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Urban Education

How graduate students are changing the face of downtown for the better.



For the last few weeks, my sister has been in town.

I've been taking her around to my favorite haunts, introducing her to all my friends, and making her go shopping with me. But mostly I've been dropping her off at the University of Memphis' new downtown law school on my way to work.

She graduated from law school in Texas in December and plans to take that state's bar exam next month. And while she's been using the U of M's Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law library to study, I've had the opportunity to do some studying of my own.

It's amazing how different Front Street looks since the law school moved into the renovated Customs House earlier this month. Every day, I saw students streaming in and out of the building, dodging the construction workers outside. Instead of a few postal customers, all those students milling around give the area a sense of renewed vibrancy and movement.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Suhair Lauck and her husband have owned the Little Tea Shop on Monroe since 1982. Lauck says the new law school is one of the best things that's ever happened to downtown, second only to the relocation of AutoZone's headquarters.

The Little Tea Shop, which bills itself as the place where lawyers and judges eat, put out a welcome banner for law students. Ever since the school opened, Lauck says the restaurant has been packed.

"Today it was a mob. Usually, my regulars have their own tables — we call them forbidden tables — but the youngsters came in and sat wherever they wanted to sit," she says. "It's okay. We'll teach them."

Lauck says they're also in the process of changing their hours and being open in the afternoon to accommodate the law students.

"It's been fantastic. We're so proud of our new neighbors," Lauck says. "It's increased revenue for everybody."

What's even more exciting, perhaps, is that the U of M law school won't be the only graduate program downtown by the time school starts again next fall.

Last week, the Center City Commission approved four grants and loans to help the Memphis College of Art purchase and renovate a five-story building in South Main's historic arts district.

As soon as the current semester is over, the school will move its administration offices from its Overton Park facility to the current graduate center on Poplar. The school then plans to move its graduate program to a 55,000-square-foot building downtown, leaving both programs with room to grow.

"It's going to be a busy summer," says MCA spokesperson Michelle Byrd.

The Center City Commission gave MCA a $200,000 project development grant, as well as a $180,000 development loan, for the $2.9 million project.

"Downtown really makes sense," Byrd says. "Certainly, the incentives made it attractive for us."

But it was attractive for other reasons, as well.

Howard Paine, director the school's MFA program, was part of the search committee for a new space.

"We looked at a dizzying number of buildings in Midtown and downtown," he says. "The perfect situation would have been to find 10,000 to 50,000 square feet around the college. That's just not available."

MCA even looked at Overton Square but ultimately decided it wouldn't work in their timeframe.

Downtown, however, has a large amount of available space, and the school has operated a gallery on South Main for the past several years.

"I am incredibly excited about this," Paine says. "It gives us a wonderful ability to interact with the community and become a good anchor for that space."

The new facility will include more than five times the space the graduate program has now. That will allow for larger individual studio spaces, as well as retail and gallery space. The building is also right by a trolley stop.

"I think it will give our students the opportunity to have a lot more people view their work," Paine says. "Anything that gives our students more interaction with the viewing public is a wonderful opportunity."

But what's already happening with the U of M's law school suggests what could happen with MCA's new facility, as well.

Health-care and educational institutions — so-called "eds and meds" — can have a revitalizing effect on a neighborhood, bringing new people and jobs to the area. In this case, both the law school and MCA's graduate program will be located in places where they reinforce and reinvest in the culture that's already there.

"I think that in the last couple of years the South Main Arts District has fallen on some hard times," Paine says. "My hope is that by the college having a dedicated facility there it shows that the South Main Arts District is here to stay."

His colleague Cathy Wilson, director of art education programs and a Memphis native, says she thinks the school will bring both economic development and a new vitality to South Main.

"I think it's going to stir things up," she says. "You look at most major cities with an art school downtown, it becomes part of the culture of the city."

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