The diverse crowd that typically gathers for South Main Historic Arts District Trolley Night – from hipsters in skinny jeans to residents who enjoy the monthly celebration of their neighborhood to others drawn to see what the fuss is all about – featured several hundred ghastly additions in May.
Close to 1,000 zombies descended on South Main Street Friday, May 30, for the annual Memphis Zombie Walk, one of the popular events in the ever-growing South Main Historic Arts District.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
Close to 1,000 zombies descended on South Main Friday, May 30, for the annual Memphis Zombie Walk. After gathering at Central Station just before sunset, the throng of undead ambled, shuffled and limped through South Main and Downtown.
The horde of bloody, flesh-eating creatures could serve as a metaphor for South Main itself. After suffering through a slow, torturous death, South Main has risen from its urban grave to become one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city, with around $100 million worth of projects underway or in the pipeline, including 670 new residential units.
“We didn’t know what to think of (the Zombie Walk) at first, but it’s proven itself to be this urban, young and cool thing and very fitting to the developing image of South Main,” said Jeff Sanford, the former president of the Downtown Memphis Commission who is now an urban consultant. “South Main, like Overton Square, Cooper-Young and Broad Avenue, is very much alive and well, and to the tune of $100 million worth of projects.”
After passenger railroad service was introduced into the neighborhood with Union Station and Central Station, South Main became a thriving commercial and industrial district with warehouses. After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 and the diminution of the passenger rail industry, South Main, like much of Downtown, suffered a steady decline.
The downturn was so severe that owners didn’t bother to tear down their buildings, leaving a large stock of available properties uniquely designed for urban life.
South Main’s revival story began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when entrepreneurial-minded artists – attracted by the area’s historic feel and cheap rent for what could be large live-work studio spaces – began cultivating a thriving art scene.
Arnold Thompson has had a front-row seat for South Main’s transformation. Thompson, 53, first opened a studio there in the 1990s before launching his UniversalArt Gallery in 2002.
“The lure of the old buildings and the historic feel of the neighborhood was a draw,” said Thompson. “I liked being down there next to the art galleries that were there. I could also envision what it could become and wanted to be a part of it. The pioneers who were down there in the 1990s and early 2000s sustained it long enough for the other help to come.”
Although he was forced to close UniversalArt in 2008, Thompson remains involved in South Main. Thompson is hosting Art Lounge at the United Warehouse building at 138 St. Paul Ave. during Trolley Tour nights. The Art Lounge concept, which has featured artist demonstrations, music and an event that allowed the public to design their own piece of art, is designed to activate the abandoned United Warehouse building and build support for Artspace Project Inc.’s plan to turn the property into dozens of live-work spaces for artists.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Arnold. “When people learn about Artspace and the project, they fall in love with it.”
Other major projects in South Main include the redevelopment of the Chisca Hotel, The Orpheum’s Centre for Performing Arts, a new round of development for Central Station and the ambitious Main Street to Main Street Multi-Modal Connector Project that links Memphis and West Memphis.
Drawn by the neighborhood’s historic charm, walkability and proximity to the rest of Downtown, South Main’s population has swelled to more than 2,500 people, and the neighborhood has 34 retailers and 20 restaurants.
“I still think that we’re in the beginnings of growth,” said Brian Douglas, owner of Guidingpoint Financial Group and president of the South Main Association.
“We saw great growth in the 1990s into the 2000s. The recession cut into it, but over the last few years we’re seeing great growth again,” Douglas said. “Entrepreneurs have really been able to fill the needs. All the infrastructure you need in an area is now there to support what is a pretty big community now.”
The Downtown Memphis Commission, which has made supporting and promoting South Main a priority, recently unveiled new street banners and published a visitors guide highlighting interesting places in the district.
“We’ve been working with the South Main Association and other stakeholders to fill the gaps that they identified,” said Leslie Gower, vice president of marketing and communications for the DMC. “They wanted better marketing tools, a more cohesive message, more activated spaces, and more events and programming to bring new visitors to the neighborhood.”
Thompson and Douglas said the strong sense of pride South Main stakeholders have in the community has helped fuel and sustain the growth, which happened organically as residents and business owners took ownership of the neighborhood.
“A large part of why it has worked up to this point is because it has, and always has had, a sense of neighborhood,” Thompson said. “That’s a big part of it. It starts with the people.”
The South Main Association, Clean Memphis and AutoZone employees will team up later this month to create a “community orchard” on an unused lot at Tennessee Street and Nettleton Avenue.
“That says a lot about the community,” Thompson said. “Not only do they want to live, work and play there, they want to develop this sense of community.”