Metalsmith Jerry Couillard calls the old days on Broad Avenue "a little adventure."
"I couldn't go outside much, I'll tell you that," Couillard says. "It was frightening, but that's why I came here, because it was a low-rent district."
The gregarious metalsmith moved his metal shop to Broad Avenue 16 years ago. He looks the way you might expect a blacksmith to look — stout with a thick, coarse beard — and he lives in the top half of his building. The forge where he and his staff create metal furniture and specialty projects occupies the first floor.
Initially, he rented the building, but when it went up for tax auction, "I didn't want to move my junk," he says, "so I basically bought it for back taxes.
"I had a studio and a house before and, with the double taxes, the double utilities, not to mention the commute. Now I walk down the stairs in the morning with my cup of coffee — this was really attractive to me."
At the time, the street had its share of prostitution and drugs. Couillard shared a wall with a hard-partying motorcycle club, prompting him to move his bedroom to the other side of his building.
But in recent years, the once rough-and-tumble area — some have compared the street's earlier days to the Wild West — has seen an influx of businesses, especially those associated with the arts. A few years ago, the neighborhood business association began hosting quarterly "art walks," and most recently, the Three Angels Diner, operated by Bari restaurant's Jason and Rebecca Severs, opened to raves. The general feeling is that Broad Avenue is a neighborhood on the cusp.
These days, Couillard operates his front office as a gallery during art walks.
"Now we have people walking the streets at night out here, and they are good citizens rather than people selling things," he says. "We've come a long way."
With the business association's most recent event last weekend — the "New Face for an Old Broad" — it seems the area has turned another corner.
Partnering with Livable Memphis, the Historic Broad Business Association showed residents what Broad — and other neglected urban areas of Memphis — could look like, even without millions in public investment.
Volunteers restriped the street, adding crosswalks and protected bike lanes to make it more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly. Vacant buildings, quickly cleaned and repainted, were filled with pop-up shops and restaurants.
Event organizers estimate that roughly 13,000 people came to the street over the course of the weekend, and the result was a festival-like atmosphere that left many amazed at both the transformation and the possibilities ahead.
In the early 1900s, Broad Avenue was a main street of sorts for the surrounding neighborhood, offering a barbershop, a bank, and a dry-goods store.
Oddly enough, the street's latest renaissance may have started with the recession. For many of the businesses and organizations that have located on Broad in recent years, the neighborhood just made economic sense.
The UrbanArt Commission used to have an airy, first-floor office at the corner of Third and Madison downtown. Executive director John Weeden says it had a lot of traffic and trolley noise. PowerPoint presentations and the like were difficult because of daylight coming in from the windows.
"Another issue was panhandlers would knock on our windows and harangue our visitors," he says. "It was not a conducive setting to do business."
Shortly after Weeden was hired at UrbanArt, the group's lease was set to expire and they began looking at office space around the city. When they viewed an empty space on Broad — really just a gutted shell of a place, at the time — they saw potential.
"It also helped that the rent was significantly less," Weeden says. "We got at least two-and-a-half times the space we had downtown, and the rent was $1,500 less a month."
Some of the organization's board members still had reservations, however, because of the area's rough reputation. Since then, they've seen the risk pay off.
"When we moved here, everyone was looking at us like, 'Whoa, what are you doing?'" Weeden says. "We wanted to be a pioneer and an anchor in what we believe will turn into a vibrant art community."
Currently, there are at least a dozen art-related businesses in a quarter-mile stretch. Some have been there for years. Others, such as the T Clifton Gallery, are more recent additions. Pat Brown, business manager for the gallery, says she and Tom Clifton knew 2009 was going to be a difficult year for the business. Like UrbanArt, they were looking for a less expensive space and settled on the emerging arts district.
"It's been our best year in 26 years," she says. "People enjoy coming to this part of town. The area has an incredible vibe."
David Wayne Brown, president of the Historic Broad Business Association, opened Splash Creative in the neighborhood in February 2008.
"I had been looking all over the city for the right place to be," Brown says. He settled on a building that was once a small brewery and later a tavern.
"I thought this was exactly the kind of environment I wanted to be in: lots of cool people, lots of artists and artisans," he says. "It's also about 12 minutes from any place in the city. That was a plus."
As the president and the vice president of the Historic Broad Business Association, David Wayne Brown and Pat Brown (no relation) were key to last week's New Face for an Old Broad.
A week before the two-day event, Pat Brown stood in front of what she called her ultimate wedding-seating chart. On a large diagram of the street, she had placed different colored sticky notes — each denoting a different business or pop-up shop — on each storefront.
"It all started as a way to showcase what a community can do and what the Broad Avenue Arts District could look like in a few years," she says. "We're trying to give the street a facelift."
With volunteers from the neighborhood, Livable Memphis, and Americorps, among others, facades and interiors were repainted. Trash and debris were moved out of empty storefronts. Old paint was scraped off of windows.
"The first thing I thought was: Wow, that sounds like a big undertaking. My second thought was: Why not?" says David Wayne Brown. "We need something that takes Broad Avenue past where we are. The art walks have been great, but we want to see people here every day."
By the time of the event, wood paneling in the street's so-called heaven and hell building (it has been home to both a church and a biker club in its previous incarnations) was painted a muted green and mauve. Inside, people were selling jewelry and children's clothes.
