Seven days in Memphis: boot camp puts tactical urbanism to work in the city

The presenters at Boot Camp Memphis touted tactical urbanism initiatives while their theories were put into practice all around town during the week.

 
It was a week of "what if?" in Memphis as the partners promoting Boot Camp Memphis welcomed Chuck Marohn, president of Strong Towns; Mike Lydon, principal of the Brooklyn-based The Street Plans Collaborative; and Joe Minicozzi, principal of Ashville, N.C., Urban3 LLC consulting company, to town to conduct workshops on tactical urbanism.
 
Participating partners included the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team, the Urban Land Institute, the Chairman's Circle of the Greater Memphis Chamber, Community LIFT, Livable Memphis, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis and the Hyde Family Foundations.
 
Following an executive session at the Bioworks Foundation on Tuesday, April 22, the day-long workshops, more hands-on and intimate, were held at No. 2 Vance, a fitting locale in a rehabbed warehouse overlooking the Riverwalk, Vance Park and the Mississippi River. Nightly recap presentations were made at the opposite end of downtown in the Pinch District.
 
The idea behind Boot Camp was to address issues surrounding city sprawl and discuss ways to create opportunity within core neighborhoods to facilitate action that might lead to improved communities.
 
While the executive session was intended for the "generals," it was the "colonels," Marohn said, "that I really want to have an in-depth conversation with."
 
"If you're ever going to lead a revolution or a mutiny or a change in established order," he continued, "it's never the people in charge who do that. It's always the next tier down, the ones that can see the dysfunction and see also what change needs to happen; they're the ones who come in and change things."
 
Leah Dawkins is the Community Redevelopment Liasion for the University of Memphis, working toward neighborhood revitalization and building capacity within those neighborhoods. She is a planner by trade and attended both Boot Camp sessions. She says she was happy to see so many of these colonels on hand.
 
"I thought it was interesting that the people participating were really practitioners in the city," she said.
 
"Tactical urbanism," a term coined by Lydon, is the idea that citizens can come together to participate in low-risk, high-reward approaches to instigate change in their communities. And theory as practice could be seen throughout that week in the city. The week was bookended by two successful events that put tatical urbanism to use. On Saturday, April 19, City of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Overton Park Conservancy Director Tina Sullivan and other civic and nonprofit representatives gathered on the eastern edge of Overton Park to formally open the Bike Gate sculpture and the park's new pedestrian entrance from East Parkway.
 
More than just a way for bikers, joggers and walkers to safely enter the park from the protected Hampline bikeway, the Bike Gate is a monument to the citizens who, in the 1970s, fought the federal government, which sought to lay asphalt through the park as a means to extend Interstate 40. The Gate marks the one spot in the country where the roadway is interrupted, the people unwilling to accede to the imminent domain of federal projects.
 
Large, unwarranted projects were highlighted by Marohn in his presentations throughout the week as he implored his audiences to reconsider how such money might be better utilized. His suggestion, and the suggestion of the other planners, is to consider much smaller and inexpensive projects as tests for what might be accomplished within a community. Lydon took up the banner and pointed to Times Square in New York City and its effort to lessen car traffic there and increase pedestrian safety. He also offered as example a large-scale construction site in Brooklyn that was shelved after the 2008 recession. That site was later "pre-vitalized" with pop-up shops and cafes in an effort to showcase what its unseen potentials might be.
 
Pre-vitalization was the theme of the following weekend as well. Beginning that Thursday and running every weekend through the month of May, Tennessee Brewery: Untapped is looking to rethink ways to use the 120-year-old structure at 495 Tennessee Street. Over that weekend, thousands were reported to have attended to enjoy craft beer, food trucks, live music and the viewing of a Memphis Grizzlies playoff game. It's being touted less as a way to save that specific building and more as an impetus to rethinking the way other blighted and underutilized properties around town might be reactivated.
 
