Soul Map

Historic Soulsville neighborhood blossoming once again

By Bill Dries

The Soulsville arrows beneath the Bellevue Boulevard railroad overpasses near Walker Avenue point north and south. It is the first indication that you are in an area where several possibilities can coexist.

The arrows and painted portraits of Stax and Hi Records legends on the concrete walls of the underpass are showing some wear. And in a way, they look better as the brighter colors fade and blend with the walls. Soulsville is part of the northern end of South Memphis, where the line that separated black and white began in the Memphis of an earlier time. It’s where the line was enforced. And it is where it crumbled with a profound cultural impact.

These days, Soulsville is a set of projects, some across the street from each other with others a block away in a part of South Memphis with a heavy concentration of history, poverty, ambition and creativity spanning generations and fainter racial lines. The giant milk bottle atop the old decaying dairy building on North Bellevue Boulevard near Walker Avenue was one of the last reminders of a thoroughfare that once bustled with commerce. It was lifted in September from atop the badly neglected building for restoration and a new home at the Children’s Museum of Memphis.

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music sits on McLemore Avenue in Soulsville and along with the Stax Music Academy and LeMoyne-Owen College is the heart of a renaissance in the South Memphis neighborhood. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

Josh Hawkins, from left, Joshua Shivers and Anthony Moore of Premier Percussion Ensemble at Stax Music Academy practice a rendition of “Thriller,” which will be performed during the Berklee City Music Conference with George Clinton.The Stax Music Academy serves approximately 100 high school and middle school students during its SNAP! After School program during the school year. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

The Stax Music Academy sits across the street from Towne Center at Soulsville, which houses a health center, salon and retail space. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

Students from the Soulsville Charter School participate in an after-school exercise. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

Instructors Paul McKinney, bottom, and Darryl Pruitt, Jr., work with students Gerald McLain, center, Grantham Moore and Ljuliana Thomas of The Rhythm Section at Stax Music Academy. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

The neon sign of a strutting pig at Bellevue and McLemore was gone with the rest of Leonard’s Pit Barbecue, including the silver dollars in the floor, in 1991. It was not too long after the Stax Records building had been demolished farther west on East McLemore Avenue. The demolition of the historic music studios more than 20 years ago was the lighting of a long civic fuse that has led the multipart redevelopment of what is now called the Soulsville area to a critical juncture.

“Soulsville” was a slogan on the old Stax marquee at the height of the record label’s fortunes. A replica of the Stax building was completed and opened as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in 2002. It includes a charter school and a music academy.

“It wasn’t just to pay homage to history. It was to be able to create the next generation of musicians, the next generation of leaders,” said Mark Wender, the CEO of the Soulsville Foundation. “We want to be financially independent and be able to serve many more children. There’s a tremendous need for it.”

Within sight of Stax, land has been cleared for a new residence hall for LeMoyne-Owen College. The college of more than 1,000 students has doubled its enrollment in six years.

The collection of crumbling buildings and overgrown lots across McLemore, once the first sight that greeted visitors who emerged from the front doors of the museum, has been replaced by the brick consistency of the Soulsville Towne Center.

The center, 68,000 square feet of mixed-use space in two buildings, is the project of the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corp.

“Two things I’ve learned,” said CDC director Jeffrey Higgs. “Nobody wants to be first and I know more about the grocery business than I ever wanted to know.”

Higgs is cautiously optimistic after having a supermarket anchor tenant for the part of the retail center built on what was the site of the old Jones Big Star grocery store. That was in 2008 just before the recession.

“The bottom fell out of everything,” Higgs said. “We lost our grocery tenant. We lost some of our other tenants. What we’ve been doing is working very hard to bring tenants in.”

What Higgs still hopes will be a supermarket is now called The Magnet and will be the site of a yearlong residency by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, which will perform six times in the neighborhood.

And in a matter of weeks, Higgs, now toughened by the uncertainties of the past, believes he will have a restaurant.

“We’re working with a food service group to bring a restaurant in,” Higgs said cautiously without revealing any brand names. “They are out of Georgia and they do food service for schools and places all over the country. … That is important because there’s just no food over here. There’s the Four Way Grill and that’s about it.”

