Memphis: Here Comes the Neighborhood

November 21, 2012

Anthony Siracusa

(photo credit: Memphis Flyer)

In an article published at Grantland earlier this week, Jonathan Abrams captured perfectly the spirit of Memphis in an interview with Memphis Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace.   

“This is an underdog town,” Wallace said. “This is a town that doesn’t really care about your past, doesn’t care about any dustups. They want to know what you’re going to do in the future. If you reach out to Memphis and you embrace Memphis, Memphis will embrace you in return.”

On November 10, people from across the city flooded to the abandoned Sears Building in Midtown to embrace an entire neighborhood – demonstrating today what the neighborhood might look like tomorrow.

The 1.5 million square foot Sears Crosstown Building, erected in 1923, has lain vacant since its doors closed in 1993.  

“I left about 25 years ago, and when I came back, the neighborhood had changed — had just died out,” said Steve Lumpkin, who grew up in the neighborhood adjacent to the Sears building.

The Sears building grew to serve more than 750,000 people in a seven-state region before it closed, acting as the primary distribution center of Sears Catalogue products for the southeastern United States.  But as mail orders declined, so did the prospects of Memphis’ Sears Crosstown building and its surrounding neighborhood.  

(Above, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton prepares to speak to Memphians gathered at the MEMFix Cleveland Ave. Event)

?Too often, cities only look to big-budget projects to revitalize a neighborhood,? Memphis Mayor A C Wharton told the Memphis Business Journal.  ?There are simply not enough of those projects to go around. We want to encourage small, low-risk, community-driven improvements all across our city that can add up to larger, long-term change.?

Mayor Wharton commissioned his Innovation Delivery Team to develop a model that could “activate” blighted areas across the city.  The team responded to the Mayor’s charge by developing a model that relies on a series of small scale tactical urbanism techniques deployed all at once across an entire neighborhood.  The Mayor’s team calls their model MemFIX, and it chose to pilot the initiative in the neighborhood surrounding the Sears Crosstown building.   


(Above, volunteers plant herbs and vegetables in a raised bed adjacent to the roadway in the Sears Building’s monolithic parking lot)

A key ingredient in the MEMFix model is the rehabilitation of city streets.  Chooch Pickard, executive director of the Memphis Regional Design Center, told the Memphis Flyer “Cleveland Avenue (which runs in front of the Sears Crosstown building) is on the books to be repaved in the next 12 months, so it makes sense to experiment with bike lanes before the city starts engineering and design on the street.”   Led by Kyle Wagenschutz, City of Memphis’ Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, volunteers from the University of Memphis Engineering Program re-striped the two blocks of Cleveland Avenue in front of Sears Crosstown with buffered bike lanes the day before the event.  

(Volunteers used MUTCD approved road tape to create a buffer between the bike lane and people in cars) 

The crew used a homemade bike stencil made of plastic to etch bike markings in the bike lane.  The volunteers used spray chalk for a temporary effect.     

Following the Portland method of improving intersection markings, volunteers drew attention to driveways and side streets by highlighting these high conflict zones with green paint.    

Once the green paint dried, volunteers chalked bike stencils in the intersections. 

Car traffic slowed significantly in the demonstration area, instantly improving safety not only for bicycle riders using the protected lanes but also for the nearly 8,000 pedestrians that attended the MemFix event on November 10.  

People in cars negotiated the changes with relative ease, yielding to people on foot and people on bikes in the newly created Green Lanes and crosswalks.  

Volunteers from Livable Memphis posted wayfinding signs to direct people on bikes to nearby destinations. 

(photo credit: catnormoyle)

(photo credit: catnormoyle)

Pat Brown, head of the Broad Avenue Business Association, described the importance of a similar event held in December 2010 on Broad Avenue.  “The ability to present a live demonstration of the power of an innovative street design, combined with active, inviting storefronts, was powerful beyond any of our expectations.?  

This blend of commercial redevelopment and innovative street design was a recipe for success on Broad Avenue, leveraging millions in capital investments along that street and inspiring local government to plan and fund the Overton Broad Connector.  On Cleveland, it’s hoped that a similar mix of entrepreneurship, urban reclamation, and plain-old-fun might combine with innovative street design to spark comprehensive urban redevelopment in a long-blighted neighborhood.   

Beyond the Bike

An essential part of the MemFIX model is a focus on empty storefronts.  Bob Loeb, local developer and President of Loeb Properties Inc., told the MBJ ?the reduced cost of the [empty retail] space opens the doors to creative entrepreneurs to test drive their ideas and businesses with little risk and the increased activity supports the existing businesses as well as our efforts as the landlord to attract long-term tenants.?  

Of the half-dozen or so vacant storefronts reclaimed during the MEMFix event, three landed permanent residents: artist Yvonne Bobo, Crosstown Arts and the Visible Music School are all moving into the neighborhood.  Three other bays were turned into temporary MEMShops, commercial store fronts outfitted to feature Memphis-centric wares.   

(photo credit: catnormoyle)

(photo credit: catnormoyle)

Throughout the month of December, MEMShops will fill empty bays in Overton Square on Madison Avenue, a vital Memphis’ roadway re-striped with bike lanes in the Fall of last year.  

Local government’s ability to bring together artists, neighbors, developers and entrepreneurs to show off their vision for tomorrow in a demonstration today is the same strain of collaborative innovation that led to a focus on building Green Lanes in Memphis.  

This community driven, holistic approach to urban revitalization was described well by City of Memphis Chief Administrative Officer George Little last month, and it’s a strategy the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team hopes to deploy in other neighborhoods across the city.  In Memphis, local government, businesses and citizens are working together to build Green Lanes, battle blight, and reinvigorate the Bluff City – one neighborhood at a time.   


Below are images of Memphians living today their city of tomorrow at the “MemFIX:Cleveland Avenue” event on November 10 in Midtown Memphis, Tennessee.    

(photo credit: catnormoyle)

(photo credit: thirty three rpm)

(An “inkoff,” live art competition.  Photo credit: cherry valentino)

(The Overton High School Pep Band Performed at MEMFix: Cleveland.  photo credit: cherry valentino)

(A metal melting demonstration from the Memphis Metal Museum.  Photo credit: cherry valentino)

(Skate Memphis brought ramps and rails to the parking lot of Sears Crosstown for a Skate Demo.  Photo credit: Cherry Valentino)













(Live From Memphis‘s Mobile Music Machine pulled musicians like Paul Taylor, pictured above, up and down Cleveland Avenue)  

(At dusk, organizers showed “The Princess Bride” in the parking lot as families wrapped themselves in blankets)

(The Dead Soldiers ended a day of music on a stage near the entrance of the building)




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