MEMPHIS_JULY

The Memphis Music Magnet is arts-based neighborhood revitalization with a Memphis twist, designed to augment the redevelopment of the Soulsville USA neighborhood by making it a community of choice for musicians, music-related creatives, and other artists. ArtPlace spoke with Charlie Santo, Associate Professor of City & Regional Planning at the University of Memphis, whose students have worked with multiple stakeholders to help develop the Memphis Music Magnet concept.

ARTPLACE: What is your elevator pitch when you describe your project to people?

SANTO: I’ve found that my two-minute elevator pitch often leads to a follow-up two-hour coffee shop conversation, because when you talk to musicians and artists who choose to make Memphis their home you realize that their passion for this city is palpable – and that it can be transformative. We want to build a community around those artists that is supportive and nurturing. And we want to harness that passion and focus it toward community change.

The purpose of the Memphis Music Magnet is to create neighborhood-level change in Soulsville USA by attracting and supporting musicians, celebrating the musical and artistic heritage of the neighborhood, and creating new types of social interaction and collaboration. The concept is about creating a neighborhood with amenities that support music and art, while using those creative endeavors as tools for community engagement and empowerment. It’s about creating a neighborhood where music and art tell stories, activate spaces, reclaim vacant buildings, create interaction, and connect neighbors new and old.

The short term objectives associated with our ArtPlace grant are to:

1) Restore and expand a key music heritage property as Memphis Slim’s Collaboratory – and intentional space for artistic collaboration that will include a training sound studio and other neighborhood services
2) Begin predevelopment for a musician-focused residential block of single-family, multi-family, and transitional housing
3) Present a year of focused Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO) programming that will include unique musical collaborations performed in currently vacant community spaces and well as mentoring, youth activities, and leadership training.

Ultimately, we are seeking to foster a physical music community – but we are not attempting to create a new character for this neighborhood from scratch. Our concept builds on the history and identity of the neighborhood and existing local assets.

ARTPLACE: How do you expect to increase vibrancy in the place you are working?

SANTO: The project builds on the unique culture and heritage of Memphis in a neighborhood that, in many ways, represents the heart of Memphis. The Soulsville USA neighborhood in South Memphis has a rich heritage and was once a cultural center with worldwide influence as the birthplace of American soul music, and home to Stax Records. The neighborhood was also home to Memphis’ first park, first female educational institution, first African-American educational institution, and first African American College, and played a role in the struggle for civil rights. Once a racially integrated, middle class community, Soulsville USA has been impacted by decades of socio-economic and policy changes. Today the Soulsville USA neighborhood struggles with the same issues of poverty, disinvestment, and abandonment facing many other inner city neighborhoods, but it is positioned for revitalization that would build on its unique cultural assets and anchors – including the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Soulsville Charter School, LeMoyne-Owen College (a historically black college), and the Memphis Black Arts Alliance.

The Memphis Music Magnet project will promote revitalization through cultural and physical renovation and create vibrancy at multiple levels. Implementation will begin with a year of MSO engagement to create surface-level vibrancy. The intent of bringing MSO artists, products and new audiences to the Soulsville neighborhood is to initiate arts-based, cross-community connections.Existing community residents will be enriched with new cultural experiences, and symphony patrons will gain an appreciation for the cultural heritage of the authentic Memphis neighborhood which is the birthplace of American Soul music. Symphony performances and artistic works by other arts organizations will also bring new life to currently vacant properties.

Mid-level vibrancy will happen as musicians come together to learn and collaborate at Memphis Slim’s Collaboratory. This includes existing community artists, MSO musicians who establish community presence, and other artists who are attracted to the activity and emerging opportunities. Prolonged energy will result from the ongoing creative processes imagined for the site, with practicing musicians learning and working alongside students from the Soulsville Charter School, Stax Music Academy and the Visible Music College. Core-level vibrancy will mean a renewed appreciation among Memphians of Soulsville as a broader community asset and an important part of the city’s current story. This will be evidenced by increased visits to the neighborhood that support commercial activity and increased interest in housing opportunities, especially among musicians choosing to live in the neighborhood.

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