On a recent Saturday night, a diverse mix of Memphians, many of them under the age of 15 and some of them well into senior citizenship, is gathered around a wooden pallet in the parking lot of the vacant Sears Crosstown building on North Watkins in Midtown. Film director Craig Brewer and former Memphis rapper Gangsta Boo are in attendance, staked out in a VIP area on the crumbling Crosstown building's loading dock.
Future's infectious rap song "At the Same Damn Time" is playing over the loudspeaker as a dancer who calls himself G. Nerd and sports red-and-yellow, square-frame glasses glides effortlessly across the pallet, moving his arms and legs in a fashion that puts Michael Jackson's moonwalk to shame.
It's a Memphis jookin' dance-off, and G. Nerd's competitor, B. Frank, is standing on the edge of the makeshift dance floor, taunting his competition. Jookin', a style of dance that originated in Memphis in the 1990s, is characterized by smooth footwork that makes the dancer appear as though he's floating.
The audience roars as dancers perform complex moves — including headstands and full splits. A few numbers are even performed to classical music, as a Memphis Symphony Orchestra string quartet plays from the loading dock.
The event, put on by the U-Dig Dance Academy, temporarily breathed new life into a parking lot that typically sits empty seven days a week. It also foreshadowed what's to come in the Crosstown neighborhood, as a group of ambitious community leaders work behind the scenes to bring the 1.4-million-square-foot former Sears, Roebuck headquarters back to its full glory.
Last month, the Sears Crosstown Development Team, a mix of architects, designers, and urban planners, announced it had signed memorandums of understanding with nine founding partners from the health-care, education, and arts fields willing to take the risk of moving some or all of their operations into the Sears building within the next several years.
The Church Health Center, Methodist Healthcare, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, ALSAC (St. Jude's fund-raising arm), West Clinic, Gestalt Community Schools, Memphis Teacher Residency, Rhodes College, and Crosstown Arts have committed to the space, and the announcement has spawned an undercurrent of excitement for the area's residents and businesses.
Crosstown Arts, which has been working to find a new life for the Sears building for two years, has begun its efforts to rebrand the surrounding neighborhood as an arts district. And although redevelopment for the Sears building is still a few years away (a timeline has not been set), the Crosstown neighborhood is already developing a hip vibe similar to that gained by Cooper-Young, South Main, and the Broad Avenue Arts District in recent years.
Vertical Urban Village
Built in 1927, the Sears Crosstown building, an 11-story behemoth, once housed the Sears, Roebuck Catalog Order Plant and Retail Store. On opening day, an estimated 47,000 shoppers showed up at the building's ground-floor retail space.
Sears became a warehouse hub serving some 750,000 people in a seven-state region. But over several decades, the company's mail-order business began to decrease.
The retail store closed in 1983, and the catalog distribution center shut down in 1993. The massive building has been vacant ever since. Over time, other businesses in the area moved out, paving the way for an influx of title-loan shops, seasonal tax services, and a slew of auto parts stores.
A walk through the Sears building today reveals peeling paint, broken windows and tiles, and rusty fixtures. Vandals have tagged the interior with graffiti and smashed the sinks in several restrooms, and thieves have stolen all the copper in the building.
But a group of dedicated preservationists and artists have held out hope for the Sears building, a hulking fixture on the Midtown landscape.
Crosstown Arts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding new life for the building and bringing arts to the Crosstown neighborhood, moved into an office on North Watkins, in the shadow of the tower, in 2010.
Led by University of Memphis art history professor Todd Richardson and video artist Chris Miner, the group originally envisioned a local version of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as MASS MoCA, another urban renewal project that transformed a set of abandoned factories in North Adams into a state-of-the-art center for the visual and performing arts.
But, thanks to the backing and vision of local leaders, the mission for the new Sears Crosstown evolved into a plan to combine health care, education, arts, retail, and residential space — a plan dubbed the "vertical urban village."
"It was the perfect storm in terms of timing, because the Church Health Center is literally busting at the seams, operating out of so many different buildings," Richardson said.
The Church Health Center (CHC), which provides health care to the working uninsured, has committed to move its entire operation, including its Wellness Center gym and nutrition program, into the building. Currently, it operates out of 11 buildings, most of which are located on Peabody near Bellevue in Midtown.
