Block Heads

How to build a neighborhood by really trying.



hat do Wonder Bread, Sun Studio, and ArtFarm Gallery have in common? They are on the edge, the edge of downtown. But they're also in the Edge, a new name for an old neighborhood, reaching from Linden to Jefferson Avenues and from Danny Thomas Boulevard to I-240, and the name of a newly formed community association. It's downtown but not really. Midtown too but not really.

"This neighborhood has been somewhat of a no-man's-land between Midtown and downtown, and we want to bridge that gap between the Medical Center and the river," says Michael Todd. Todd serves as president of the Edge Community Association and owns property in the area.

On Saturday, the association will hold its first Edgefest, featuring live music, art exhibits, an Elvis play by Sleeping Cat Studio, and a walking tour through the neighborhood.

"This neighborhood is unique because it's a mixed-use area, and we have a lot of grassroots-type businesses here," says Will McGown, vice president of the Edge and a furniture maker with a studio on Monroe.

Mixed-use means the Edge is not only art galleries, restaurants, and retail stores but also an industrial zone with businesses such as Wonder Bread, the auto-body shop A.S. Martin & Sons (in operation for more than 100 years), and Murdock Printing Company. Those businesses were skeptical when the artist group connected to ArtFarm Gallery wanted to establish a neighborhood association about four years ago.

"The commercial businesses were afraid that this area would become solely an artist community. But we don't want them to leave. We want to embrace the community as it is," Todd says.

Chris Martin of A.S. Martin & Sons, an inactive member of the association, says that there were concerns at first. "This area is not absolutely artist-dominated. I could name four other body shops that are located in the Edge area," Martin says.

Plans for a neighborhood association took hold about two years ago, an outgrowth of ArtFarm and Neighborhood Watch meetings. "I guess people realized that this neighborhood was up for the next big push in development. Downtown is running out of space, and we didn't want to see the historic houses torn down for just another Home Depot or a shopping mall. We wanted to control our own destiny," Todd says.

Controlling their own destiny and having a say about what's happening in the community are often how neighborhood associations get started. Today, Memphis has 350 associations registered with the Center For Neighborhoods, an agency that provides training, technical assistance, and information to community associations and help to communities that want to establish an association. According to Vernua Hanrahan, the center's coordinator, people usually get together in a block club first, and several clubs will form a neighborhood association later.

Every community can start a neighborhood association, and every neighborhood association will be recognized as such even if it's not registered as a nonprofit. It's about citizen participation, not IRS designation.

Right now, commercial businesses in the "Edge district" are still hesitant to take an active role. Kudzu's Deli & Bar, ArtFarm, Sleeping Cat Studio, Marshall Arts, and McGown Studio are playing the lead.

"We would like to see everybody involved," McGown says. But getting everybody involved is often a sluggish process. The Edge doesn't charge any membership fees, which encourages more people to be part of the community association. If money is needed for projects such as Edgefest, the association will try to raise the money or get members to donate services. Todd, who sees himself as mediator between the artist and the business communities, estimates that, at this point, the Edge has 50 members, 15 of whom are very active.

But this is not a one- or two-man show. Important decisions that will affect the whole neighborhood are discussed and voted on. Because a newsletter hasn't been established yet, neighbors, no matter if they are part of the association or not, are informed through e-mail or by word of mouth.

The Edge's first success came when the Memphis Medical District master plan was introduced. Initially, the plan called for major development in the Edge community, until the association voiced its concerns and the plans were changed to be more in accordance with the community's vision.

"The hardest part for us right now is to build our own identity. It takes a lot of volunteer work and community commitment to get this thing going," Todd says. Edgefest is the first big step toward this goal.

But building an identity in this neighborhood could be a very delicate issue. Artists are drawn to the Edge because studio space is extremely cheap. Improving the community, renovating buildings, and attracting more businesses will naturally increase the rent. What then?

"We are not trying to become another Cooper-Young, and we are not trying to get rich. We are trying to build a neighborhood," Todd says.

Edgefest, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, August 17th.

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