in a relatively small town in Iowa. A downtown area — particularly in a city the size of Memphis — is really like living in a small town. There are now approximately 28,000 people living in downtown Memphis. That's a smaller town than I grew up in.

"The lifestyle is so manageable. What attracted us to downtown — beyond the beauty and symbolism of the river — is the lifestyle. It's gotten to be almost resort-like. I can hop on a trolley outside my front door and go to a ballgame, go to a concert, go to a restaurant, visit friends. Or I can walk."

Adds Ham, "Because we've been able to define a life for ourselves downtown, because of the manageability, we tend to stay downtown where that is contained, and easy. We have more time to do the things we enjoy, because we don't have any waste. We're not commuting for 30 minutes, getting stuck in traffic jams. Miss Cordelia's is a great little grocery store. And if I want to go to Schnucks [in Midtown], it's [a short drive]."

Ham relishes being within walking distance from her office at Front and Union to her home. "I find that the line between where I work and where I play is more blurred," she says. "If I'm burned out at the office, and I really need to focus on a business proposal, then I can run home and work on it . . . and not feel like I've abandoned my office." Ham goes so far as to host staff meetings at her house. "We need to be off-campus sometimes," she notes. "Why rent a conference room somewhere when we can go to my house, and enjoy the view with peace and quiet."

Sanford pinches himself now and then, having built a career that so smoothly reflects his affinity for downtown life. With his office across a plaza — and trolley tracks — from city hall and a short walk from federal, state, and county headquarters, he's able to reach out quite literally to the region's power brokers for the attention and priority he feels downtown deserves. (Merely hours before our interview in late April, Sanford was in county mayor A C Wharton's office.) "Never in my wildest dreams," says Sanford, "did I imagine having an opportunity to participate professionally in [downtown's development] the way I have the last 10 years."

And even after several years downtown, Sanford notes a sense of novelty, discovery even. "I was recently touring the Lincoln American Tower," he explains, "and from the view I had, I saw a park — Court Square — in a way I'd never seen. The views are different and new, from every angle of downtown. The river is new, as well, every day."

Ham emphasizes an intangible quality that brings downtown to life around the clock. "There's a different energy down here," she says. "Downtown has a youthful energy. You run into people in bars, in restaurants. In Midtown, it's more of a laid-back energy.

"And I feel more diversity downtown, because of the density. If you look at any great waterfront city in the world — from Sydney, Australia, to San Francisco — there's density. There's nothing wrong with density. It's what brings vibrancy, and interaction between people."

This is not merely the energy of boundless youth, though. Sanford notes that a recent study shows more than 40 percent of downtown residents are over the age of 45. "We equate diversity," notes Sanford, "with cosmopolitan. And by that we mean not just racial diversity, but age and gender diversity. Downtown is the 'big city' part of our community. [Cynthia and I] enjoy the energy of being at the heart of downtown."

Skeptics remain, of course, which is where Sanford's day job comes into play. Independent of city or county government, the CCC aims to promote and build on downtown's virtues, an effort that often requires merely an introduction. "I still run into people who are unfamiliar with the changes downtown," says Sanford. "I invite people to come downtown and look around. Downtown sells itself.

"It's as much about redefining downtown as an asset to the community as it is about redeveloping. What downtown Memphis was 10 years ago — or 50 years ago — it will never be again. Times have changed. People come tell me they remember when their mother used to take them to sit on Santa's lap at Goldsmith's [on Main Street]."

Sanford tells them, smiling, "You know what? Get over it."

Says Ham, "Real-estate agents naturally steer [new Memphians] to the eastern part of the city, and they don't stop long enough to really explore what is down here. They don't necessarily know about, say, Harbor Town."

Aside from the residential growth, Sanford makes the argument that downtown is now the sports and entertainment center of not only Memphis, but the Mid-South. The additions of AutoZone Park, FedExForum, and the Cannon Center — all since 2000 — have made downtown a destination for every type of fan, from those who prefer the symphony to those who scream for Hannah Montana.

Citing the reopening of The Peabody (in 1981) and the rebirth of Beale Street (which also began in the early Eighties), Sanford emphasizes that the impetus for downtown's renaissance predates his tenure at the CCC.

"I could not have predicted the growth of downtown," adds Sanford. "In the early days, we called Henry Turley and Jack Belz nuts. Today, we call them visionaries. When Henry looked at the vacant Shrine Building and when Jeff Sanford looked at the vacant Shrine Building, we saw two different things. I saw a vacant building and Henry saw rental apartments."

As far as leaving downtown, Sanford and Ham are finding fewer and fewer reasons. Sanford has family he visits in East Memphis, and Ham enjoys shopping at The Fresh Market (a jewel she'd love to see added to the downtown landscape). But they each say they visit a gas station about once every two weeks, a financial endorsement for downtown in 2008 if ever there was one.

On the subject of traffic, Ham chuckles at the notion that there is "one way in and one way out" of downtown. "I watched this when I was with Memphis in May," she says. "Everybody seemed to think you had to go in and out of downtown along Union Avenue. But if you go down to Crump Boulevard and out Lamar, you're out in no time. I often take Vance and Peabody."

Sanford acknowledges that a variety of traffic — coming in and going out — is required for downtown to continue its dramatic growth as the twenty-first century unfolds. "In order to create a sustainable neighborhood and community," notes Sanford, "we need residents, we need daytime employees — there are currently around 65,000 — and we need visitors. Whether they're from Germantown or Germany, they're all integral to sustaining a vibrant, viable downtown.

"All we really need to do," Sanford concludes, "is to get people to visit downtown and experience what those of us who live downtown experience every day. Downtown is unique, in that it is the one neighborhood that belongs to the whole community." M

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