CHC executive director Dr. Scott Morris was inspired after he and other founding partners visited the Midtown Exchange building in Minneapolis, an almost identical redevelopment of its twin, the Memphis Sears building. That former Sears headquarters is now a bustling "village" that combines arts, retail, and residential space. A similar Sears in Boston was also redeveloped with a mix of retail and health care, and renewal projects at Sears buildings in Dallas and Atlanta are currently under way.
"I hope our 25 years have given us some credibility," Dr. Morris said. "We're willing to put our reputation, character, and integrity on the line around this issue, and that has made it easier for others to say, 'Hey, we want to be part of that.'"
That was the case for Dr. Kurt Tauer, chief of staff at the West Clinic, which has committed to moving its Union Avenue office into the Sears building and opening a state-of-the-art cancer clinic there, in partnership with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.
"I drank some of Scott Morris' Kool-Aid about Crosstown, and I think it's just a wonderful idea," Dr. Tauer said. "Our Midtown practice has grown tremendously, and we need reasonable space to facilitate what our patients need in a big way."
Methodist CEO Gary Shorb signed on with West Clinic after realizing the benefits of having the CHC Wellness Center in the same building as the cancer clinic.
"Treating cancer is not just about treating cancer but rather treating the whole person to bring them back to total health," Shorb said. "The Wellness Center could be a real value-add there."
In addition to health-care facilities, the Sears building will feature a large number of apartments, which attracted the leadership at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. They see potential for housing graduate students, post-doctoral trainees, faculty, and other staff. ALSAC plans to use Crosstown to fill additional space needs.
Before the health-care component was part of the plan, Richardson had been in talks with David Montague, director of Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR), which trains new teachers, mostly from other parts of the country, in urban education and puts them to work in public schools in Binghampton, Orange Mound, Mitchell Heights, and Graham Heights.
Montague plans to move MTR's entire operation, which includes office space, training facilities, and housing for its teachers, into the Sears building. Currently, the program is run out of Union Avenue Baptist Church, and residents are housed in apartments near the church. He sees endless potential in the overlap of ideas and function in the building, something Dr. Morris has coined a "creative cauldron for the arts."
"The project and people who are coming to be a part of it will provide a lot of synergy in that space," Montague said.
Gestalt Community Schools, which opened a charter school, Gordon Academy for the Arts and Sciences, in the neighborhood this fall, plans to open a charter high school for the arts in the Sears building. The school will serve nearly 500 kids in grades nine through 12.
"We were looking at our model and how we'd like to expand with large community development efforts," said Gestalt CEO Derwin Sisnett. "We don't just want to build a school. We want to redevelop a community."
Redeveloping a community has been at the heart of Crosstown Arts' mission since it moved to the area in 2010. The group has hosted several art events in the neighborhood and intends to expand its reach in the Sears building.
Art spaces planned for the building include a gallery, a residency program that will house 25 artists, a performance space, a healthy, plant-based café, and shared art-making facilities, such as a print-making lab, a woodworking studio, a metal shop, a recording studio, and other facilities.
"The idea with the shared art-making facility is there would be a place where anyone of any level of expertise could pursue his or her creative work," Miner said. "I see this facility helping to remove some of the normal obstacles that can complicate any artist's process, like lack of community with other working artists and having limited access to certain equipment and exhibition space."
Speaking to the overall goal for the building, Richardson said, "It's not a big art project. It's a village. And arts will play a significant role, like any vibrant place. For the Crosstown neighbors, it's an extension of a neighborhood rather than creating some enormous office park."
Rise of an Arts District
On a Thursday night in late August, a drum band energized a crowd of about 200 people gathered in the parking lot of the Cleveland Street Flea Market as a crane lifted a giant disco ball made of gleaming, silver, repurposed bicycle rims onto a pole.
The sculpture, dubbed Beacon, was created by artists Elisha Gold and Colin Kidder and is intended to serve as the new neighborhood gateway to Crosstown.
"It will uplift everyone in a neighborhood that has a little bit of urban decay," Gold said.
The block-party installation was hosted by Crosstown Arts. The sculpture came about after MemFEAST 2, an annual Crosstown Arts gala dinner at which artists present ideas for public pieces that are voted on by attendees.
