The soul of Memphis – both musically and emotionally – arguably resides in the Soulsville USA neighborhood.
At its core sits McLemore Avenue, a thoroughfare that runs east some three miles from Interstate 55 near the Mississippi River to its terminus at Southern Avenue. Today, a smaller segment is known as the McLemore corridor which runs roughly from its intersection with Mississippi to Bellevue boulevards in the heart of the Soulsville USA neighborhood. And in the middle of the corridor is the core of the neighborhood, a block that is home to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School.
When Stax Records was in its recording heyday in the 1960s, it sat at the heart of a small commercial district with shops, services, restaurants and a grocery. But the demise of the studio slowly saw the downfall of the business district, and many of the buildings were torn down.
By the late 1990s, shuttered businesses, a burned-out apartment building and trash remained, and not much else. In the nearly 20 years since, a new day has dawned for McLemore Ave.
Tim Sampson is the communications director for the Soulsville Foundation, the parent organization for the Stax Museum, Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School. He was there on that January 1998 day when a group gathered at the former site of Stax Records to discuss what the neighborhood could be.
A Soulsville cleanup crew participates in the 2016 MLK Day of Service.
“It was a frightening site,” Sampson recalled about that day. “There was nothing but cracked concrete, shattered glass, weeds. Next to where the Stax Music Academy now stands was an abandoned apartment building," he said.
"The only thing on this lot was a historical marker. Buildings looked like they had been hit with a wrecking ball but not knocked all the way down. It was some of the worst urban blight I had ever seen.”
But in the nearly 20 years since that rude awakening, the Soulsville Foundation has brought thousands of visitors a year to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and educated hundreds of students at the adjacent music academy and charter school.
Sampson said there was nervousness that gentrification would come to the neighborhood. It hasn’t happened, nor was it the plan. But not everything has exactly gone to plan in the McLemore corridor.
In the early 1900s the McLemore Avenue business district thrived, particularly where the Suburban Streetcar Line turned east on McLemore from South Third Street, roughly a mile west of the present Stax Museum.
It was a time that saw the bones of the Soulsville USA neighborhood begin to the east of that commercial district, such as the Fountain Court subdivision. The neighborhood was created in 1907 on the south side of McLemore, just west of what is today’s Soulsville Towne Center. Many of the houses built between 1910 and 1940 still stand today.
There are no grocery stores on McLemore today, but in 1910 there were three on the western end. There was a post office and plenty of other businesses, including a bank, dry goods and drug stores, furniture companies and more.
The streetcar helped South Memphis thrive, but post-World War II suburbanization stalled out growth.
The exterior of Stax Records after renovation.
One of the great stories in Memphis history would occur at 926 E. McLemore when in 1960 Stax Studio moved into a former movie theater there. Satellite Record Shop soon followed in what had been the theater’s concession stand offering a place for neighborhood residents to gather.
Until the studio closed in 1975, this stretch of McLemore was home to some of music’s biggest stars. But dark times followed and the building sat vacant until 1989 when it was razed. A historical marker was dedicated in 1991, and the McLemore story seemed destined to live only in memories.
But the formation of the Soulsville Foundation in the late 1990s set the story in motion again, and today the corner of McLemore and College Street thrives.
“I remember people being enthusiastic and proud,” Sampson said about reaction in the neighborhood when the Soulsville Foundation returned life to the street.
“A lot of these people grew up with Stax Records, seeing the Bar-Kays walking down the sidewalk and Isaac Hayes’ Cadillac. They were happy, I think, that something was being done and to do something for the kids. With that being said, it’s been hard to get people from the neighborhood to come to the museum.”
Bringing the music back
The Soulsville Foundation isn’t alone in the attempt to bring music back to the corner of McLemore and College.
In an attempt to reinvigorate the area's historic wealth, a unique musician resource center dubbed the Memphis Slim Collaboratory opened in 2014. The iconic building sits on the site that was once the residence of blues singer and pianist John “Peter” Chatman, better known as Memphis Slim.
Community LIFT operates the Memphis Slim Collaboratory, which is more commonly known as the Memphis Slim House. The music incubaor is part of the organization’s long-term strategy to change the face of McLemore Avenue.
Memphis jooker Ryan Haskett dances for onlookers at the 2016 Soulsville USA festival.
Prior the opening of the Memphis Slim House was the launch of the Memphis Music Magnet, a rebranding initiative that began in 2008 with the aim of bringing an arts-based revitalization with a Memphis twist to the neighborhood.
Charles Santo is an associate professor and director of the University of Memphis City & Regional Planning Department. He plays a part in reframing the neighborhood with Community LIFT, a strategy which includes focusing on the artistic legacy of Soulsville USA as a neighborhood and McLemore Avenue specifically.