Existing tenants include the education advocacy group Stand For Children, a pediatrics clinic operated by the Memphis Health Center, and the offices of the Royal Phoenix Hotel group, which is still trying to get a luxury hotel built by FedExForum.

Meanwhile, across McLemore, Wender is about to start construction on an all-purpose building that will include a place for Music Academy and charter school students to eat lunch, take gym classes and have assemblies.

“The talent has not gone anywhere. It’s still here,” Wender said. “We’re trying to nurture and grow that talent to be the place that people can receive a world-class education and have opportunity to be the next American Idol. But we don’t care if they become the next American Idol. We want to make sure that they are successful in life. That’s our goal.”

The museum’s exhibits include a map of the Soulsville neighborhood that shows where much of the talent that made Memphis music internationally known lived in the area. The charter school has a 100 percent graduation rate with all of its students attending college. Every senior at the music academy has been accepted to college.

“It’s an evolving process,” he said. “At some point, people may look at this neighborhood as being the center for education reform in the United States just like it was the center of the greatest music ever produced.”

The talent has not gone anywhere. It’s still here. We’re trying to nurture and grow that talent to be the place that people can receive a world-class education and have opportunity to be the next American Idol. But we don’t care if they become the next American Idol. We want to make sure that they are successful in life. That’s our goal.”

– Mark Wender
CEO, Soulsville Foundation

The plans are about more than bringing visitors to the area. It was five years ago that Reginald Milton, the executive director of the South Memphis Alliance, excitedly approached city Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb.

“Robert, I’ve got a great idea,” Milton told Lipscomb. “It’s a laundromat.”

The laundromat is across Bellevue from the old dairy. As the milk bottle was moved in September, workers in the laundromat were working in the shadow of the media attention that the moving icon got.

The alliance, which is the building’s next-door neighbor, didn’t like plans for a nightclub in the building. The organization is, at its root, a social services agency that works with the state Department of Children’s Services.

“How do you provide preventive services to people who don’t know they need the services?” was the question Milton was pondering again when the laundromat came to mind. “What we decided to do was go where they are and guess where we found them? – at laundromats. … They are in a good mood and they are conducive to preventive services.”

The Assisi Foundation of Memphis Inc. and the city, with federal funding, helped with $1 million to bring in new equipment and create a space for the different agencies in the laundromat.

The new 25,000-square-foot center that the Alliance plans to build on the dairy land with a $6 million capital campaign is to house several nonprofit agencies. But the structure has another purpose – part of an eastern gateway to Soulsville.

It will indicate there is more to come with a turn west onto Walker or McLemore avenues. And the city is putting up the money for the dairy demolition toward that goal.

“It’s important to get people to turn that corner,” Milton said. “And they won’t do so if they see blight on the main street.”

Farther south on Bellevue, the city of Memphis is working with another nonprofit on improvements to Jesse Turner Park, specifically the baseball fields that border the street including a spring and summer baseball league program.

LeMoyne-Owen College is marking the 150th anniversary of the city’s only historically black college. The college has called Walker Avenue its campus since 1917, and college president Johnnie Watson seldom acknowledges borders between the college and the surrounding neighborhood when he talks about the campus.

“I want this campus to be accessible to the community. If they have barriers in the way they don’t come to get services,” he said, noting that senior citizens in the nearby College Park residential area eat at the college cafeteria. The prices work for them as well as the college’s bottom line.

“They are part of us,” Watson said the week after the campus hosted the first concert of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s season and drew a capacity crowd. Watson talked to several long time-Memphians in the audience who had never been on the campus, some admitting they didn’t think the area was safe.

“This is a historically black college located in the heart of South Memphis. People would be surprised at how safe this campus is,” Watson said, adding that he is anything but naïve about the perception and past reality. “The word has obviously gotten out. You can’t put a foot on this campus without being on camera. … We have round-the-clock security.”

Higgs also works on preconceived ideas.

“I run into people today who don’t know that LeMoyne Gardens was torn down,” he said of what was arguably the most feared public housing development in the city that was demolished in the late 1990s and replaced with the College Park mixed-use, mixed-income area.

“I understand people have their biases and are a little apprehensive,” Higgs said. “I wouldn’t be in a city and not know what’s going on.”