Saving soul: The revitalization of the Soulsville neighborhood

Soulsville has a rich history and now a bright future. Community stakeholders in the area are pushing forward with a collective vision for a better neighborhood.
Soulsville has a way of touching people, even when they’re halfway around the world in a combat zone. It’s been more than 45 years, but Henry Ford will never forget the moment he heard the soulful sounds of Eddie Floyd’s “California Girl.”

Ford was wounded the next day in Cambodia, but hearing for the first time a song recorded at Stax is what he recalls most about the time. Ford physically was in a combat zone, but in that moment he was back home, just a couple of blocks from the famed recording studio on McLemore Avenue in Memphis.

“Soulsville is a special place to a lot of people,” said Ford, a neighborhood resident for 53 years and the President of the Soulsville Neighborhood Association. “One thing that was special about it for me was to go halfway around the world and hear the music recorded in your neighborhood that was special. You never forget that.”

The Soulsville community has a way with people. The pure artistic talent that has walked the neighborhood’s streets is on another level. But it’s more than the dozens of soul hits of the 1960s and ’70s that came out of Stax.

Soulsville is a neighborhood of Memphians like Ford who take pride in their community. And it’s a neighborhood that has gone through its ups and downs.

Part of the neighborhood’s slide can be traced to post-World War II and the loss of streetcars that were used by Soulsville’s residents to make their way downtown. Stax closed in the mid-1970s, and the demolition of the commercial buildings along the south side of McLemore Avenue – including the historic Stax Studio – delivered the final blow.

The comeback story began with the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opening in 2003, and it continues today with renewed hope centered on the mixed-used New Towne Center, the community anchor across McLemore from Stax that recently sold at bankruptcy auction to director Tom Shadyac.

The Soulsville story is building, much like the crescendo in the Stax masterpiece “Try A Little Tenderness.” Otis Redding’s soul-drenched voice pleading as Booker T. & the MGs build up until the song explodes. “You won’t regret it,” Otis sings. The song features all the power, soul and magic that was Stax at his best.

But the Soulsville renewal isn’t an Otis Redding song. What it is, though, is community stakeholders pushing forward with ideas to create a better neighborhood.

The Memphis chapter of the Urban Land Institute recently assembled a panel that culminated with an all-day town hall meeting Sept. 15. Many things came out of the gathering.

“Trust became a big discussion point,” said Looney Ricks Kiss’ Rob Norcross, who chaired the ULI panel. “You have to gain trust. If you’re trying to redevelop the neighborhood, you have to gain the trust of the neighborhood.”

The ULI panel asked residents what they wanted. The answers were simple: ice cream, a bakery, cleaners and a place to get coffee or a meal.

A number of community stakeholders were interviewed. The final one was Shadyac.

There are still plenty of questions about what the Towne Center will become. But Shadyac’s vision is simple. It starts with feeding the community, and then figuring it out from there.

“He noted that’s how St. Jude was founded and who would’ve believed that it could have happened like it did,” Norcross said. “He does have a clear vision of how we as a society should treat each other. I believe it will work. His group talked about food, art, music, creativity and the emotional healing of souls. Everybody is included.

“The thing that hit me the most when we did interview Tom, he had 10 students from his University of Memphis class. We’re thinking about buildings and space. Tom’s group comes from the perspective of people first, we’re all brothers and sisters and we need to treat people that way. This box we’re trying to put around the neighborhood they’re not thinking about it that way. They’re thinking about it as a mission, which is a powerful way to think.”

Shadyac mentioned a number of opportunities for the 77,000-square-foot center. His concept calls for creating something akin to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with space for counseling, classes, a coffee shop with a pay-as-you-can restaurant and fun features such as a rock-climbing wall.

Ford appreciates Shadyac’s spirit and positive outlook on what is possible.

“He came in and wants dialogue with the community,” Ford said. “That is a promising approach. And that’s part of what we do within the association. We have an ongoing survey process where we go door to door and interview residents of the community and find out what their skills and abilities are and their hopes and dreams are in the community. … The association doesn’t naturally assume that we know what everybody wants, even though we are residents ourselves.”

Calvin Stovall, CEO of the Soulsville Foundation, said the future of Shadyac’s building is essential to the long-term growth of the community. Talk of a restaurant is important for visitors to the Stax Museum.

“There is no other food and beverage near us,” he said. “We get so many visitors and one thing we hear is where can we get something to eat. Having food and beverage will allow us to extend someone hanging out here in the neighborhood. Beyond that there is nothing else to keep tourists here.”

Where exactly is “here?” McLemore is home to the newer developments, but the neighborhood roughly stretches from Mississippi, Crump and Elvis Presley boulevards to Trigg Avenue. It’s a section of Memphis with a lot of authentic appeal.

“This is a historically rich neighborhood,” Stovall said. “The birthplace of Aretha Franklin, Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, David Porter, Royal Studios, Memphis Minnie. There has been a lot of rich history. … There is so much synergy.”

Multiple organizations have a stake in the community: Stax, LeMoyne-Owen College, ULI and Community LIFT, among them.

The primary function of Community LIFT is to support other organizations doing work in neighborhoods. But Soulsville is the organization’s first demonstration neighborhood.

“We feel like it’s a unique opportunity to transform a community that has been under-resourced and neglected for many years,” said Tsedey Betru, Vice President of Community LIFT. “There is an obvious musical legacy and the culture. We feel like there’s a great opportunity to leverage those things and demonstrate that Memphis neighborhoods can be a viable pathway to develop the city’s economy. Neighborhoods aren’t viewed as part of a larger vision for economic development. We’re hoping we can make a compelling case to put neighborhoods at center of the city’s economic agenda.”

The first project was the Memphis Slim House. It’s a music studio that has grown into more of a comprehensive art space for the Soulsville community. The Slim House has been in operation for about 18 months, targeting adults who are aspiring musicians, much like the Stax Music Academy does with youth.

An outdoor performance venue called Slim’s Backyard is in the works to serve the community.
Community LIFT also is working to implement a free wireless network for the community thanks to funding from the Tennessee Valley Authority. It’s still in Beta phase, but Betru said the hope is it will be ready for public release in about six months.

Norcross said it’s important that neighborhood development isn’t forced. There needs to be direction, but it also needs to happen organically. He compares it to the High Point Terrace neighborhood where he once lived.

“I moved in there in 1992 and it got to where we couldn’t find a place to park with the restaurants there,” he said. “The growth just happened organically. I believe it will work here.”
Ford said the partnerships with investments by organizations like Community LIFT is important to the growth of the neighborhood.

And as a father of two sons who were raised in the community, he is especially proud of the efforts being made at the Soulsville Charter School and Stax Music Academy.

“The graduation rates … because so often we were hearing the opposite relative to schools,” Ford said. “Things happening with 100 percent graduation rates, we weren’t used to hearing those kinds of numbers. That has been a very uplifting experience watching those things happen.

“And LeMoyne-Owen, we’re seeing it come back from difficult times and come back strong. We look forward. There are so many positive things happening.”

There is much to be excited about in Soulsville.

“It’s going to pay off,” Stovall said. “It’s the history of Memphis. It’s part of the fabric of what Memphis is. We have a successful museum. We have a very successful charter school here with 640 students and 100 percent graduation rate and 100 percent college acceptance. People have been investing in Soulsville and it’s clear. It’s all successful. Who doesn’t want to be part of a success story?”
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Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.