Rebirth of a Vital Urban Neighborhood: Memphis' Cooper Young Area Experiences Positive Turnaround

April 01, 1999
By  Ellen Eubank
Rehabbing older homes is one of several initiatives spurring the growth of Memphis' Cooper Young neighborhood.

Over the past few decades, many successful community development initiatives have been neighborhood-based and comprehensive in focus. Capitalizing on a particular area's strengths, these initiatives meet both housing and economic development needs. The success of Memphis' Cooper Young neighborhood exemplifies this approach, utilizing three key community groups that evolved over the past 10 years. The result is the rebirth of a vital urban neighborhood. Cooper Young historically had been a strong inner-city neighborhood, but by the mid-1970s, it had fallen on hard times. Several years passed before the Cooper Young Community Association became reinvigorated. But thanks to a city of Memphis demonstration project that added period lighting to neighborhood streets, things began to improve. Then, in 1989, the city's Main Street Task Force targeted the intersection of Cooper and Young streets for improvements. This led to the formation of a new Cooper Young Business Association, an advocacy group for the area's business interests. It undertook an annual street festival and promoted the area's location as a prime spot for new businesses. The association eventually gave birth to the Cooper Young Development Corporation, which strives to improve the quality of life through housing and economic development in Cooper Young.


These three groups—the Community Association, the Business Association and the Development Corporation—still maintain their interconnectedness, and each continues to fill its niche in supporting the viability of this area. The boards of these three entities recently held their first retreat to re-evaluate their separate strategies and discover new synergies. Although the development corporation is the latecomer to this area, it has benefited from the strong support of both the business community and area residents.

"The strengths of the neighborhood include economic and racial diversity, which provide a steady supply of energy and creativity," said Jim Kovarik, director of the Cooper Young Development Corporation. "The area's residents are primarily moderate- to middle-income, and the diversity helps to keep housing prices more affordable, so all types of people are able to live and flourish here. Cooper Young owes much of its success to these diverse residents who have not just volunteered for many projects, but have driven many key initiatives."

As these development initiatives have grown and matured, so too has the need for paid staff. The business association recently hired its first staff person and is seeking to strengthen its ties with the community. With the addition of staff, the current goal for all the Cooper Young organizations is to take development to the next level while still tapping into the wealth of available volunteers.

Cooper Young Development Corporation is well acquainted with the difficulties of rehabbing older homes, having taken on more than a dozen such houses over the past seven years. Recently, it added the challenge of new home construction and plans to tackle at least eight projects this year, both new construction and rehab. The corporation's goal is to maintain the character of this neighborhood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, while keeping homes affordable. Cooper Young typically sells its houses for $65,000 even though they cost more than $75,000 to build. Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO) funds are used to subsidize the difference.

Construction funding comes from NationsBank, with whom the Cooper Young CDC has had a long-standing partnership. This relationship has allowed the CDC to tap into a funding source that understands the challenges of revitalizing an urban area. Whereas some lenders still may not want to take a chance on older housing stock, Cooper Young's track record is opening doors to more easily accessible acquisition/rehab loans for area residents.

New projects for the area include Gateways 2000, an initiative partly funded by the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, which will be implemented over three years. The objectives of Gateways 2000 are to beautify neighborhood entrances, encourage private beautification efforts and improve neighborhood green spaces. Through these efforts, the area hopes to enhance opportunities for residents and organizations to work together and feel more connected. This project involves not only the three key Cooper Young organizations, but also churches, local Boy and Girl Scout troops and garden clubs.

As Cooper Young moves forward, two key goals are to sustain comprehensive development and to grow its success through partnerships with other communities. Cooper Young built its first house outside its boundaries in the adjoining Rozelle-Annesdale neighborhood. This neighborhood approached the Cooper Young CDC after private developers began building infill housing on its numerous vacant lots that was out of character with the older housing stock. Rozelle-Annesdale recognized the experience of Cooper Young in developing the kind of housing it desired, and Cooper Young recognized the importance of helping to revitalize the larger community of which it is a part. This is a win-win situation for both neighborhoods and is at the heart of why neighborhood-based development is so successful. As Jim Kovarik says, "Cooper Young has survived because of strong individuals and strong assets. This is about a whole community, with many parts, that is working together. Whatever we have, we need to take it and move out with it into areas that need help."

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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