By: Sara Hoover
Ask anybody what pops into their head when Memphis is mentioned and they may respond
with Elvis, barbeque or blues, but there is a place inextricably linked to Memphis
heritage – Stax Records and the surrounding neighborhood known as Soulsville, which
produced such legends as Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Staple
Singers and Otis Redding.
Stax Records produced many a star and was a focal point for those in the neighborhood.
(Lindsey Lissau photo)
The area that once fostered homegrown talent will rise again with a unique arts-based
neighborhood revitalization program, the Memphis Music Magnet, 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 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, a health
center, equipment rental and a recording studio.
“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,” said Dean Deyo, president
of the Memphis Music Foundation, which serves as conduit to the music community for
the project and helped set up focus groups and surveys. “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. It is the
idea that if we got a whole bunch of musicians in the same area, working, living,
socializing, mentoring, then something good would come from it. Once we saw it would
help to restore and save a neighborhood, an economic benefit to the city as well,
that was just a huge bonus. For us, it just makes all the sense in the world.”
Soul legend Aretha Franklin’s house may be moved into the Stax neighborhood. (Lindsey
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. King’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. For us to have the
kind of development that’s going on, it’s over $150 million dollars invested in this
neighborhood,” said Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of the LeMoyne-Owen CDC, about
the on-going development of Soulsville. “It’s important to keep the momentum going.
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 it.’ That’s why it should be done over here.”
Like the program itself, the origins of the Memphis Music Magnet began in a very
collaborative, equitable way.
U of M assistant professor Charlie Santo at the former home of Memphis Slim, which
is part of the neighborhood revitalization effort. (Lindsey Lissau photo)
“The students really developed the nuts and bolts of the concept,” said 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,
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,” said 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, 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 partners and getting their buy-in
was Eric Robertson, 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,” said 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.”
The next step for Santo and the group is to take the concept to the stakeholders who
live in the community and host community meetings. They are also working on fundraising
proposals to submit to foundations. Once funding is secure, the implementation phase
will begin. The implementation will be conducted by the community stakeholders and
the University will then hand the project off to the neighborhood.
One component they have 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 move Aretha Franklin’s birth home into the Stax neighborhood,
which is currently a mile and a half southwest of the targeted area.
“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,” said June West, executive
director of Memphis Heritage.
The plan is to move Franklin’s house into one of the two wooded lots next to Memphis
Slim’s and use the other lot as a music park for teachers and kids. Currently, Franklin’s
home is owned by a private citizen and the neighborhood is in negotiations to get
control of it.
“We consider Stax the birth of Soul over there, but I truly think it can be the soul
of Memphis,” said West. “I think that if we don’t protect that type of special neighborhood,
we’re going to regret it in the short-run and long-run.”
Some hope the project expands to include other artists besides musicians. The Firehouse
Community Center, part of Black Arts Alliance, already exists in the neighborhood
and supports both local artists and musicians.
Professor Santo began a unique, arts-based neighborhood revitalization program.
(Lindsey Lissau photo)
“We’ve got to think about this in terms of more than just the musicians,” said Higgs.
“This thing needs to be think about it, we need not to be exclusive, but inclusive.”
Santo is hoping to find a way to eventually bring other artists in, possibly through
warehouse reuse. This space would serve as living, gallery and studio areas that may
foster cross-collaboration between musicians and other artists living there.
“What we’re trying to do is remove some of the barriers for people to be successful
in that creative industry in Memphis,” said Santo. “We don’t have a lot of the music
business infrastructure here. It’s hard to find that copyright attorney, booking agent,
stuff like that. We’re thinking if we can get enough musicians clustered in one place
and make some of these things easier, finding rehearsal space, equipment, health care,
then we can create the critical mass of musicians. Then the infrastructure will be
built around it.”
The planning period is expected to take six to nine months to work out the implementation
details, like how to finance the homeownership incentives, defining the target area
and the cost of renovating some of the historic structures.
“This is a great example of the University living out, ‘Dreamers. Thinkers. Doers,’”
said Robertson (BA ‘04). “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. Thinkers. Doers.’”