The goals of the Memphis Music Magnet initiative include promoting neighborhood revitalization through renovation, which includes gaining control of vacant properties and reprograming them with active uses that are accessible to the neighborhood.
The broader plan is inspired by using music and art to tell stories while activating places to attract people. That’s the hope for what can happen along McLemore Avenue.
The strategies to accomplish that task include creating neighborhood amenities that can support artists and musicians. That started with the opening of the Memphis Slim Collaboratory, but a long-term plan is to bring more housing options to Soulsville USA. It might mean combination artist studio/living spaces. Another idea could be a co-work space of some sort where anyone could rent space by the hour, day, week or month.
The effort is underway already with the students at the Stax Music Academy and artists at Memphis Slim who both make the area a natural artistic incubator. Is that growth something an expanded McLemore could sustain?
That remains to be seen. The hope is that growth along the McLemore corridor will be like dominos. The first few arguably have fallen, including the Stax Music Academy, Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Soulsville Charter School and Memphis Slim House.
To continue that growth, Community LIFT has its eye on more workspaces and employment opportunities along with along with activation of the long-abandoned Towne Center building that was built in part to attract a grocery to the community.
“My wife has a saying to live in your vision, not in your circumstances,” said Eric Robertson, president of Community LIFT.
“When we built Slim House we heard musicians won’t want to come over at nighttime. None of that is true. We created something that met a need and people will support. I think when people see the success someone will come in and buy something else and then someone will buy something else. And then we’ll have a whole active street.”
Participants in the Stax Music Academy.
Sampson said the Memphis Slim House is part of what the Soulsville Foundation envisioned for the neighborhood. The two organizations work well together sharing a sound engineer and space for events.
Everlena Yarbrough has lived in the community since 1976. Retired now, she’s involved in the Soulsville Neighborhood Association. She said changes have been positive lately in part because of what has taken place at the Stax Records property.
“It has changed in the dynamics of the charter school that has brought light to the neighborhood,” she said. “And the re-creation of Stax has brought tremendous life to the neighborhood. To tie it all in with the building of the Towne Center really brought a beacon of light to the neighborhood.”
Yarbrough said the Stax properties and Soulsville school all combined to bring other elements to the neighborhood. She sees other positive developments in the dog park on Stafford Avenue, revitalization of College Street near Elmwood Cemetery, a bed-and-breakfast inn on McLemore and the Memphis Slim Collaboratory.
Sampson said there was hope in the early days that maybe other businesses would follow the return of Stax, possibly a restaurant or other types of businesses that could cater to the neighborhood’s new visitors.
The location brings challenges, in part because of misconceptions.
“It still carries the stigma of a dangerous South Memphis neighborhood,” he said. “A lot of people think we were crazy to do what we did here. I don’t agree with that at all.”
The McLemore corridor, which is the nerve center for Soulsville.
Maybe the Great Recession is partially to blame. The Soulsville Towne Center was well underwaywith the idea of attracting a grocery store for the neighborhood when the economy came crashing down in 2009. The building was never completed as the developer declared bankruptcy.
In a unanticipated twist, the new owner of the building is Hollywood director Tom Shadyac, a sometimes University of Memphis professor and son of Richard Shadyac, who helped found St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with Danny Thomas. Tom Shadyac bought the Soulsville Towne Center out of bankruptcy in August 2015 and began to explore options for the property.
In spring 2016 he talked about plans for a combination climbing wall and pay-what-you-can restaurant for the empty space. Last year he launched a capital fundraiser to create One Family Memphis, his term for the nearly 80,000-square-foot building.
He was unavailable to provide an update on the project for this article.
Even though an opening date for the project is unknown, the One Family Foundation is involved in the neighborhood. For example, the organization held clothes drives over the holidays and gave away toys on Christmas Eve at the mostly-empty Soulsville Towne Center.
The iconic Stax Records antenna towers over Soulsville.
What does the future for Soulsville look like? No matter what happens with One Family Memphis and Shadyac’s ultimate plans for the Towne Center facility, there is a long-term mission for the greater neighborhood.
In the fall of 2016, residents and stakeholders wrapped up an 18-month process to create a neighborhood plan. Rebecca Matlock Hutchinson, the Soulsville USA site director as part of the building neighborhood capacity program, led that planning effort. The Memphis City Council has yet to adopt the three-year plan.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Hutchinson said. “We need to develop the cultural tourism industry. How can we benefit from 55,000 tourists that come to Stax? We need to earn a living off the thousands of tourists that come to the neighborhood.”