In 2011, graduating senior Christopher Dean made national headlines when he introduced commencement speaker President Barack Obama at Booker T. Washington High School’s graduation ceremony in South Memphis.
“President Obama was one of the best things to happen,” said Dean. “He’s a very genuine guy. That changed my life forever.”
A few years later, Dean interned at the White House for several months, under the Obama administration, and earned a degree in sociology. He ultimately returned home to Soulsville, the hallowed ground of soul music, known worldwide for its rich musical influence and history.
Dean has now taken on the role of director of community outreach at Memphis Rox, a state-of-the-art indoor climbing facility located at 879 E. McLemore Avenue directly across the street from the STAX Museum of American Soul Music. The facility opened in March.
“I’m from this community and this is where I want to be,” said Dean, of the neighborhood that was home to STAX Records, which represented artists like Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas and The Staples Singers.
Soulsville is also the birthplace of Aretha Franklin, the daughter of a prominent neighborhood Baptist minister, who spent the first two years of her life living in her family’s shotgun-style house, just around the corner on Lucy Avenue, near McLemore.
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Dean’s roots run so deep here, he spent part of his childhood living in the same house where the Queen of Soul once lived. Now, he’s dedicated himself to strengthening community and creating fresh opportunities in South Memphis.
He said Memphis Rox is the only nonprofit climbing facility in the country. Monthly memberships start at $20 a month for youth and are $55 for an individual and $100 for a family, but no one is turned away for inability to pay those fees.
A section of bouldering walls at Memphis Rox gives climbers an opportunity to test themselves without a harness or ropes. (Brandon Dahlberg)
“As it is, rock climbing has just been available to the affluent, and African-American people have not had access,” said Dean.
The story of Memphis Rox begins in 2016 with former Hollywood director Tom Shadyac, whose blockbuster films include “Ace Ventura” and “Bruce Almighty". Shadyac had traded in Hollywood life to pursue altruistic projects, and he set his sights on Memphis, a community to which he had deep ties.
Looking to contribute to community revitalization in South Memphis, Shadyac, in 2015, purchased the vacant Soulsville Towne Center at auction for $3.2 million. The roughly 80,000 square-foot speculative space failed to attract tenants, succumbed to Recession pressures, and sat as a vacant possibility.
Shadyac comes from a Lebanese-American family, and his father, Richard, shared a close friendship with fellow Lebanese-American Danny Thomas, actor and founder of St. Jude Children’s Research hospital. Richard Shadyac served as CEO of St. Jude's fundraising arm, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC). Today, Tom Shadyac’s brother, Richard Shadyac Jr., serves in his father’s former role.
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Shadyac has a home in Memphis and teaches storytelling at both the University of Memphis and LeMoyne-Owen College, a historically black college just around the corner from Memphis Rox.
“He’s invested in Memphis because his heart is here, and his family is here,” Dean said.
Shadyac committed to transforming the former Soulsville Towne Center into a facility that would offer youth opportunities and foster relationships across cultural, racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. But he needed a concrete idea for the shape that would take – a tangible activity that would draw people into the center.
Shadyac enlisted Dean to help. Community meetings were held, and the partners took notes while residents provided input.
“We knew we didn’t want to build another basketball court,” Dean said. “I’ve grown up in South Memphis, and I didn’t want that. We thought about indoor football and soccer fields, but we have those in the city.”
Josh Jimenez, on staff at Memphis Rox, works to set a new climbing route on one of the bouldering walls. (Brandon Dahlberg)
Shadyac asked Dean if he’d ever been rock climbing, which he hadn’t. The pair flew to Boulder, Colorado to rock climb, hike and bike their way through the foothills of the Rockies.
After Dean gave him the thumbs up, Shadyac then flew 20 African-American teenagers from South Memphis to Colorado, where they spent a week biking, hiking, and rock climbing indoors and outdoors.
After that, the pair, accompanied by volunteers from Streets Ministries, took a diverse group of black, white and Latino children, ages 10 to 15, from Memphis’ Berclair neighborhood to Nashville, where they climbed and hiked.
