On June 16, the first South Memphis Move Your Body free exercise event was all about possibilities — possibilities for fitness and fun, possibilities for new and deeper community relationships, and the possibility to transform a vacant lot into a center of health and community.
At the intersection of Gaither Street and Mississippi Boulevard, the soothing sounds of meditative music rose from a DJ booth as a group of neighbors moved fluidly moved through the motions of the ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi.
After tai chi, the music picked up pace and martial arts gave way to lively line dancing. Organized by The Works, Inc., the South Memphis Move Your Body day also offered shadow boxing, Zumba, hula hooping, and jump rope to community members.
DJ TJ Carter from Shelby County School’s 88.5FM kept the crowd pumped while healthy snacks and drinks kept them fueled. Explore Bike Share bikes were also on hand to offer attendees a chance to try the city's new rental bikes.
“This [event] is about moving around and showing that getting exercise can be fun. Everybody needs it. It’s good for the mind, body, spirit,” said Gregory Love, deputy executive director of The Works, the South Memphis-based housing and community development organization that hosted the event on an empty lot it owns.
Love highlighted the need for more physical activity in low-income, urban communities where consistent health care is a challenge. He noted that across the U.S. life expectancies are increasing, but communities like South Memphis are seeing declines.
“We have an exorbitant amount of what they call lifestyle diseases in our urban areas—hypertension, diabetes — and most of them are due to bad diet and lack of exercise," he said.
"South Memphis Move Your Body is primarily an exercise to say you don’t have to wait until next year, you don’t have to get the right clothes or have a certain space. All it takes is just moving around."
In addition to classes like tai chi, Zumba, and line dancing, the event featured games like bag toss, a giant block tower, and sidewalk chalk. (Shelda Edwards)
In addition to highlighting simple ways to have fun and get moving, the event was an opportunity for neighbors to connect with old friends and make new ones.
“There’s something about music and dancing and art that brings people together. No matter if they’re older, younger, from different parts of the world, we all get connected through arts and dancing. That’s why I wanted to bring in Zumba [to the event],” said Andrea Jacobo, the community health extension agent for Shelby County’s University of Tennessee Extension and a certified Zumba instructor.
The University of Tennessee Extension is located in every county in Tennessee and helps build programs, primarily in disinvested communities, that support families, food and wellness. Jacobo said events like South Memphis Move Your Body touch all of those categories and are exactly the types of activities that impact not just physical health but social health.
“This is all about connecting community and letting the community know that they can do their own thing to change the way [the area is] perceived and how it moves forward,” she said.
Andrew Carter is working towards his Masters in Communications at the University of Memphis and volunteers with the South Memphis Farmers Market, a division of The Works. He’s also a personal trainer and taught the shadow boxing class at the event.
Carter’s research focuses on how the built environment impacts health. He agrees that activating an otherwise vacant lot helps community members see the potential for their neighborhood and themselves.
“Stuff like this is what we really need. It’s free, it gets people moving. I’m a big proponent of just changing the culture and the energy around spaces, and little things like this are really all you need,” he said.
The Works agrees.
“It’s about activating spaces, about turning something that once was an eyesore into an asset, and about engaging with the community and moving around,” said Love.
South Memphis Move Your Body was held on a lot owned by The Works, and activating the space began well before the event. Community members helped clear weeds, trash, and other blight, and the Works installed a trash can on the street corner. The hope is that these efforts and holding events in the space will help the community see the lot as an asset and take ownership in its care.
Ultimately, the organization plans to turn the lot into a pocket park designed from the community’s collective vision.
At the Move Your Body event, printed maps of the lot and intersection were distributed. Attendees could write and draw on their map to create their own ideal pocket park and surrounding intersection.
The vision of community members at this and other events throughout South Memphis will help to determine what elements will be included in the development, such as a playground, walking trail, performance area, exercise equipment and landscaping. The top priorities already identified by The Works and residents are safety and visibility for kids playing in the space and flexible functionality that allows for a variety of uses.
“They get to determine what happens here. We want them to be able to use the space,” said Roshun Austin, The Works’ executive director.
There’s also discussion of removing all or part of the brick wall that separates the lot from a second empty lot owned by The Works. The properties sits just behind The Alpha Renaissance apartment complex, which is also a division of The Works. Removing the wall would allow for a much larger continuous park area and connection from the complex through the entire space.
Related: "Urban forest III: Digging up hidden gems and pocket parks in South Memphis"
The park is one piece of a larger effort by The Works and their community partners to revisit and revamp the decade-old South Memphis Revitalization Action Plan. SoMe RAP was produced in 2009 as a grassroots collaborative neighborhood plan that identified the community’s development priorities and led to the creation of the Ernestine Rivers Childcare Center, South Memphis Farmers Market and grocery store and more.
Now The Works is revisiting the plan to determine if priorities have shifted. A new series of community meetings will reassess community needs, as well as ask for input on upcoming projects like the pocket park and artistic crosswalks at South Parkway and Mississippi Boulevard and McLemore Avenue and Mississippi Boulevard.
As for the South Memphis Move Your Body exercise event, the next steps are determining when to host the next event and with what frequency. The Works would like to see it become at least a biannual event held in the spring and fall, if not with more frequently depending on community demand.
Austin said that events like designing the park, adding crosswalks, and furthering other priorities for South Memphis’ growth are dependent on the community's support.
As Austin said, “Their voices are important, they have to define what it looks like to them.”