With the help of the University of Memphis, a deteriorating neighborhood may once
again find its soul.
By Sara Hoover
It’s fair to say most consider the pen to be mightier than the sword. But how about
a pair of drumsticks? Or a paintbrush? That is the new concept the National Endowment
for the Arts (NEA) is taking — that the arts can infuse economic development and prove
New NEA chair Rocco Landesman recently completed his Artworks Tour around the country,
carrying with him this concept that art can function as art, but can also put people
to work, with a specific emphasis on places where there’s a connection between art,
creativity and economic development. During his visit to Memphis hosted by the Hyde
Family Foundations, Landesman saw only three projects and one was from the U of M.
Memphis Music Magnet is a unique, arts-based neighborhood revitalization program begun
by U of M assistant professor Charlie Santo and graduate students in the city and
regional planning program in the School of Urban Affairs & Public Policy. The target
area is near Stax Records and the surrounding neighborhood in downtown Memphis known
as Soulsville, which produced legends Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas
and Otis Redding.
The purpose of the project is to attract and support musicians and the music industry
in Memphis through homeownership and housing programs, and the development of neighborhood
based amenities with the goal of turning abandoned buildings into neighborhood assets
and fostering neighborhood rebirth. Amenities will include shared rehearsal space,
equipment rental, a recording studio and a health center.
|Aretha Franklin’s birth home, which may be moved to the Soulsville area. Photos by
“People marvel that so many of the stars at Stax lived within blocks. In the old days,
the record store in front of Stax was the catalyst place,” says Dean Deyo, president
of the Memphis Music Foundation. “People would meet there and because of that, things
would kind of happen. A musicians’ village in a historical area where musicians would
gather is a way for us to not force something to happen, but put all the ingredients
in one location and then allow it to happen. Once we saw it would help to restore
and save a neighborhood, the economic benefit to the city was just a huge bonus.”
The neighborhood has historical relevance not only in music. Ida B. Wells sold her
anti-lynching papers on the corner of Mississippi and Walker. Bishop Mason, who founded
Church of God in Christ, lived in the neighborhood, as did J.E. Walker, who owned
Universal Life Insurance, which was one of the largest African-American life insurance
companies in the country at one time. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last strategic
planning for the march in Memphis and the Poor People’s Campaign also happened there.
“This is one of the lowest income census tracks in this county,” says Jeffrey Higgs,
executive director of the LeMoyne-Owen CDC. “As we try to bring the community back,
this neighborhood was selected because this is the place where a lot of the musicians
said, ‘If we do (Memphis Music Magnet) in this town, this is where we ought to do
Like the program itself, the origins of the Memphis Music Magnet began in a very collaborative,
“The students really developed the nuts and bolts of the concept,” says Santo. “It’s
what the University is really focusing on, the idea of engaged scholarship and community
engagement. It’s their opportunity to develop a concept from scratch, test their ideas,
have real interaction with the community. When we started this thing, I knew as little
as the students did. I’ve never developed a creative arts-based program before. They
were as likely to put an idea out there as I was.”
Sam Powers, master’s student in city and regional planning, took Santo’s class that
helped shape the project.
“Basically, how we formulated our ideas, we threw them all out there. Whatever stuck,
stuck,” Powers says.
The class conducted case studies by visiting other cities that had similar programs,
such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Paducah, Ky.
“It really helps to look at alternative approaches to economic development and also
at different case studies around the country of what’s been successful.”
Powers hopes to pursue a career in community and economic development with a nonprofit
organization when he graduates and this has helped prepare him.
“It definitely gives me a better idea of how to start a project like this and get
it off the ground, what type of people you need to contact, who to get involved, who
not to get involved.”
Besides case studies, students conducted background research and were involved with
document preparation and design elements.
“We’ve really gotten to participate in the whole process — it wasn’t just a classroom
class,” says city and regional planning master’s student John Shaffer. “We got out,
facilitated meetings, participated in the interviews. You really just get to see how
important having creative collaboration with people is.”