Artist Robin Salant's plan to light up the Crosstown building and tower with colored lights won the popular vote at MemFEAST, but arts supporters Harry Freeman and Sara Ratner approached Gold and Kidder after the event and offered $3,000 to fund their disco ball project.
Although Crosstown Arts was founded with the intention of bringing back the Sears building, the organization wasted no time starting an arts movement.
Since 2010, they have hosted three MemFEAST events, artist lectures, typesetting and letterpress workshops, and a monthly Pecha Kucha night. A national phenomenon, Pecha Kucha allows anyone interested in public speaking to present a six-minute presentation on any topic. The only catch: Speakers have only 20 seconds to discuss each of 20 slides in their presentation.
Topics have ranged from local farms to greenways to how to succeed as a Hollywood film director. The most recent Pecha Kucha took place last week on the ground floor of the Sears building. Speakers addressed topics related to Memphis Architecture Month, as paint chips from the ceiling made an occasional dive bomb to the dusty concrete floor.
Besides official Crosstown Arts-sanctioned events, the group has partnered with outside arts groups, such as U-Dig Dance Academy, to host and promote activities. The group has hired a full-time planner, Emily Halpern, to organize events and manage the arts programs, and 20-year-old music promoter Ryan Azada to book shows by local and touring bands in the Crosstown Arts basement. Since that partnership began, Bomb the Music Industry from New York City, the Wild out of Atlanta, and local punk band Pezz have attracted standing-room-only crowds.
"Chris [Miner] explained to me that the basement was going unused and that it was in the interest of Crosstown Arts to provide a free performance space for creatives," Azada said. "So we hit the ground running by booking as many shows as time and money would allow."
The all-ages, alcohol-free shows have become so popular that Crosstown Arts is renovating one of the long-vacant empty spaces in the Crosstown Shoppes on Cleveland. The new venue will host punk and hardcore shows, as well as shows for anyone with an interest in performing.
Additionally, Crosstown Arts is renovating two spaces in the Crosstown Shoppes next door to the new venue — one to serve as the headquarters for the Visible Music College's affordable music lessons program and the other to serve as studio space for wood and metal artist Yvonne Bobo. The three spaces are slated to be ready in November.
"We have an opportunity to have space built out for lessons, rather than just working in noisy rooms," said Visible Music College president Ken Steorts. The program, which provides affordable music lessons to the community, is currently housed in a space at LifeLink Church, but Steorts said that space wasn't designed for music lessons. The new space will also include a recital stage.
Bobo is moving her studio to Crosstown from her space in the old Defense Depot. She'll use the new studio to make her own work and also will be working with Crosstown Arts on an after-school arts program for students from Gordon Academy.
Richard Montalvo moved onto North Watkins in the Evergreen Historic District 27 years ago, when, as he tells it, the neighborhood "had reached an all-time low." Sears had closed its retail store, and neighboring businesses had begun moving out.
"It was a gamble, but I always thought something would be done with the Sears building, because it's one of the only surviving art deco buildings left in Memphis," Montalvo said.
Having renovated his home and purchased another house on the block as a rental property, he's pleased with the news of a Crosstown comeback.
"It's great to see the organizations that are planning to move in," Montalvo said. "We won't have to worry about the effect of the economy on the new development, because there will always be a need for medical."
The Sears building is staked by two thriving residential areas — Evergreen and the Vollintine-Evergreen Historic District — as well Speedway Terrace, which has suffered a bit from urban decay.
Montalvo's neighbor, Dennis Sutherland, bought a house at the corner of North Watkins and Peach six years ago. He fixed it up with intentions to sell but settled in when the housing market collapsed.
"What was Cooper-Young before it was Cooper-Young? It wasn't anything more than two streets crossing, but somebody had the foresight to make it a destination," Sutherland said. "There's no reason Crosstown can't become that."
Area business owners share the neighboring residents' enthusiasm for the project. Brenda Surratt opened the Cleveland Street Flea Market in 1998, and it now serves as the largest permanent indoor market in Memphis.
"I think this plan is fabulous, because it offers something for the total person," Surratt said. "It's not just based on retail or eateries that typically go into redevelopments. It's a clever approach, and it will bring viability to the area again."
