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VOL. 127 | NO. 186 | Monday, September 24, 2012

Midtown Utopia

Cooper-Young neighborhood celebrates more than a century of revitalization

By Sarah Baker

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Of Memphis’ tales of humble beginnings, of which there are many, the fluctuating renaissance of the Cooper-Young neighborhood is certainly compelling throughout.

Demetrius Boyland uses a push mower to cut her lawn in preparation for the 25th annual Cooper-Young Festival, the signature event for a dynamic neighborhood. Bound by Central Avenue on the north, East Parkway on the east, Southern Avenue on the south, and McLean Boulevard on the West, the dense, 1.058-square-mile enclave boasts about 1,700 houses and roughly 200 homegrown businesses. The community attracts more than 50,000 tourists and locals each week, and generates $2 million in sales tax annually.

(Photos: Lance Murphey)

The area has cycled from its 19th century roots to 1970s crime and neglect to its present-day status as one of the largest historic districts in the Southeast, a magnet of all ages and walks of life. All thanks to individuals and organizations that wouldn’t settle for sub-par quality in their tiny town within the bustling Bluff City.

“It’s always been an awful lot of fun, although it’s been a lot of work,” said Bill Stemmler, vice president with Cadence Bank and one of the Cooper-Young’s modern-day founding fathers. “You have to come in and find ways to restructure it, support it and design it in such a way that you feel like it’s going to work, and then follow it on a day to day basis almost to make sure it doesn’t get off track.”

Bound by Central Avenue on the north, East Parkway on the east, Southern Avenue on the south, and McLean Boulevard on the West, the dense, 1.058-square-mile enclave boasts some 1,700 houses and roughly 200 homegrown businesses.

The community attracts more than 50,000 tourists and locals each week, and generates $2 million in sales tax annually. Cooper-Young’s annual September street festival, which just celebrated its 25th year, draws 120,000 in its 10 hours of operation, making it the largest single-day event in the city.

The area’s revitalization far precedes other Midtown efforts that have finally received momentum this year like Overton Square and Sears Crosstown. And it’s Cooper-Young’s accordion to-and-fro throughout the decades that makes its success story all the more meaningful.

The area, named after 1848 Alabama investor William Cooper, was developed as a blue-collar town when walking and streetcars were the main modes of transportation. The first 15 years of the 20th century would then deliver 90 percent of its residential properties, the majority of which stands today.

That’s in addition to the eclectic 1915 business portfolio that in many ways mimics the diverse range seen there today – two grocery stores, two physicians, a pharmacy, shoe repair shop, barber shop, coal yard, cotton gin, ice house, auto company, lime and cement company, stone and lumber yard.

Then came the 1970, when 43 percent of homes in the area were held by absentee owners. Retail moved out as banks denied home loans, resulting in property abandon and neighborhood distrust.

The turnaround was rooted in 1977 with the founding of the Community Association. Residents started nightly patrols using radios and secret channels to the police.

A year later, the city would deem Cooper-Young as one of Memphis’ 10 “neighborhood strategy areas.” Community activism earned the area a pilot project called the Midtown Demonstration Project, a pairing of public funds and private investment that led to improvements in infrastructure, street lighting, down zoning and code enforcement.

As Cooper-Young began to glimmer with potential, investors like Charlie Ryan began developing property. Now a 33-year-veteran of the area, he recalls building on what he had – homes that averaged a mere $20,000.

“We just looked around at what we had to offer, which in the beginning was very inexpensive housing stock,” Ryan said. “The whole journey has been about taking what we have with the housing stock and the neighborhood commercial district and making it better.”

The district continued to evolve, appealing to thrifty musicians and architectural enthusiasts alike, until its next milestone in 1988. That’s when Ryan started the Cooper-Young Business Association to complement the Community Association, along with Stemmler and four other stakeholders: Stephen Crump, Richard Sullivan, Delmer George and Bemis Atkins.

“We set the mission as to promote the area as a good place to work, live, and shop, and to upgrade the facades and provide a sense of security,” Crump said. “To be an organ of communication with the businesses and with the neighborhood.”

Stemmler had been involved in the area since 1985 during his first year with Boatman’s Bank, tracking the city’s progress with the Community Reinvestment Act. The federal law, established a few years prior, was designed to advance low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.

“I started looking for areas where we could make an impact and concentrate what we were doing all over the city,” Stemmler said. “I came down here … because there were a lot of places that were boarded up. I walked into Stephen (Crump)’s place, which is now Café Ole, with Hershel Lipow, who was head of Housing and Community Development for the city. We said, ‘what do you think about adopt-a-neighborhood like adopt-a-school? The bank will bring things to the table.’ Stephen looked at me like I’d fell out of a tree. He was skeptical and so was everybody else.”