A third excursion included 30 college students from LeMoyne-Owen, who spent nine days engaged in outdoor activities in Telluride, Colorado. All three groups, made up almost exclusively of young people who had never been exposed to activities like rock climbing, expressed enthusiasm at the thought of being able to enjoy these activities back home. Shadyac and Dean had their answer.
The two friends were so fired up over the Memphis Rox concept, they began climbing anywhere and everywhere they could. Dean said they were scolded a couple of times, once for climbing on the side of church building.
“They said, ‘Sir, you can’t climb on the church,’” Dean said. “We would just go anywhere in Memphis and find something to climb.”
In March, Memphis Rox opened its doors to the public. The facility, which offers about 30,000 square feet of climbing and fitness space and accommodates both beginner and experienced climbers, offers bouldering — climbing without a rope, with a deep padded cushion below to protect climbers from falls — and top rope, which involves climbing up to 45 feet with the use of a harness, ropes, and a partner.
In addition to climbing, the center offers a fitness area with machines such as stationary bikes and treadmills, as well meditation and yoga classes and a pay-it-forward juice bar to enjoy a fresh juice, coffee, sandwiches and healthy treats. Customers who are able to pay a little extra to can cover the cost for others.
Caye Caparas shows her chalk covered hands from a recent ascent on one of the bouldering walls at Memphis Rox. This was her first time at the facility. (Brandon Dahlberg)
Visitors are welcome to gather in the community lounge area, where they can connect with neighbors and access Wi-Fi.
“We want to provide what people need,” Dean said. “We want them to come here and feel comfortable, at home and safe, but also able to challenge themselves. When people leave here, they feel great, and they’ve made genuine connections.”
Memphis Rox has already become an afterschool hangout for a group of about 20 neighborhood schoolchildren, who connect with everyone from neighbors to yoga teachers to attorneys from across the city.
“The possibilities are endless with this place, when you invite people from different backgrounds,” said Dean. “You want to tap into that energy that’s across the street at STAX, where black and white people were making this timeless music together.”
Those who have the means pay for membership, which offsets the costs to keep it accessible to everyone.
“If you can’t afford it, we don’t want your money; we want your energy,” Dean said. “We want to redefine currency. And we want your time. We want you to spend time in this neighborhood, read to kids, help people build good lives. We want to show them we’re all the same, we just have different stories. We’re storytellers. And I love hearing people’s stories and meeting at that intersection. This place is an intersection for relationships.”
Climbing enthusiasts, who sometimes drive for more than an hour to climb at Memphis Rox, are fundamental to keeping costs down.
“As far as rock climbing, this is the only gym in the area, and once you rock climb, you really love it and you’ll travel to do it, but we have this facility,” said regular visitor Ian McKenzie of Memphis. “But there’s a whole other great aspect of it – the giving back perspective. There’s nothing else in this area for people who don’t have the opportunity to afford going to a gym. This brings it to them.”
Member Josh Berryhill, who started climbing at Memphis Rox in March, said he was attracted to the center’s mission and the sense of community it’s cultivating.
“It’s one of the greatest things that I’ve seen in the city of Memphis in a long time,” Berryhill said. “They offer wonderful volunteer opportunities, from mentorships to just coming in to help spot people. Every time I come in here, I meet someone new, whether it’s a more experienced climber or it’s their first time. Everyone here just wants to learn and progress and everyone here is willing to help someone else out. That’s really what keeps bringing me back – I always have an amazing experience.”
Dean said one addition possibly on the horizon for Memphis Rox is a sister restaurant to New Jersey’s JBJ Soul Kitchen, a nonprofit community eatery run by the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, which serves healthy meals to both paying and in-need customers in a warm, welcoming environment.
During the production of Shadyac’s last film, “Brian Banks,” he hired 30 local college students from University of Memphis and LeMoyne-Owen College. To encourage more filmmaking in the city, Dean said Memphis Rox is looking into offering offices and production space for movie production companies, with the stipulation that they hire locals.
“There’s so much talent here in Memphis, waiting.”