A neighborhood in a pinch has its chance for revival

With the imminent opening of the Bass Pro Shops megastore at the Pyramid and a flurry of redevelopment happening in other areas of downtown, the Pinch District is ready to kickstart its renaissance on the north end with this weekend's MEMFix. 
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a pervasive car-centric mentality dominated planning and development across the nation and in the Mid­-South. When the Great American Pyramid was completed in 1991 and began drawing national acts and University of Memphis Tigers fans to the historic Pinch District in north Downtown, property and business owners nearby inevitably saw dollar signs in the traffic.They paved paradise and put up a parking lot--a parking lot the size of a neighborhood.

Of the 43 historic buildings in the district once listed on the National Register of Historic Places, only 19 remain. The rest of the lots are now slabs of broken asphalt spotted with trash and weeds peeking through the cement cracks.

Residents are hopeful that the Pyramid--often seen as the cause of the neighborhood's problems--will also be its salvation. With new life breathed into the formerly vacant 535,000-­square-foot building, developers expect new investment that may transform the parking lot desert created more than two decades ago. And this Saturday's MEMFix event in the Pinch can help people picture the future.

While Memphis' reliance on the automobile is far from disappearing, researchers, planners and developers--and citizens--have learned how unsustainable a vehicle­-driven mindset can be and are attempting to inject a new mentality into development. Local neighborhood development advocacy group Livable Memphis is working to get out in front of urban development and, with the help of residents, showcase a new way of doing things.

The coalition of organizations and individuals pushes for a more "people-­centric" ideology in city-building. Over the past four years, the organization has demonstrated this new type of development with MEMFix projects. MEMFix events have been used throughout the city to temporarily activate streets, blocks, and neighborhoods, creating vibrancy and showcasing new possibilities for our communities.

By animating vacant storefronts, setting up pop­-up shops and food trucks, and re-thinking neighborhood travel by implementing integrated street changes, MEMFix has transformed key neighborhoods for a day. So far Memphis has seen five such events, including the inaugural New Face for an Old Broad on Broad Ave., South MEMFix in Soulsville, MEMFix­Highland and Walker near the University of  Memphis, MEMFix Crosstown, and MEMFix Edge District. The events required support from neighborhood residents, non-profits, city officials and professional planners.

In the latest iteration, led by Livable Memphis and the Downtown Neighborhood Association, sites are set on the neighborhood that’s buzzing with anticipation for what the Bass Pro Shop mega-store will bring. The even will focus  on North Main Street between Jackson Avenue and Overton Park in the heart of the Pinch district. According to the organizers, this event is not only to prepare for the increase in traffic from the in progress transformation of the Pyramid, but also to temporarily reinvigorate the Pinch neighborhood.

“We wanted to get out in front of the opening of the Bass Pro Shops and highlight the  neighborhood. It was very intentional to do a MEMFix there right before it opens and get some  momentum going,” John Paul Shaffer, Program Director for Livable Memphis, said. Bass Pro Shops is scheduled to open its mega-store, the largest Bass Pro in the world, April 29.

MEMFix in the Pinch kicks off April 11 at 11am and will go on until 4pm that day. Attendees can expect new retail in vacant storefronts, presence from local restaurants and food trucks (including Wrapsody and Paul’s Cariflavor), live local music performances (including School of Rock, Bryan Hartley, and Omni), and art installations by Memphis talent. MEMMobile vendor trucks will roll into the neighborhood, too, including Henny Penny, Body Decor Boutique, and Thigh High Jeans.

Carriage Tours of Memphis owner Chrissy Daniels sees the event as a pointed opportunity to remind people the area is there and primed for reinvestment. “It’s a great idea to highlight the neighborhood. There is a lot of available property for someone who might be interested, and our existing buildings have a lot of history,” Daniels said. “It can show the potential we have, and it will be a nice family thing to do to get them back in touch with our community.” 

An added feature to this MEMFix for the first time is the ioby booth, a community resource stations. ioby, which stands for “in our back yard," is a non­profit crowd-­sourcing platform that assists individuals and neighborhoods in raising the funds for and executing small, agile community  projects such as installing and decorating bus stops or Little Free Libraries.

Throughout the event leaders from ioby projects will present 78 projects currently in the works  for which ioby is matching funds.

In keeping with the theme of grassroots community leadership, urban planner and activist Mike Lydon will be on hand to sign his new book “Tactical Urbanism,” which describes the do-­it-yourself neighborhood design style and documents where some of these approaches have shown up successfully.

“Feedback from those sales will go to support some of the work Livable Memphis is doing,” Shaffer said.

Planners for the MEMFix event decided to specify the boundaries to a two ­block radius for capacity reasons and to shorten the time span of the spring event due to feedback from previous efforts. “Previous vendors said their sales usually dropped off once it started to get dark, plus our capacity was stretched. This will give the bars a chance to pick up the people who show up later in the day,” Shaffer said.

Wayfinding signs will point visitors to the neighborhood and to area attractions such as Alcenia’s, the soul food restaurant in the southern part of the district. Twenty­five vendors will set up shop for the day and two empty buildings will be transformed into a pop­up shop for the day. Long-­time Pinch business Carriage Tours of Memphis will offer carriage rides through the district for $2 per person.

In many ways MEMFix in the Pinch serves as a reminder to people of happier times for the district. “This one really is about reminding people about the Pinch. It was a hot spot for nightlife and there are a number of businesses that have stayed in or moved to the neighborhood to anchor new growth. Stakeholders want to see the nightlife and vibrancy of the neighborhood come back to life,” Shaffer said. “(Pinch residents and businesses) are hopeful that Bass Pro will be the spark that kickstarts redevelopment in the neighborhood." 

For more information about MEMFix, go to visit their website or the event's Facebook page.

Read more articles by Lesley Young.

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