Revitalization of neighborhoods and buildings in Memphis is gaining as much of a fan base in the city as those Grizzlies, as evidenced by the success and promises of places such as Overton Square, Cooper-Young, South Main Arts District and Crosstown. On Friday of that week, cabinet-level officials from President Obama's administration visited Memphis to learn what's been done in this regard. Specifically, they looked at the accomplishments that $130 million in grants, funded through Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a collaboration of the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation and EPA, have brought to the city. They, along with Congressman Steve Cohen and other officials, toured the Broad Avenue Arts District, the Aerotropolis, the Harahan Bridge pedestrian boardwalk and Legends Park West, located on the former site of the Dixie Homes housing project.
 
This sort of revitalization is happening throughout the city's core. Jeffrey Higgs, president of the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corporation, was at the Boot Camp executive session and, in reference to the Soulsville neighborhood's past 15 years, said, "there's been almost $200 million worth of investments and grants and programs and activity in probably one of the lowest income census tracts in this county, and that's amazing."
 
Acting as the closing bookend on the following Saturday, the newly completed Memphis Slim Collaboratory was opened for public touring during the outdoor Stax to the Max Music and Arts Festival in Soulsville. The facility is a physical manifestation of the Memphis Music Magnet, an initiative that utilizes music, the music industry and the storied history of Stax Records as a catalyst for neighborhood transformation. The $365,000 construction was funded by the Hyde Family Foundation, the Assisi Foundation and ArtPlace America. It will offer rehearsal space, a training recording studio, a computer lab, workshops and career training in the music industry, and will help the neighborhood realize its ultimate goal of becoming a music district.
 
Soulsville has been the location of MEMFix and MEMShop initiatives in the past, put on by the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team, as was the University District last spring in an event attended by 5,000 people.
 
"There are a lot of neighborhood initiatives that are happening within the district, and part of what I'm tasked with doing is making the fabric of the business district attractive to new development," Dawkins says. Much of that is accomplished with very little funding. "A lot of it has just been relationship building and kind of bringing folks with capital into the neighborhood and showing them the potential of what could happen in the business district and how there's a built-in audience."
 
A recent Tennessee Department of Transportation grant for $529,436 will see University District streetscapes improved while new businesses continue to pour into the neighborhood, and construction of a lifestyle center concept will get underway on Highland Avenue just south of Central Avenue.
 
Antonio Adams, City of Memphis Deputy Director of the General Services Division, was also on hand for Boot Camp workshops, eager to learn about best practices in tactical urbanism and the private and public partnerships which are so integral to the process. "Where we're stretched for resources, we have to have private involvement and ownership in communities and maintenance of infrastructure," he said. "City and government dollars can only do so much."
 
Marohn noted that Memphis has its challenges when it comes to bringing people and businesses back to the core of the city, saying, "Memphis has a deep, deep hole to climb out of," while allowing that we are "committed to not going into the abyss."

Among Memphis' strengths, he continued, is the citizens' enthusiasm for the city, for where it's headed and for its assets. He also highlighted the work of the city's mayor. "You have a mayor that has said 'No more annexation.' You have people actively within your government trying to turn around some of the things that are being done through the MPO with all the building way out on the periphery. I think there's an understanding that that model needs to change, and that puts you in the elite 1 or 2 percent to all cities in the country, because most of them are still struggling with 'How do we rejuvenate this model and get it going again?'"
 
Some of the key puzzle pieces to that rejuvenation were seen within those seven days, from the dedication of a monument to the civic milestone that saved a city park, to efforts to previtalize another of the city's iconic spaces. We welcomed outside experts to see just how much we've accomplished and to help guide us on where we might go from here.
 
Says Marohn, "There's enough historic wealth and strength in the core downtown and the core neighborhoods of this community to subsidize and make up for a lot of really bad decisions on the edge of town, and that's been your godsend and your savior."

Read more articles by Richard J. Alley.

A freelance writer since 2008, Richard’s work has appeared in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Magazine, Oxford American, The Memphis Flyer, River Times Magazine, Rhodes Magazine, The Commercial Appeal, and MBQ magazine among others, and in syndication through the Associated Press and Scripps Howard News Service. He is the editor of Development News for High Ground. Contact Richard.
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