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VOL. 128 | NO. 154 | Thursday, August 8, 2013

Grass-Roots Growth

Cooper-Young continues to flourish organically

By Amos Maki

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From where Tamara Cook sits, the future of the Cooper-Young Historic District looks as bright as it’s ever been.

“We’re just as busy as ever,” said Cook, director of the Cooper Young Business Association.

Restaurants such as Tsunami have helped the Cooper-Young neighborhood thrive even as nearby Overton Square continues its resurgence as an entertainment destination.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Though nearby Overton Square is undergoing a much-needed makeover as an arts, entertainment and retail district, Cook easily brushed aside a question about whether the square’s rejuvenation could pose a threat to the vitality of Cooper-Young, the more mature arts, entertainment, residential and retail district around the intersection of Young Avenue and Cooper Street.

“I don’t know where this thought is coming from, why others think Overton Square will hurt us,” Cook said. “I’m glad they’re bringing Overton Square back up because it was rundown for so long.”

On recent evening visits to Cooper-Young, the area’s bars, restaurants and other businesses were experiencing brisk business, as evidenced by bustling patios, few parking spaces and plenty of pedestrian traffic.

“Cooper-Young is still vibrant,” said John “Tiger” Bryant, owner of Young Avenue Deli and co-owner of Soul Fish Café. “We still get our regulars, the neighborhood regulars and people who have been with us a long time, but there are also a lot of business people who come for lunch and groups. There are still fresh faces coming through Cooper-Young, which is what it’s all about.”

Bryant said he hasn’t experienced any slowdown in business since Overton Square came back on the scene and that the two districts could support each other.

“I don’t think Overton Square has done anything to hurt it,” Bryant said.

“Business-wise, I would say it’s helped the neighborhood,” he said. “It could be two areas tied together by a string of businesses, if not proximity. If anything, there may be people who say, ‘We’ve been at Overton Square for a little bit; let’s go down to Cooper-Young.’”

Cooper-Young has been riding an almost unprecedented wave of success since the early 1990s, when residential and commercial real estate development there really settled into a groove following years of painstaking work by the Cooper-Young Community Association, Cooper Young Business Association, the now-defunct Cooper-Young Development Corp. and others. It became the place in Memphis to see and be seen and hasn’t looked back.

The American Planning Association recognized Cooper-Young in 2012 as “one of the Top 10 Great Neighborhoods in America.”

The annual Cooper-Young festival has turned into a yearly rite of passage for tens of thousands of Mid-Southerners attracted to the eclectic mix of vendors, music, restaurants and shops. The annual street party, hosted by the Cooper Young Business Association and now in its 26th year, is expected to draw more than 100,000 visitors on Sep. 14.

The neighborhood’s “First Thursday Night Out” event, hosted on the first Thursday of each month, attracts hundreds of visitors to the area for discounted dining and shopping along with free music and artist appearances in the district’s restaurants and shops.

It wasn’t always like this in Cooper-Young. The neighborhood traveled a long and winding road to recovery after being battered by flight to East Memphis in the 1960s and 1970s.

Residents banded together to form the Cooper-Young Community Association in 1976. The association got the neighborhood placed on the National Register of Historic Places and promoted policies to encourage homeownership and prevent absentee landlords from continuing renting out their properties, a practice that had a destabilizing effect on the neighborhood.

Step by step, the neighborhood fought its way back. And stakeholders aren’t ready to cede any of the gains.

Bryant said some Cooper-Young residents and business owners want to make sure that the neighborhood isn’t overlooked when it comes to infrastructure investments or police patrols.

“The biggest thing I hear from other people in Cooper-Young is, with the focus on the square, will that take away from the other established neighborhoods?” Bryant said.

Perhaps nothing embodies the area’s rise from the dead as much as the Trestle Art Gateway over Cooper, which turned an abandoned, decaying railroad bridge into a centerpiece work of art featuring scenes from the neighborhood.

That fighting spirit, and the civic movement that give life to it, still burns as a point of pride inside the hearts of many Cooper-Young stakeholders, including some whom regard Cooper-Young as a more authentic alternative to Overton Square.

While Overton Square is being revived by commercial real estate firm Loeb Properties Inc. with a master plan and more than $20 million in investment, along with a city-funded parking garage atop a floodwater detention basin, Cooper-Young continues to evolve day-by-day.

“Over here it’s a little more organic, grass roots, you know,” Cook said.

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