Surratt owns and leases Crosstown Arts' office space and the spaces that house Tut-Uncommon Antiques, soap-making shop Bubble Bistro, and VINI Five-in-One art gallery, all on North Watkins.
"It will be very helpful to us to have some more visibility and for the neighborhood to have more resources. Everything we need will be right here," said Andrea Johnson, who makes and sells bath products at Bubble Bistro.
Mary Tuthill moved her antique business, Tut-Uncommon, to Crosstown six years ago. While things have been stagnant in the neighborhood, she's felt a new energy in the area recently.
"Since [Crosstown Arts] moved in, they have been a real dynamo, and there's lots of energy pouring out of there. Now we're seeing results, and things are coming to fruition," said Tuthill, who also noted the increase in traffic she's seen since the U.S. Postal Service moved its Midtown headquarters on Union to Autumn in Crosstown.
Across the street from Tut-Uncommon is Living Waters Community Church, which moved into the area in 1997. The Rev. Francis Ssebikindu recalls when Crosstown was essentially a ghost town, and he's looking forward to the promise of neighborhood growth.
"It's something we've been praying about, hoping that something could be done with that building," Ssebikindu said. "I'm not saying it's an eyesore, but the vandalism and the broken windows don't portray a good image for the neighborhood."
Although not quite an arts district, the area has long had an arts presence. Musician and producer Chris Swenson has been operating a recording studio and leasing space to other musicians in a nondescript storefront on North Cleveland for 15 years.
"I've worked with everyone from Black Oak Arkansas to Shooter Jennings in this space," Swenson said.
Miguelito Equis and Alice Laskey-Castle opened their gallery and studio space, VINI, on North Watkins five years ago. Laskey-Castle says she's known from the beginning the arts potential in the neighborhood.
"There have been arts in this area for a long time, but it's just been really quiet," Laskey-Castle said.
Artist Brantley Ellzey, who makes rolled-paper constructions using magazine pages, opened his studio in the otherwise-empty row of Crosstown Shoppes two years ago. At the time, he was simply looking for affordable studio space close to his home in Evergreen, but he's now realizing he's something of an arts district pioneer.
"When I first moved in, people would ask me where my studio was, and I'd say 408 North Cleveland," Ellzey said. "Now I say, 'Oh, it's in Crosstown.' It already has a cachet or buzz going. Now I'm part of this bigger thing."
And the Rest
While the Sears redevelopment offers a promise of growth in the neighborhood, there's still much work to be done along the rest of Cleveland Street.
Enter Mayor A C Wharton's Innovation Delivery Team. Funded by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the team is focused on bolstering economic recovery in a handful of Memphis neighborhoods, one of which includes the Cleveland corridor.
In part of a multi-pronged effort to bring the area back to life, the team is planning to host its first Building Better Blocks event on Cleveland Street on November 10th.
An all-day neighborhood festival, dubbed MemFIX: Cleveland Street and modeled after the highly successful New Face for an Old Broad event that took place in the Broad Avenue Arts District in 2010, the Cleveland event will feature food trucks, pop-up retail, and a temporary "road diet" that will show drivers how bicycle lanes along Cleveland could work.
"The goal is to imagine a different street and what this neighborhood could be. It's a living planning workshop that allows people to test what they'd like to see," said Tommy Pacello of the mayor's Innovation Delivery Team, which is funding the festival. The Memphis Regional Design Center and Crosstown Arts are helping with planning.
Retail vendors will set up shop for a day in vacant storefronts, and food trucks will form a temporary food court. Bands and other artists will perform, and the event may culminate with a movie screening projected on the side of the Sears Crosstown building.
The hope is that businesses will begin to take an interest in the area, as was the case with the Broad Avenue event.
"The day after New Face for an Old Broad, the street didn't look much different, but eight months to a year later, Broad became a different place," Pacello said.
The idea with MemFIX and the Sears redevelopment is not to push out those who are already there, as tends to happen with some neighborhood improvement efforts.
"Crosstown already has a vibe that informed this massive development. It's one of the most ethnically diverse districts in the city," Todd Richardson said. "For us, it was never a choice to make Sears Crosstown an office park or some other typical anchor development that would gentrify everything. The beauty of what we're doing is that it's inclusive. It's for everyone."