Memphis Music Magnet pinpoints Soulsville

When the Memphis Music Magnet began as an arts-based revitalization concept in a University of Memphis classroom in 2008, there wasn’t a specific neighborhood in mind. But quickly the plan clearly focused on music and the Soulsville, USA neighborhood.
Music is alive and well in Soulsville, USA and it reaches beyond the story that is told at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
 
A process began in 2008 to bring an arts-based revitalization concept with a Memphis twist to the neighborhood that is focused on the heritage of Soulsville, USA. It’s called the Memphis Music Magnet, and as its name implies, the goal is simply to lure a new Memphis music scene to the neighborhood that birthed much of the great American soul music of the 1960s and ’70s.
 
“It’s about augmenting redevelopment of Soulsville and making it a community of choice for musicians and others,” said Charlie Santo, associate professor in and director of the University of Memphis City & Regional Planning department. “The concept is to foster physical musical community but not building something from scratch. The way I think about it is it’s creating a neighborhood where music and art tell stories, activate space and reclaim vacant buildings. Art is the magnet to bring people to the neighborhood.”
 
The physical form of the Memphis Music Magnet is seen at the Memphis Slim Collaboratory, which opened in 2014 adjacent to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Known affectionately as the Memphis Slim House, the collaboratory is in the former home of blues singer and pianist John “Peter” Chapman, better known as Memphis Slim.
 
The house fell into disrepair but Community LIFT reimagined the space and it opened it where it now serves as a home of sorts for Memphis musicians who pay an annual membership. The space can be used for anything from practice and recording to photo and video shoot space.

But most importantly, it’s a resource for musicians.
 
“People that know about it love it and utilize it,” said Isaac Daniel, Memphis Slim House Manager. “It’s a resource to musicians who are serious but on the same token it’s good for beginners who can utilize professional quality space.”
 
The goals of the Memphis Music Magnet include promoting neighborhood revitalization through renovation. This includes gaining control of vacant properties and reprogramming them with active uses that are accessible to the neighborhood.
 
There also is the support of an economic development target industry through an alternative approach, in this instance music. The Memphis Music Magnet’s approach focuses on supporting creative people and building the infrastructure needed to facilitate creative endeavors in communities.
 
Part of this includes retaining local talent as well as attracting new talent. The plan’s belief is that the creation of a creative mass of music-related professionals in one geographic area will accomplish the mission.
 
This could include an eventual artist workspace in the neighborhood that has several possibilities such as a dual restaurant-art storefront of some sort.
 
The Memphis Music Magnet started in a classroom conversation at the University of Memphis. Cities once originated around the benefits of proximity of manufacturing and transportation. As cities evolve, the desire to be attractive to people working in creative industries drives the change.
 
Santo said his students began thinking about how that works. As an amenity, art attracts people to cities but the benefits are more noticeable on a neighborhood level.
 
Santo’s first class explored the topic deeper, visiting cities such as Chattanooga where targeted neighborhoods received incentives for arts-related initiatives and Paducah, Kentucky, where an artistry relocation program proved a good model.
 
Back in Memphis, it was clear that the focus needed to be on the existing artistic asset of the music industry. And out of the first roundtable discussion at the end of that class a neighborhood came into focus: Soulsville, USA.
 
The plan’s framework includes three elements: long-term housing recommendations, community enrichment efforts and place-based neighborhood amenities.
 
The Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Community LIFT worked to develop a proposal for funding for a $678,000 ArtPlace America grant that funded much of the renovation cost for the Memphis Slim House. The symphony created a Symphony Soul Project, a year-long residency in the neighborhood.
 
Programming was concentrated in the neighborhood, from after-school tutoring to educational components at senior facilities and community centers. A series of concerts in a space in the Soulsville Town Center that featured a unique combination of classical music and the neighborhood’s soul heritage.
 
It was a smash hit.
 
“These events got people coming to the neighborhood that hadn’t been there in a long time,” Santos said.
 
Along with the opening of the Memphis Slim Collaboratory in 2014, came unplanned elements such as the Soulsville USA Neighborhood Festival, held in October. And recently the National Endowment for the Arts awarded its Our Town grant that will help fund an artist in residency program.
 
“That furthers the place-making approach,” Santo said. “Things like that spin off from the original vision.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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