Memphis Students Leave Their Beautiful Mark on Blighted Downtown Building

BY K. DENISE JENNINGS, Special to The Daily News

A Memphis woman is using inspiration she found on a summer trip to help transform a blighted building in Downtown Memphis, giving credence to the sentiment that one person can make a difference.

An idea to clean up blighted buildings led an International Paper Co. employee on an adventure that involved fundraising, city cooperation, corporate donations and public school students.


Carolee Carlin, a Germantown resident who works at International Paper Co., was visiting her family in New England last summer when her mom took her to see an abandoned building. The boarded up windows had been replaced with plywood panels of art that had been created by local high school students.

“I thought, there is no reason that we shouldn’t be doing this all over the place,” said Carlin. “When I came home, I started calling around and trying to get interest.”

Within nine months, Carlin will see a project that she spearheaded move from vision to reality when 247 Washington St., an abandoned building owned by the city of Memphis, is unveiled with each window displaying an original piece of award-winning artwork created by Shelby County Schools students.

With the help of several strategic partners with a shared vision, Carlin was able to nail down all the elements for the Students Building a Beautiful Memphis project and come up with a budget of $3,407, which would pay for everything above the donated goods and services needed for the project. In October, Carlin launched the fundraising campaign on ioby (In Our Backyards), a site that helps people raise money for nonprofit projects that serve the public. Students Building a Beautiful Memphis was fully funded by Jan. 24 through about 30 donations, some as small as $5.

One of the first groups Carlin reached out to for the project was the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC). Brett Roler, vice president of planning and development at the DMC, expressed interest but said DMC didn’t have the resources for the project at the time. He did connect her with Margaret Craddock, former head of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association and a member of Calvary Episcopal Church Downtown. Craddock had recently begun a grass-roots campaign in her church’s neighborhood of Court Square with two other neighboring churches and local stakeholders to get involved in beautifying their corner of Downtown.

Roler and the DMC helped identify which building in the area would be best for this project and coordinated with the city of Memphis on regulations and procedures that needed to be addressed to move the project through.

“We settled on one that was smaller in size and was owned by the city,” Carlin said. “The city has been fabulous in working with us on this.”

Roler said DMC was excited to be part of the effort to use public art as an anti-blight strategy.

“It demonstrates to the community that this is a neighborhood that people care about in a relatively low-risk, low-cost way,” he said.

Another strategic connection for the project was made when a friend of Carlin’s who teaches art in Shelby County Schools hooked her up with James Wells, the visual arts instructional adviser for SCS.

Before moving back to Memphis, Wells had been a board member of the Arts Council in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and had worked on a public art initiative.

“I’m really passionate about art being used as a way to beautify the city,” Wells said.

Wells had the idea to use past People’s Choice Award winners from the annual SCS Art Fest and to use high-resolution photos of their original artwork, since the timeline they were working with was too short to create new art specifically for the project.

A work connection through her job at International Paper helped her get the high-resolution printing donated by Hammermill Paper Co., which Carlin said, “jumped at the chance to help out.”

Another piece of the project was donated by Christina Phipps, a friend of Carlin’s who is a contractor and agreed for her company, Maintenance Advantage, to donate all of the labor required to measure and install all the window panels in the building.

“It’s so crazy what you get when you start asking,” Carlin said.

Craddock is hoping that the Students Building a Beautiful Memphis project helps inspire more people to take on projects like this in the city.

“(Carlin) decided on this thing that she wanted to do and she’s getting it done,” Craddock said. “This is a little thing in a building that’s been vacant for a long time, but it’s fun, it involves local school children and all kinds of people have donated. It will make a difference and perhaps inspire someone else to make a difference.”

Stan Hyland, professor emeritus and former head of the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Memphis and a member at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, joined Craddock in the Court Square initiative and said small steps of community members can create waves of action in renewing a city.

“I teach a class on neighborhood development, and we really look at the importance of art in making cities more livable,” Hyland said. “It’s a really important tool in revitalization.

“This is just one of a number of efforts in Memphis that are really bottom-up and are led by people who love Memphis and are wanting to do more instead of waiting for someone else to come in and do something. One small step leads to other small steps and pretty soon you’re making a difference. There is more and more energy at the grass-roots, and that has to happen for any significant revitalization.”

Hyland also believes that the real difference is made through building relationships and getting people involved from their different spheres of influence. He believes involving local schools in the Students Building a Beautiful Memphis project is an important element.

“Getting kids engaged in communities and the ownership of it is vital for the future of a city,” he said. “We are a city of grit and grind, and that begins at the grass-roots. This is what real leadership is about – it’s more of a servant leadership. If we’re going to become a city of the future it’s because of that.”

Students Building a Beautiful Memphis will announce a few work days when volunteers can help prepare the window panels and transfer the artwork. The building at 2247 Washington St. is slated to be finished in March, which just happens to be National Youth Art Month.

Carlin hopes this project will be the first of many more initiatives.

“I think what we have here is a really reproducible project for making buildings in Memphis pretty,” said Carlin. “It’s been really exciting.”