The Summer Avenue Documentary Project
Memphis’ Summer Avenue has gone by a number of names over the years: US Highway 70, The Broadway of America, Bristol Highway, and most recently, Nations Highway. The avenue stretches over six miles and is a small portion of US Highway 70, one of the first paved signed highways across the country. From the early 1920s through 1950s, Summer Avenue reflected the growth of the automobile industry and the consumer needs of travelers. The avenue was lined with restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and shopping facilities. The first Holiday Inn in the United States opened on Summer Avenue in 1952 and the avenue was also the location of the city’s first McDonald’s. In the 1960s school desegregation led to white flight and impacted Summer and the surrounding community. Like many other southern cities, Memphis experienced demographic changes over the years. For decades the non-Latino white population in Memphis decreased. For example, the 2010 and 2020 US Census revealed that the non-Latino white population decreased from 181,308 to 151,581. The African American population also decreased from 408,590 in 2010 to 387,964 in 2020. In contrast, the Latino population grew from 42,087 in 2010 to 62,167 in 2020.
The 2019 American Community Survey (5-year estimates) revealed that the foreign-born population reached 40,358 out of a total population of 651,932 in the City of Memphis. The top five countries of origin for the foreign-born population are Mexico (14,508), Guatemala (2,489), Honduras (2,309), Vietnam (2,131), and India (1,782). Summer Avenue’s growing international presence is reflective of these larger demographic changes. During the last decade, Summer has increasingly attracted restaurants and other businesses that are owned by merchants from around the world including Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, 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. This was an attempt 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 that is going to help guide Summer Avenue’s future development to potentially inspire more investment in the community, help foster a sense of place, and attract new customers and businesses to the area.
Mirna Garcia co-owns Mi Tierra Restaurant on Summer Avenue
Mirna was born in Guatemala in 1974. At the age of 14, she moved to Chicago where she finished grammar school and high school. In 1995 she moved from Chicago to Memphis with her son and started working at a restaurant on Poplar Avenue. The training she received helped prepare her to become a restaurant owner. Her family owned a restaurant in Chicago and it was her dream to own something similar. When she moved to Memphis the Latino population was small and there were very few restaurants serving Latin American cuisine. Therefore, she was confident that Mi Tierra was going to be a hit since there was nothing else like it.
Nineteen years ago she and Maryury Rodriguez, co-owner, opened Mi Tierra. The restaurant offers both Mexican and Colombian food and creates a lively atmosphere where patrons can dance to salsa, merengue, and reggaeton late into the night. In the interview, she discusses the transformations she witnessed in Memphis, the growth of the Latino community, and the growth and resilience of her business.
“When we first started, we were the first restaurant that we had food, liquor, and dancing at the same place. So we were really busy all the time. The small community would get together and come here. A lot of business owners are part of our customers. And now, before it was more Colombian. And now, it’s where we serve people from Honduras, from Guatemala, from El Salvador, from Puerto Rico. We got a lot of—our community has grown a lot more than before.”
Tom Tongumpun owns Thai Cottage
Tom was born in Thailand in 1947 and migrated to the US in 1971. He first moved to Goldsboro, North Carolina where he learned English from a local community college. He later moved to Johnson City, Tennessee, continued his education, and earned a master’s degree in special education. Tom went on to become a teacher and entrepreneur. While living in Memphis, he spotted The Cottage Restaurant one day and liked both the name and appearance. When the business went up for sale, he decided to purchase it immediately.
The restaurant now offers both southern and Thai cuisine. In the interview, Tom describes his educational pursuits and challenges, life in Thailand, and entrepreneurship in Memphis.
“Ooh. I, when I first come and I saw the Cottage Restaurant on Summer, down the street, I kind of like it. I like the name and I like the way it looks. And I just, that’s it and then I went away, do some teaching, do some working, and never—and then I start building a house, not building, buying a house, got a rental property and then one of my tenants, one day he say you know, the Cottage Restaurant is for sale. And so I said, how much? And he said, $60,000. I said, that’s kind of too much, but I’m going to look and see how much. That’s what he say. I asked her how much she wanted for it, and she said $26,000 and I said, I’ll buy it tomorrow.”
Dar-al Hajar, Stone House Market
Abdullah Mohammed was born on May 17th, 1973 in Taiz, Yemen and migrated to Queens, New York in 1999 in search of better opportunities. He later moved to Belzoni, Mississippi and operated several businesses in the state. In 2016 he opened Stone House, on Summer Avenue, where he works with his family and children. His business grew in 2018 when he opened a second store, and in 2020 he opened a warehouse to ship his products around the country.
His clientele can find products from places like Turkey, Yemen, Dubai, Jordan and Morocco. Abdullah also offers coffee and a spice mixture he created from his mother’s recipe, a combination of ingredients that include ginger and cinnamon. In the interview Abdullah describes his experiences in the US, the challenges he faced, and his business ventures.
“It looks like it’s going to be international street. I can’t find another place over there anymore. When I’m over there, I choose Summer 2016, it was only me for Middle East. And there is next to me Turkish Grill, which is Japanese, and a guy from Iraq invested. And then a lot of people started moving. Another guy from Jordan, he opened an dry and washers, he sell them. And then there was Aldi move, and I guy from Jerusalem came in and opened—furniture’s lot of things from Turkish. Across the street a Mexican came in and opened an immigration lawyer from South opened, and another furniture place from Jerusalem. Another, now the street is just an international place, plus, I didn’t see the police a lot.”
Queen of Sheba
Esmail Chowdhury, Owner
Esmail Chowdhury was born in Sona, Yemen in 1992. He migrated to New York in 2015 and later moved to Memphis. He is co-owner of Queen of Sheba, which opened in 2016, and also does some of the cooking in the restaurant. He owned another restaurant back in Yemen for 10 years and learned to cook from his father. In the interview, he discusses his restaurant, family, and memories of Yemen.
"In Yemen, my father is cook, my brother is cook. With the restaurant, I cook with him."
President, Summer Avenue Merchants Association
Meghan Medford was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1979. She attended St. Benedict High School, Rhodes College, and later attended Christian Brothers University where she earned her master's degree. Ten years ago she opened Medford Roofing after realizing there was a need in the market and has expanded the business over the years. She is currently the President of the Summer Avenue Merchants Association, which she started about five years ago to provide a voice to the business owners along the avenue, revitalize and beautify the area, reduce blight, and unify the neighborhood. Additionally, the association worked towards branding the area as an international district and destination location due to the area’s diversity. In the interview, she discusses her memories of Summer Avenue, the changes she’s observed, and the challenges that businesses faced as a result of the pandemic.
“Just by the demographics of the area. There's just so many different nationalities and countries represented here, and you can get any kind of food from anywhere. And so we were thinking, what is this area and what does it mean to people? . . . And we just thought, it's like a melting pot, and it'd be a great international district just to brand the area.”