Saturday morning, volunteers took another step toward recreating what Soulsville once was — a thriving neighborhood of musicians.
The idea is still young, but under the guidance of Professor Charlie Santo, students from the University of Memphis' city and regional planning program are working on what they call the Memphis Music Magnet.
Whereas successful cities are traditionally based around transportation and production, a knowledge economy makes others things, such as amenities and quality of life, more important.
"We recognize creativity is important," Santo says. "The question is: What can we do about it?"
Taking inspiration from ArtsMove Chattanooga, a program that offers mortgage and financial assistance to relocate artists in certain neighborhoods, and Paducah, Kentucky's Artist Relocation Program, the students came up with an idea. Why not take a neighborhood such as Soulsville, which is steeped in musical heritage but could use some economic help, and invite musicians to live there?
It builds on assets the city already has and ties into the regional chamber's emphasis on music as a target industry.
"It's an arts-based neighborhood revitalization effort," Santo says. "We're thinking of struggling musicians. This gives them a reason to buy a house and stay in Memphis and would make it more attractive to musicians from other places."
The students surveyed about 300 musicians to see what amenities or services a musicians' enclave might need. In addition to housing incentives, the students came up with studio and rehearsal space, lodging for visiting musicians, and a health-care center.
And that's where Memphis Heritage and the LeMoyne-Owen Community Development Corporation (CDC) come in.
Memphis Heritage has been interested in preserving the former homes of blues artist Memphis Slim and Aretha Franklin for some time.
A few months ago, Memphis Heritage director June West recruited an engineer to complete a condition study on Memphis Slim's house, located directly across the street from the Stax Museum and owned by the LeMoyne-Owen CDC.
"We saw the supports, and they seem to be okay," West says. "There are a lot of problems, though. If we don't do something soon, we won't be able to save it."
Saturday morning, about 20 volunteers wearing face masks and heavy gloves assembled at the house. They cleared the yard, filled a dumpster with debris from inside the house, and talked to neighborhood residents about the Memphis Music Magnet.
"What I'd like to see is these houses used for something present-day," West says. "To me, this gives a bigger sense of worth to the whole project."
Instead of selling the houses to individuals or creating museums, Memphis Slim's and Franklin's former residences could be used for neighborhood-based amenities, such as studio space.
"We think part of the appeal for musicians will be to live in this historic music neighborhood," Santo says, "and say, 'I get to rehearse in Aretha Franklin's old house.'"
In addition to the area directly surrounding Stax, university students have identified vacant warehouses near Walker Avenue that could be used for other services, as well as vacant land near Saxon that could be used to build new construction, something like Musicians' Village in New Orleans.
Sam Powers, a graduate student in regional and city planning, says the Music Magnet is the perfect project for him because of the overlap of music and economic development.
"We want to bring creative people here and retain the creative people we have in Memphis," he says. "It's a perfect location. All the history is here. ... We want to show that not only is it history, it's going on now, too."