Wake-up Call

Cooper-Young can serve as a shining example of how to improve other neighborhoods

Photograph by Amie Vanderford

Memphians have often called their hometown a city of great neighborhoods. And yet, for every thriving Cooper-Young, other neighborhoods like New Chicago, Smokey City, and Bearwater are clinging to life.

New plans are under way to change this.

Developer Bob Loeb is reviving Overton Square as the linchpin for the adjacent Midtown neighborhood; city government is redeveloping the Fairgrounds as a new urban neighborhood and the Pinch Historic District as a neighborhood for St. Jude Children’s Research Center; Memphis and Shelby County’s new Unified Development Code encourages neighborhood redevelopment; University of Memphis’ Graduate Program in City and Regional Planning is helping several neighborhoods, and the newly created Community LIFT will help residents help themselves with the goal of creating jobs and economic activity.

No one denies that much needs to be done. Sixteen percent of Memphis houses — about 32,000 — have environmental code violations, including weed overgrowth, commercial dumping, improper storage, yard parking, and inappropriate commercial operations. About 18,000 of them also have cosmetic problems and 14,500 need structural repair.

But rather than intimidating us from tackling these tough problems, they are a wake-up call for all of us to get into the game, says Eric Robertson, president of Community LIFT. His organization will define success one way: the economic development of the neighborhoods. He says economic activity at the neighborhood level is largely nonexistent in Memphis. “I would define economic development in bringing back goods and services to the neighborhood and creating jobs as a result of it,” he says.

“All neighborhoods have some assets to build on — an organization, a church, a school, a historic building, someone who’s doing good work, or a business leader who is championing good,” Robertson says. Then, Community LIFT will bring new resources and experts to work on creating new jobs and improving the neighborhood economy. 

“We’ll ask, how do we establish relationships with community organizations, how do we empower people there, how do we help them organize, what’s the vision of the neighborhood for what it wants, and how do we attract new investments by providing incentives for someone to open a business?” says Robertson.

Like everyone working on revitalizing Memphis neighborhoods, Robertson names Cooper-Young as a paragon of what Memphis needs more of. In today’s challenging context, Cooper-Young seems more and more an anomaly, particularly because it continues to thrive. With the opening of the urbane Urban Outfitters, the neighborhood has turned the corner from Cooper onto Central Avenue.

It’s a far cry from the beginnings of the district that began humbly in 1979 when Charlie Ryan, a former prison teacher in Atlanta and new co-owner of the Ticket Hub in Memphis, bought a building in the working-class neighborhood, which was most notably home to Pee Wee’s Diner, a motorcycle salvage firm, and sundry businesses. 

Over the next four years, Ryan bought more and more buildings. The plan was to establish a neighborhood like Virginia Highlands and Ansley Park in Atlanta, but it wasn’t until 1988 that Cooper-Young took off. The Business Association formed, the Festival began, a bank located there, and perceptions of the neighborhood began to change.

City government’s crucial contributions included Mayor Dick Hackett’s assignment of promoter extraordinaire Jack Kyle to teach the new business association how to promote the area. Also from the city came a small grant for street trees, landscape, street lights, and a plaza.
“What government did was act as a resource,” says Ryan. “Government helped us but never took over. When government gets in and starts doing it itself, that’s when there’s a problem.”

It’s an opinion that was underscored when Cooper-Young businesses were positioned as enemies of bike lanes last year although they had drawn up the first plans for them, he says.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Cooper-Young, Ryan says it is that a few determined Memphians in sync with their vision and plans “can do anything.” Conversely, absentee owners and the absence of a unifying vision ripped the heart out of Overton Square, he says.
Today, Cooper-Young is home to 16 popular restaurants, and with the new Urban Outfitters, the district appears to be poised for a new era as a retail district as well.

“It takes patience to get it right,” says Ryan. “Anything that spoils the vibe is bad. If it helps the vibe, it is good. That’s why sometimes it’s better to leave a building vacant until we get the right tenant.”

It’s a problem that most Memphis neighborhoods would like to have. M

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