Update - The newsletter for the University of Memphis
More November Features:

Picture Perfect
Power of Soul
U of M recruiting efforts
Bausch lands award
Lending a hand
Talking Head
Revved up research


February 2010 Briefs

Bygone Days, The 1940s had its share of ups and downs with celebrity visit, WW II. Read more

Brain Drain? Healthy lunch habits can mean a more productive day at the office. Read more

Ring Container Technologies Inc. has made a $300,000 gift to establish the Ring Companies Professorship Fund in the Herff College of Engineering at the U of M. The Professorships will allow the Herff College to retain highcaliber faculty.

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Power of Soul: Santo's Memphis Music Magnet

By: Sara Hoover

Stax Records produced many a star and was a focal point for those in the neighborhood. (Lindsey Lissau photo)
Stax Records produced many a star and was a focal point for those in the neighborhood.
(Lindsey Lissau photo)

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.

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.

Soul legend Aretha Franklin�s house may be moved into the Stax neighborhood. (Lindsey Lissau photo)
Soul legend Aretha Franklin’s house may be moved into the Stax neighborhood. (Lindsey Lissau photo)
“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.”

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.”

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)
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)
Like the program itself, the origins of the Memphis Music Magnet began in a very collaborative, equitable way.

“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, 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.”

Professor Santo began a unique, arts-based neighborhood revitalization program. (Lindsey Lissau photo)
Professor Santo began a unique, arts-based neighborhood revitalization program.
(Lindsey Lissau photo)
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.

“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.’”

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