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Finding lost ‘soul’: initiative revives floundering neighborhoods

By Greg Russell 

The University of Memphis is having a major impact on the stability and economic growth of several low-income Memphis neighborhoods through initiatives such as “Strengthening Communities” and a major focus on engaged scholarship.

It is safe to say University of Memphis researcher Charlie Santo has “soul.”

The assistant professor of City and Regional Planning in the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy, as well as students in planning and architecture classes, are revitalizing a deteriorating historic area of downtown Memphis, that, in its heyday, was every bit as influential to the music world as any area of Los Angeles at the time. Along the way, the initiative, known as the “Memphis Music Magnet,” is spurring economic growth in one of the lowest-income census tracks in the country. It also exemplifies a core U of M focus area: using engaged scholarship as opposed to laboratory-based research to build a stronger Memphis and society at large.

Santo says Soulsville USA and its Stax Records were responsible for producing legendary soul and blues musicians Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and Rufus and Carla Thomas. “But the neighborhood has fallen on hard times over the years,” says Santo. “What we are trying to do through various projects in the Memphis Music Magnet is to first stabilize the neighborhood and then bring people back there to it. One way we are doing this is by using music as a magnet, to bring people together that haven’t been there for a long time and bring in people who have never been there. Ultimately it would spur economic development in various ways.

Coaches explained the ins and outs of college football to a female audience who were seeking more insight into the game during the “Assistant professor Charlie Santo and U of M students are helping to develop a “musical village” in a historic area of downtown Memphis.
Assistant professor Charlie Santo and U of M students are helping to develop a “musical village” in a historic area of downtown Memphis.

“We are using music and art to tell stories, to activate spaces, to reclaim vacant buildings and create interaction and use that as a magnet to bring people together,” he adds.

The idea of using the arts to spur economic development and stabilize deteriorating neighborhoods is a relatively new concept, largely championed by former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman four years ago.

As the name implies, the initiative has acted as a magnet, helping to pump new life into a once famous community while at the same time infusing tangible economic development.

“People marvel that so many of the stars at Stax lived within blocks of each other,” says Dean Deyo, president of the Memphis Music Foundation. “In the old days, the record store in front of Stax was the catalyst place. People would meet there and because of that, things would 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 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.”

A musical village is exactly what Santo and University of Memphis students are developing, something Santo terms a “collaboratory” where “people can come together and develop ideas.”

“At the heart of it is a training/recording studio, which will be a place musicians can go if they don’t have the money to record at a place like Ardent Studios,” says Santo. “The equipment will be run by somebody learning the industry, a sort of apprenticeship and a co-op; it will serve as a workforce development tool.”

The home of soul/blues legend Memphis Slim is being renovated to house the studio.

“Community members said the house has set vacant for years and felt something should be done with it; this can serve as a focal point of the revitalization and a point of community pride,” says Santo.

The professor also teamed with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra to present six free concerts in Soulsville that had originally been performed as part of the Orchestra’s regular paid-subscription series at the Cannon Center as a way to put music at the forefront of the community.

It also has drawn first-time visitors to Soulsville.

“It was pretty cool — every show had a different audience,” Santo says. “The first show was called ‘The Memphis Sound.’ It was Booker T. Jones playing a concert with the kids from Stax Museum. You had the origin of Memphis music with the future with Memphis music.”

Santo says plans include a project that will offer affordable housing, all with the goal of again producing a community of musicians who collaborate while adding stability in terms of culture, pride and economics to the area. “With these opportunities, we are trying to reimagine what this neighborhood could be like.”

Santo says University of Memphis students developed the “nuts and bolts” of the Memphis Music Magnet concept.

“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,” says Sam Powers, a former U of M master’s student in city and regional planning.

“This project exemplifies what our University is focusing on: engaged scholarship and community engagement,” says Santo, which leads to a much bigger picture at the University of Memphis.

A major part of former U of M President Shirley Raines’ agenda during her 12-year tenure centered around using engaged scholarship to build partnerships with the Memphis-area community as a way to strengthen the city’s economic and livability conditions. School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy (SUAPP) director Stan Hyland took the idea to heart, creating the Strengthening Communities Initiative five years ago with the Institute for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at the U of M, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis and the United Way of the Mid-South.

Strengthening Communities awards capacity-building and small grants to grow and develop community organizations, enhance student skills and knowledge and further the engaged scholarship goals of the faculty.

Small grants are awarded to nonprofits for a one-time community development project — such as Memphis Music Magnet — to support initial work that will lead to a future capacity building grant. A capacity building grant is awarded to a community nonprofit organization that is paired with a University of Memphis faculty/student “team” that collaborates to implement innovative, neighborhood-based projects that address either economic development, education, health, housing, transportation or safety areas. The community organization chooses the project.

In five years, 32 capacity-building and small grants have been awarded to improve neighborhoods and spur economic growth. Thirty community-partner organizations have hosted funded projects with 23 faculty/student research partners funded. Nearly $350,000 in total combined dollars have been invested in faculty research and community-based projects. Better-known projects besides the Magnet include the University Neighborhood District Initiative, the Rozelle-Annesdale area and projects in Hickory Hill and Frayser.

Engaged scholarship is the centerpiece of Hyland’s plan.

“Engaged scholarship is a different type of approach to making a difference in our city,” Hyland says. “You develop or look at theory, collect information that leads to action, which eventually leads to policy.

“It is different than buying up and developing property. It is about creating activities through which our faculty and students engage with the community to make a difference.

“And it is not only about leveraging funds, it is also creating new things, new avenues and new tools that can make a difference in our city such as what the Magnet is doing, working to make some of our deteriorating communities more livable.”

Hyland says he views urban universities as the future of cities.

“We feel it is equally as important for an urban university such as our university to receive the support and the size NSF grants that, say cancer research, receive because the city is a place where we need to generate innovation at the neighborhood nonprofit level. We can make a discernible impact by doing so.”

Hyland said since the initiative began, about 30 percent of the U of M’s faculty is now involved in engaged scholarship, something he terms as “big” for the university.

“They come from all across the university, from engineering, architecture, journalism, social work, education — this isn’t just a School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy movement, it is a social movement.

“As an urban university, we can have a major impact on the economy and the livability of Memphis through engaged scholarship — that is where we can make a difference.”

To learn more about the U of M’s Strengthening Communities initiative, visit http://www.memphis.edu/scgrants/

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