Through that introduction to Crump, Stemmler began working with the Community Association towards obtaining a $500,000 Oasis project grant. Cooper-Young won those funds in 1989, and pumped it into lampposts, streetscape, gingko trees, benches and a gazebo at the district’s namesake intersection.

Further stabilizing the commercial artery was in 1991, when Boatman’s (now Bank of America) and Café Ole set up shop. A Co-Act police unit was also placed behind the bank to deter crime.

Not stopping there, Stemmler realized that for the community to thrive, the dilapidated properties, particularly in the southeast quadrant, needed to be addressed.

“There was a biker gang that occupied some property, and all of the housing over in that area was very sub-par,” Stemmler said. “There was a need for doing that not only in that area but all over the community.”

The subsequent formation of the Community Development Corp. led to the renovation of dozens of homes and commercial properties throughout the 1990s, which in turn reduced poverty and neighborhood tension. In addition to organized community-wide street clean-ups, some 50 houses were repaired, painted, landscaped and even rebuilt through the Volunteers In Service To America program, for homeowners that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do it on their own.

All the while, Stemmler made $2.5 million in small business loans to entrepreneurs and individuals in the area. It was a process that required the elbow grease of various stakeholders, all working together for a common goal.

“The place didn’t get this way over night from a deterioration standpoint and it doesn’t get revitalized over night,” Stemmler said. “It’s a lot of everybody’s time, effort and resolve to make all of that happen.”

With the millennium and Cooper-Young’s growth came the Business Association’s decision to hire a director who could solely focus on media, promotions and the festival. That investment was returned exponentially as membership began to soar, neighborhood businesses collaborated on group advertising and public meetings were held.

From 2000 to 2006, the Cooper-Young Festival went from 45,000 attendees to 85,000. In 2010, the neighborhood block party garnered national attention when it surpassed 100,000 visitors.

Thanks in large part to the festival, the Business Association has donated more than $235,000 back into the neighborhood nonprofits over the past quarter of a century.

Further augmenting the district’s brand recognition in recent years was the launch of Cooper-Young Night Out. This event, which still takes place on the first Thursday of each month, truly established the area as the city’s reigning entertainment spot and restaurant destination.

Today, Cooper-Young portfolio boasts tenants in nearly every sector imaginable, including plumbing, roofing, health and exercise, cosmetology, hospitality, insurance and commercial real estate.

“These businesses are run by the owners. It’s not a franchise or a chain,” said Tamara Walker, executive director of the Business Association. “These people, if they don’t make it, they lose everything. So they not only bring their ambition and their dollars, but they also bring their friendliness because they want people to come back.”

What’s more, when retailers want to grow, they grow within Cooper-Young. Karen Carrier opened Do Sushi after several successful years of operating The Beauty Shop, as did Ryan Trim with Sweet Grass and his successive Next Door concept. State Farm’s Steve Womack moved three doors down when he needed more space, and Frank and Mindy Roberts’ original The Palladio Group has grown to 11 businesses along Central Avenue.

“It’s not like they’re going, ‘Hey, let’s go out east,’” Walker said. “They’re going, ‘Hey, let’s go down the street.’”

Perhaps Cooper-Young’s biggest retail feat was the landing of Urban Outfitters last year at the northern gateway of the district, a focus area of Ryan’s. Rather than being solicited, the trendy apparel and accessory company picked that piece of real estate through its own internal research.

“Rather than the Poplar corridor or out East, they wanted to be in this urban, Midtown, alternative setting,” Crump said. “And you see the license plates in the parking lot – Mississippi, Arkansas – they drive here because it’s a destination.”

Homeowners also seem to be flocking to Cooper-Young’s early 1920s charm and cozy, bungalow-designed houses. Joe Spake of In-City Realty said the Bohemian neighborhood is attractive to people moving into town from larger cities because of its walkability, diversity of residents and wide price range.

“I think housing prices have trended at least as well as Midtown, and probably better considering that there wasn’t that much to start with,” Spake said. “Property values in Cooper-Young continue to be solid, and I see a trend of folks moving back into town from the suburbs because of the urban feel.”

The road ahead appears to be especially promising for Cooper-Young, as options like enhanced parking and a grocery store are explored. Bike lanes and increased crime prevention efforts are taking shape.

Meanwhile, First Congregational Church has plans make way for a green area to the south side of its building that could one day provide plug-ins for hybrid cars. Walker said the group already boosted morale when it set up shop in the 2000s by inviting neighbors to take part in its renovations, join its congregation, and utilize its daycare, hostile, support groups and farmer’s market.

“When First Congo got here, it added a whole new dynamic to the neighborhood,” Walker said. “Once that gets done at First Congo, and then whoever buys LifeLink church, we’re moving more to Southern. What that means for us is we’re branching. We’re not just right at the corner like we were for 10 years.”

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