ByKathy Moore Cowan
Broad Ave. in Memphis gets a temporary facelift, showcasing myriad possibilities for this neglected area.
If you happened to be in Memphis, Tenn., on Nov. 19-20 and found yourself on Broad Avenue, you probably thought you were at just another street festival. After all, there was plenty of music, food, drink, fun and people. But what you might not have known was that you were an extra in a big theatrical production called “A New Face for an Old Broad,” designed to show the possibilities for Broad Avenue and other neglected urban areas of Memphis.
The project had support from the Hyde Family Foundation, the Binghampton Development Council, the Memphis Regional Design Center, the City of Memphis and the Community Development Council of Greater Memphis/Livable Memphis, the Historic Broad Business Association and countless volunteers. They teamed up to create the set for a three-block illusion.
Imagine if you will:
Street priorities realigned to make pedestrians and cyclists No. 1. The 60-foot-wide “broad” street was restriped, adding crosswalks and protected bike lanes. On-street parking was angled and positioned as a protective barrier for bike lanes. Cars slowly eased through two lanes as people walked and cycled.
A thriving neighborhood commercial district. Vacant storefronts were cleaned, repainted and filled with temporary pop-up shops and restaurants. People who had dreamed of opening businesses were permitted to occupy some of the vacant storefronts as demonstration businesses. Opaque materials were removed from occupied storefronts to open up ground-floor windows, creating a more comfortable environment for pedestrians. Cafes extended onto the sidewalks. A vacant parking lot became a skate park.
Enhanced street infrastructure to beautify the environment. Trees were positioned along the sidewalks and storefronts. Large planters of 10-foot cedars were used to create landscaping for bump-out islands to beautify the area and help slow traffic. Antique street lamps were used to provide ambience and security.
For some of us older folks, it may have felt like déjà vu or “back to the future” as we witnessed a neighborhood where people walked, cycled, shopped at local businesses and met with neighbors. But it was all an elaborate staging. Although no Academy Awards for set design were given, the real prize was the general optimism that was evident in the faces of the merchants, the residents and the visitors to the area.
In the early 1900s, Broad Avenue was a main thoroughfare in a thriving neighborhood commercial district. Years of out-migration and neglect left the avenue plagued with vacant storefronts. To make matters worse, a few years ago Sam Cooper Boulevard—a major connector to Interstate 40 East—was rerouted and extended to bypass Broad Avenue, which had served as the connector between Sam Cooper and East Parkway. Now out of sight and out of mind, almost every establishment on Broad went out of business. It appeared that public policy had finally put the nail in the coffin for the Broad Avenue Business District. It had become a low-rent district full of drugs and prostitution.
Surprisingly, the economic downturn can take credit for the renewed interest in Broad Avenue. Businesses looking for a break in rent have discovered the area. After the Urban Arts Commission moved its downtown office to Broad, several other arts-related businesses followed. Business owners on Broad started working together in an effort to survive. Four years ago, the Historic Broad Business Association started hosting quarterly Art Walks and other events to showcase the district to the public. “A New Face for an Old Broad” is the climax of grassroots efforts to help Broad Avenue make a comeback.
The idea for this type of event originated last April in Oak Cliff, a neighborhood outside of Dallas, Texas. Since then, the Better Block Project has spread to Houston and Waco, Texas, Mount Rainier, Md., and yes, Memphis. “We brought the idea to the Historic Broad Business Association and they ran with it,” says Sarah Newstok, program manager for Livable Memphis, a program of the Community Development Council of Greater Memphis. Pat Brown, vice president of the Historic Broad Business Association and business manager for T Clifton Gallery, says, “The ability to demonstrate how the street could look, with increased businesses along with the biking and walking community, seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.” Implementing the idea didn’t take a lot of expensive consultants and hundreds of meetings. There were no requests for millions in public investment. This grassroots effort relied on volunteers who didn’t mind hard work.
The event far surpassed the organizers’ expectations. Support from the sponsors, community and media was more than expected. Original goals targeted a turnout of 5,000 people; estimates are that the event was attended by 13,000 people. Already the event is bringing about positive changes. Livable Memphis received a $25,000 matching grant from the Alliance for Biking and Walking to permanently engineer the bike lanes through the Broad District. The avenue will serve as an anchor for the Greenline Connection Project, a bike lane linking Overton Park to the Shelby Farms Greenline terminus. David Wayne Brown, president of the Historic Broad Business District and Splash Creative, an area advertising agency, states, “I hope we demonstrated that inner-city, old neighborhoods can be revitalized. Everything does not have to be suburbanized, where we tear down the trees and build something new.”
Partners in the Facelift project believe this event will continue the transformation of Broad Avenue and help people see value in other neighborhoods across Memphis that have long been ignored. In fact, the organizers are planning another event, “Facelift Memphis: Reinventing Memphis—Block by Block,” in an undetermined neighborhood next year. In staging this community of the future, perhaps the greatest accomplishment was the inspiration it provided to believe in the idea of a comeback. Author William Arthur Ward wrote, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it; if you can dream it, you can become it.” The Historic Broad Business District is on its way to becoming “It” and paving the way for other neighborhoods to follow.