Other partners in the Memphis Music Magnet include: Memphis Heritage, Architecture
Inc., Soulsville Foundation, Black Arts Alliance, Hyde Family Foundations, the City
of Memphis Division of Housing & Community Development and the Memphis & Shelby County
Office of Planning & Development.
One of the people responsible for facilitating these partnerships and getting their
buy-in was Eric Robertson (BA ’04), president of Soulsville Neighborhood Association
and chief administrative officer for the City Center Commission.
“We have the opportunity to create a one-of-a-kind national model for community development
by engaging portions of the creative class as a spark for comprehensive community
revitalization,” says Robertson. “This will be a true bottom-up and top-down approach.
Where it’s not just top-down and just bottom-up, but a real balance of the two, which
makes for a unique situation.”
Something Landesman noticed as well. One opportunity that may arise is through the
federal Sustainable Communities Initiative, a new inter-agency partnership between
NEA, Housing and Urban Development, Department of Education, Environmental Protection
Agency, Small Business Administration and the Department of Transportation. Landesman
was so impressed with the Music Magnet that he asked for a proposal to take back to
Washington, D.C., to talk with the other agencies about using the Music Magnet as
a pilot for the initiative.
|Stax Recording Studio historical area that launched many musical careers.
The recent national exposure has helped the project gain momentum, partners and possible
“Having the Hydes’ buy in, the NEA visit along with Representative (Steve) Cohen and
Senators (Lamar) Alexander and (Bob) Corker has got us on the radar in a pretty cool
way because now they have this information in their back pocket,” says Santo. “When
they want to talk about the importance of funding arts in Memphis, there are three
projects they talk about and ours is one of them. That’s pretty cool.”
After a planning phase is complete, implementation will begin and be conducted by
the community stakeholders. The University will then hand the project off to the neighborhood.
One component the project has already begun is the rehabilitation of Memphis Slim’s
house with Memphis Heritage. U of M and other volunteers cleared out the first floor
of Memphis Slim’s, including a tree that was growing in the middle of the house.
They are also working to figure out how Aretha Franklin’s birth home fits into the
overall plan. The house is currently located a mile and a half southwest of the targeted
area and may possibly be moved into the Stax neighborhood.
“As much as I don’t believe in moving historic things around, this makes sense only
because it’s going to be very difficult to get revitalization that far south and west
in a period of time that would probably save Aretha’s house,” says June West, executive
director of Memphis Heritage. “We consider Stax the birth of soul, but I truly think
it can be the soul of Memphis. If we don’t protect that type of special neighborhood,
we’re going to regret it.”
The project will include other artists besides musicians.
“Expanding to other artists is part of our vision, even though the name is going to
remain Music Magnet and the music focus is going to be there just because of the heritage
of the neighborhood and what was organically created with that,” says Santo. “We do
want to open it up to artists of all types to create that synergy and collaboration
between different kinds of artists.”
Like the Music Foundation’s Resource Center downtown that has free resources for musicians,
the Music Magnet project hopes to serve as a satellite version in Soulsville.
“What we’re trying to do is remove some of the barriers for people to be successful
in that creative industry in Memphis,” says Santo. “We don’t have a lot of the music
business infrastructure here. It’s hard to find that copyright attorney, booking agent.
If we can get enough musicians clustered in one place and make some things easier,
then we can create the critical mass of musicians. Then, the infrastructure will be
built around it.”
The planning period is expected to take 10 months to work out the implementation details.
Like Stax recording artists’ Booker T. and the MGs’ song, “Home Grown,” Santo wants
to make sure the project remains inclusive and collaborative with neighborhood residents
and that all grassroots concerns are addressed before moving forward.
Artspace, the nation’s leading creator and preserver of affordable space for artists
and arts organizations, helped the project develop some implementation ideas.
“This is a great example of the University living out, ‘Dreamers. Thinkers. Doers,’”
says Robertson. “A class and a professor had a vision, an idea and thought it through.
We’re moving to the doing phase. So often the doing phase is not associated with universities
and colleges. This is a great example of the University holding true to that ‘Dreamers.