Timelessly trendy: A bright future still ahead for Cooper Young

With buzz about new investments in emerging midtown neighborhoods like Broad Avenue, Crosstown and Overton Square, the heyday of historically hip Cooper Young may seem to be over. But with new businesses still opening and demand for real estate climbing, the landmark corner is still the go-to intersection for culture, cuisine and character.

“Historically Hip,” and one of the American Planning Association’s “Top 10 Great Neighborhoods in America,” the Cooper-Young community has long been a standout Memphis neighborhood known for being warm, friendly and eclectic. The district is home to a diverse mix of businesses that are essential to the unique fabric of the community. Within a few blocks visitors will find coffee shops, art galleries, an independent book store, a local brewing company and a storefront full of rescue cats available for adoption.
The neighborhood is understood to be ground zero for the Memphis progressive. Bike lanes, vegan dining options, a vinyl record shop and quirky art galleries welcome the young and trendy. In 2011 Cooper-Young received its unofficial hipster status blessing when Urban Outfitters decided to open up its first Memphis shop on the corner of Central and Cooper.
Home to the wildly popular Cooper Young Festival each fall, the neighborhood also hosts monthly art tours, a weekly farmers market, an annual beer festival and more. It’s a city district that attracts visitors far beyond those who live in the immediate area.

Businesses within the boundaries benefit from ample exposure. The area boasts 21 restaurants, and 41 retail shops, but Tamara Cook, Director of the Cooper Young Business Association, says there is more to the neighborhood than just restaurants. “People always think of our restaurants, but we have 187 businesses located here, everything from electrical and plumbing to antiques. We have it all,” she said.
Cook says Cooper-Young is “close” to commercial capacity and has been for the last year or so. While she laments they don’t have a pharmacy, the neighborhood is about to welcome small grocer City Market and is close to securing another bank at the anchor intersection.
Eyeing Future Development
On a cloudy Saturday morning back in February, I was riding shotgun with realtor Brenda Gibney during a driving tour of Cooper-Young. A New York City native, Gibney has been selling properties in the area for several years and she made C-Y her home when she first moved to Memphis in 1996.  “It was the only spot for me, because it was the only walkable spot. I saw a coffee shop, Java Cabana. I saw a school for my daughter, Peabody Elementary. I saw Easy-Way,” she remembered.
Bound unofficially by the streets of Cooper and Young Avenue, families and businesses that reside on streets within the boundaries of Southern to Central and McLean to East Parkway are considered residents of the neighborhood, according to Gibney. “People just love living over here because you know your neighbors, people are hanging out on porches, you can walk around. It’s just got a fun, safe neighborhood feel that other Memphis neighborhoods don’t have. They’re not as cohesive.” 
The neighborhood was less dense when she arrived in the mid-90s, and offered a lot less in the way of business. “And now just boom! Exponentially bigger,” she said, looking around. Particularly, she noted, the restaurant scene has exploded. “I think Cooper has really become a ‘restaurant row,’ which is great and people love it, but it can be kind of congested now.”
With popular dining and bar options growing, limited parking and weekend crowds can be challenging, especially for residents. “There is no parking. It’s a real hassle. It gets very loud and crowded over here, and I think that’s really hard on the residents,” said Gibney, who has since relocated to the Central Gardens neighborhood. For her, part of the solution is expanding commercial and residential development into the immediately adjacent areas.
“There are areas around Cooper-Young that really have been horribly overlooked,” she said of the “nooks and crannies” that are waiting to be discovered and developed. Driving around that afternoon, she identified some of these hidden areas. “We’re going to see corners that people are not walking to because there’s nothing there. But if you give them somewhere to go to, people will want to get out.”
The first stop is at the corner of Elzey and Tanglewood, which used to be home to Christie Cut Stone company. The land was bought by custom home builder Bernard Cowles. “This is just sitting here, warehoused, doing nothing, and it’s beautiful,” Gibney said of the land which is currently on the market.
A similar situation is just a block over at the corner of Saulsbury Place and Tanglewood, a sparse and oddly quiet short street. “Most people don’t even know this exists. But we’re in Cooper-Young. Think of how many great things could be here. This is a lot of land.”
Cowles isn’t the only developer to leave his mark on the area. In February this year, developer Charlie Ryan bought a piece of property from Cowles on Tanglewood for $27,000. Last year, Toad Hall Antiques sold their property to Ryan and the business relocated to Florida. He also owns the property on South Cooper that the recently opened midtown Aldo’s Pizza Pies occupies.
“I don’t see any reason to stop building more and letting more people come in. We could use small fun things: a toy store, candy store, comic book store, magazine store. Maybe things that wouldn’t have been able to support themselves a while ago, but now there’s enough density, enough people out and walking, enough money, and enough people who want to stay in the neighborhood on the weekend and walk around. It could be better supported now.”
As we round out our tour, it’s clear that the theoretical Cooper-Young bubble hasn’t burst, and isn’t even close.
“I think if you could create other small micro-areas people really would like that,” Gibney said, moving toward two abandoned buildings at 1041 and 1043 South Cooper Avenue. The two small, squat, abandoned brick buildings are in visibly good condition. They sit side-by-side between Walker and Southern Avenues, where the spirit of the neighborhood seems to wane. Gibney says that despite the twin brick buildings being on the market for a while, there has never been any serious interest. “We’ve tried to sell these two buildings for a long time. These are actually really cool buildings. You can’t tell me people aren’t going to walk one more block to come to an amazing new restaurant. Of course they’re going to.”
“We are definitely not developed out. There is plenty of room here.”
Love from Locals
Support is key when it comes to giving new business a chance to flourish within a community. Cowork Memphis, located on S. Cooper, opened late last year and allows telecommuters, freelancers and entrepreneurs to rent work and event space. The new business quickly found an audience in the district.
“CY is ideal for Cowork Memphis for many reasons, but location is at the top of the list. Many of our members do business with people and organizations all across the city, so having a central location is just as key to their success as it is to ours,” said Nicole R. Harris, a Manager at Cowork Memphis who also owns her own digital media strategy business. 
Businesses in the neighborhood have the benefit of the Cooper Young Business Association behind them. According to Cook, the organization acts as a mini chamber of commerce, promoting the area, attracting people to the community, hosting events and supporting the infrastructure of the neighborhood’s public spaces. They have been aiding area businesses since the mid-1980s. Recently they launched a website with maps and information about all of the area businesses.
When asked if the booming development of Overton Square has impacted the C-Y businesses, Cook said there was an initial decline but it didn’t last long. “The locals are still coming to Cooper Young; it’s a different flavor all together,” she said. In the long-term, the vibrancy of Overton a mile down Cooper is a boon for the entire area. “Bringing more people to midtown is good for everyone. I think all the neighborhoods growing right now – Broad and Crosstown and Overton Square – it only make it better for everybody. 

Read more articles by Erin Williams.

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