Panel discusses examples set in Soulsville USA

Soulsville USA brought together a panel of community residents and leaders to discuss “What Smart Neighborhoods Can Learn From Soulsville USA,” as On the Ground wraps its three-month stay in the community.
As the culmination of High Ground News’ first On the Ground series, community leaders from Soulsville USA gathered to discuss "What Smart Neighborhoods Can Learn From Soulsville USA" at Metropolitan Baptist Church on March 14.

Moderated by Rebecca Hutchinson, Soulsville USA site director for the Building Neighborhood Capacity Program, the panel brought together Soulsville residents Everlena Yarbrough and Lori Spicer Robertson along with the Rev. Reginald Porter Sr. and restaurant owner Talbert Fleming.

The event brought together neighborhood residents as well as people from other Memphis communities to hear about how Soulsville USA is positioning itself as a model in the city.

"I was pleased with the turnout, particularly people from outside the neighborhood who could hear the passion everyone on the panel has for Soulsville,” said Lance Wiedower, On the Ground project coordinator and editor. “In Memphis, we should be proud of our neighborhoods. All of them. Soulsville USA, particularly, is a community that all Memphians should embrace. It represents the soul of Memphis. We're not always pretty. We have problems. But there is much to be proud of in Soulsville, just like Memphis. The rich music heritage gets all the attention, but I think the warmth of the people in the community made the music possible. I'd like to think that hospitality came out during the panel."

As a five-year resident of Soulsville USA and vice president of the Soulsville Neighborhood Association who married into the neighborhood, Robertson spoke of her experience as a resident.

"Initially, I was reluctant to move here as I loved living in Downtown Memphis, but once I came here to Soulsville I realized it’s very relational, much like our city itself," said Robertson. "It's all about the relationships you have, who you know, how you connect with others and Soulsville has that same characteristic. I fell in love with the narrative of this neighborhood."

In 2012, the residents of Soulsville USA decided with no resources to embark on their own neighborhood redevelopment.
"They had no backing. They just stepped up and said, ‘We're going to make some decisions about our neighborhood,’" Robertson said.

Focus groups were formed with Robertson as a leader who spearheaded the neighborhood movement that seeks to focus on the community’s strengths rather than weaknesses. The work of the neighborhood leaders paid off and in 2015 Soulsville USA was chosen for a building capacity grant that brought in new resources for the neighborhood and has seen a renewed focus on matters such as blight removal and safety.

Soulsville USA, like other Memphis neighborhoods has been stricken by blight. Longtime resident and chaplain of the Soulsville Neighborhood Association, Yarbrough spoke of her desire to overhaul Chandler Park so the children of the community have a safe place to play.
"A park is a place where children should be able to go and play with each other without fear," said Yarbrough. "I feel a big part of the blight fight is getting the park up to standard."

The group has worked to catalog all blighted properties.

"It's not an easy road. It's a challenge," said Yarbrough. "The reason why I say it's a challenge is that it is not easy working in the community to make things better. When I say we're workin', we're workin'."

The neighborhood will hold a major clean-up initiative on April 9 to continue their blight fight.

"When a group is involved, we can move, if we can stay together we can make things happen," said Yarbrough.

As for the community's needs, Fleming, owner of Jim and Samella's House restaurant expressed a desire for a business association to encourage small-business growth in Soulsville USA.
"We need a neighborhood business association to keep us informed of various opportunities that we don't hear about that other communities may know about and offer classes on how to start a business" said Fleming. "We small-business owners follow our dreams but some of us do not have a technical background in things we need to be successful in."
Fleming is expanding his vision as an entrepreneur and opening an amphitheater with a state-of-the-art sound system adjacent to Jim and Samella's for the neighborhood to enjoy live performances.

As to what makes Soulsville USA so special, Porter – who grew up in the community – commented on the neighborhood’s tremendous history, especially in regards to soul music and the civil rights movement.

“When I show someone around, whether they’re from outside of town or just other parts of Memphis, people are just fascinated by that at one time all these people (musicians and civil rights leaders) were all living here together, who went on to transform this city and this world.”

Porter spoke of the enthusiasm residents and former residents of Soulsville USA all share.

“Anytime you go across the country and find someone who lived here or attended LeMoyne-Owen College, you’ll find the same kind of excitement in them as you’ll find in current residents,” he said.

A resident of nearly 40 years, Yarbrough raised her children in Soulsville USA. While they all left for college and have built their homes elsewhere, Yarbrough is confident that the continuing improvements may draw them back.

“Hopefully they’ll return back home to Soulsville, and when they return they will see a magnificent Soulsville,” she said.
Robertson summed up what makes Soulsville so special in three words – magic, music and movement.

“If you have come to Memphis and not visited Soulsville then you have missed out on the heartbeat of this city; and you need to come back and visit our neighborhood,” she said.

The three months High Ground News spent documenting Soulsville USA for its first On the Ground were eye-opening for outsiders and residents alike.

"There are so many great things going on in our Soulsville and while we don't need a pat on the back, it's just nice to let people know what happens in our community," Hutchinson said. 
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Read more articles by Amy Hoyt.

Amy Hoyt is High Ground News' Community Engagement Specialist, which suits her love of Memphis and its inhabitants.