In another previously empty space, the only thing recognizable from the week before were the words "Authorized Memphis Dealer" still adorning the wall. The rest — attractive fabric wall-coverings, paper lanterns giving the room a soft glow — looked like an upscale boutique.
People were everywhere: riding aerobic cruisers down the bike lanes (and navigating around others using the lanes to stop and chat), eating squash soup from Fratelli's or drinking Bloody Marys from Three Angels, skateboarding in a makeshift skate park, taking yoga or kickboxing at the exercise center, listening to live music, and buying books, jewelry, candles, or vintage clothing. Three Angels actually sold out of all the food they had. "Yes, all of it," they wrote on a sign outside the door.
It's not the first time that Broad Avenue has served as an urban experiment. In early 2006, the Office of Planning and Development held a design meeting in what is now T Clifton Gallery to learn what area residents wanted to see in their neighborhood. Ultimately, however, Planning and Development was using the Broad Avenue corridor as its test case for the new Unified Development Code, passed recently by both the Shelby County Commission and the Memphis City Council.
"We wanted a specific laboratory that has every problem or opportunity in the city," Louise Mercuro, then deputy director of Planning and Development, said at the time. "This neighborhood was perfect for us. ... There's the whole question of Sam Cooper Blvd. Not only does it create high-speed traffic, it cuts the neighborhood in half. Public policy made that decision, and it effectively made this area a ghost town."
At least some of the things residents said they wanted to see at that design meeting — restaurants, a farmers market — have come to pass.
The Binghamton Development Corporation opened the Urban Farms market in an old gas station in April, and the area is now home to three eateries: Broadway Pizza, the Cove, and Three Angels Diner.
Part of the area's success can be attributed to the business association's art walks. The rest may be their willingness to try anything.
A New Face for an Old Broad, which created a quasi-reality similar to staging a house for sale or a director creating a film set, initially sprang out of the area's location.
Representatives with Livable Memphis had heard of an event called "The Better Block Project," in which a Dallas suburb took one block and transformed it into a complete street with outdoor seating, bikes lanes, and parking. At the same time, Livable Memphis was working on identifying a connector between the Shelby Farms Greenline and Overton Park. Broad fit the bill for both.
"It seemed to me that this area would be the perfect application for this type of event," says Sarah Newstok, program coordinator at Livable Memphis. "It's a runway-sized straightaway without a lot visually to slow you down. The road infrastructure does not meet the needs of the community as it once did."
One thing about Broad Avenue: Its name is fitting. The street — 60 feet of asphalt with two wide lanes for vehicular traffic and diagonal parking on one side and parallel parking on the other — was restriped with protected bike lanes, narrowing the width of each vehicular lane.
"We wanted to fuse a couple of different visions with this project," Newstok says. "Bringing in the businesses and the infrastructure, we're trying to show what a full-blown, healthy vibrant community would look like."
The roughly $12,000 event generated a lot of press and a lot of excitement. Several vendors who tested the area last weekend are interested in leasing a permanent space. Even some of the more entrepreneurial-minded attendees are thinking of opening businesses on Broad.
"There are a lot of people in the community and this city who are hungry to see old neighborhoods come back. I think the day of moving to the suburbs and leaving the older parts of the city are behind us," David Wayne Brown says.
He may be right. Already, other neighborhoods have asked how they might do something similar, and the event was billed as "an inaugural project of FaceLift Memphis."
The Broad laboratory definitely has some lessons to impart to other communities.
"A couple of nearby schools came out and painted the crosswalks. That's technically not the way it's supposed to be done, but it looks great; it's eye-catching; people are slowing down to look at it," Newstok says. "It functions much better than the existing model."
Another lesson may be that something like this is possible.
"The power is in the hands of the people," Newstok says. "This has been a total grassroots planning project in a way we haven't seen before in Memphis. ... This is what can happen when a community gets together and shares a vision of what it can look like."
Local anchor, Broadway Pizza, has been part of Broad Avenue for 34 years.
Like other businesses that located on the street, Dewana Ishee's mother got a good deal on the building. The former site of La Rosa Tamales, it had been empty for about 10 years when Ishee's mother opened the pizza parlor.
"In the early '80s, Broad was a booming street," Ishee says. "We were packed every day, and it stayed that way for a long time."
Ishee began working in the restaurant when she was 7 and, four years ago, when her mother passed away, she took over. She says business slacked off a bit in the '90s when a few nearby businesses closed, but it was in early 2001 that things took a real turn.
"When they started doing Sam Cooper, it closed Broad off to everything," Ishee says. "We were out of sight, out of mind. We were lucky — almost every business on Broad went out of business but us, because we have a loyal customer base."
Her husband, Denny Ishee, says they would have gone under had the building not been paid for. They even thought about moving east, but rent on space near Poplar and Perkins was about $15,000 a month.
Today, however, things are better on Broad.
"In the last year and a half — since they started the art walks with all the galleries — we've seen a big fluctuation," Dewana Ishee says. "They estimated there were 1,500 people at the last one. We saw a lot of new faces."
As for the Historic Broad Business Association, they plan to finalize the Broad Avenue Master Plan and get it approved by the City Council. The temporary bike lanes connecting the Greenline to Overton Park also will be made permanent, hopefully by this time next year.
"We want to be a best-practice," Pat Brown says. "We want to give the city's engineering department a real-life example to influence policy development. ... There's not a better location that can help unite the city."