Sunday, June 21, 2009

Musicians Can Bring New Beat To Soulsville Neighborhood

The Memphis Music Magnet - a project spearheaded by the always creative Professor Charles Santo - is based on the premise that musicians can make equally beautiful music in revitalizing the Soulsville neighborhood.

More to the point, it's about building a culture of creativity that in the end can be more important in attracting young, college-educated to Memphis than the big projects that are so often billed as "the" answer to talent retention and attraction.

One of the programs that Dr. Santo has used as the pattern to recreate the fabric of the South Memphis neighborhood is the Paducah Artists' Relocation program.

For that reason, we offer this reprise of a February 18, 2007 post:

You’ve got to admire Paducah.

While the spotlight most often falls on large cities grappling with ways to strengthen their arts scene, there’s much to be learned from the small Kentucky rivertown. Few cities, regardless of size, have been as assertive or as successful in using their arts as a powerful competitive advantage.

We were reminded of this when we saw an ad in the Memphis Flyer a few weeks ago inviting us to “experience the Lowertown Fine Arts District.” It was the latest volley in Paducah’s Artist Relocation Program, this one aimed at Memphis, St. Louis, Nashville, Atlanta, Lexington (KY), Cincinnati and Chicago.

It was a heady display of the confidence that comes from success, because the Paducah program is a good example of how a bold vision, aligned civic resources and a focused strategy can transform a city. Memphis could take some lessons from it.

The Turnaround

With more than 70 artists lured from places across the U.S., Paducah’s success has outstripped the projections of even its wildest advocates. Since being started about eight years ago, the Artist Relocation Program has been responsible for the renovation – completed or under way – of about 70 buildings and attracted new construction.

It’s a dramatic turnaround for a part of the city of 30,000 that was built 150 years ago as a grand neighborhood of charming homes before a slide late in the 20th century took it to a seedy slum known for the easy availability of cheap drugs and women. Today, the area, which, according to a Paducah planning official, comprises about 30 blocks, is best known for artists’ homes and studios, not to mention the visitors strolling through the neighborhood in search of artwork and the new firms and restaurants drawn to it.

Arts and culture are being used as the foundations for economic growth in a number of cities. Through our firm’s work in developing creative city plans for cities capitalizing on their unique artistic and cultural assets, we can attest to the wisdom of emphasizing cultural assets as an effective, and undervalued, way for a city to find its distinctiveness.


Too often, cities looking for answers to their problems first turn their attention to finding “best practices.” It often leads to them identifying successful programs and strategies in other cities and eagerly transplanting them in their own with understandably limited success. In the end, it is an artificial initiative with no resonance in the local DNA. That’s because it’s the plans built on differentiation that offer the best opportunities for success, plans that grow out of a city’s own character, personality and heritage.

That’s what’s so impressive about Paducah’s Artist Relocation Program. It’s an innovation program that’s unique and responds to the needs of the city. Confronted with neglected homes with architectural integrity and a neighborhood serving as a seedbed for crime, city officials understood the need for redevelopment of Lowertown.

Artists can be as important to cities as new companies. It’s just most cities put all their attention and target their financial incentives on the latter. That’s too bad, because artists have the proven ability to transform at-risk neighborhoods and bring life to dying areas. Strategies to attract them have included tax exemptions from sales and income taxes for art produced and sold in a specific arts district, new “live-work” space carved out of warehouses and converted into loft studios, and specific neighborhoods where they receive special incentives or subsidized rents.

Triggering Change

Paducah knew all this, but it decided to do things its own way. It did it by focusing on home ownership, and along the way, it is creating a stable, arts community.

The Artist Relocation Program is the second attempt to revive the area, and the city’s first effort is instructive. About 25 years ago, Paducah designated Lowertown as an historic district, but it had marginal impact on stabilizing the area. What was missing a triggering mechanism to change things.

Planners say that was to come when a local artist living in Lowertown grew concerned about the crime at his front door and the fact that 70 percent of the property was rental and decaying. His concern took him to the city’s planning department which acted to deal with absentee landlords with a get-tough rental license ordinance and with aggressive enforcement of new codes to protect the neighborhood.

Defining Success

The artist-planner team – which essentially created the program from whole cloth - soon had city funding for the first year’s budget for the Artist Relocation Program and raised money to buy Lowertown homes. Back then, there definition of success was in attracting 10 artists to Paducah.

Here’s how they’ve attracted seven times that many. The city buys a deteriorating house at a bargain price and spends a modest amount stabilizing it. The house is given to an artist who spends significant amounts of money to renovate and restore the structure. Once completed, the house is appraised at much less than the renovated value, but the Paducah Bank agrees to make 100 percent loans on the full value as opposed to the appraisal. Amazingly, the bank became so supportive of the program that it stopped getting the appraisals altogether.

Instead, the bank qualifies the artists individually to make sure they have the ability to repay the loans for the renovations. This is in dramatic contrast to other cities, because more commonly, cities gives incentives for developers to renovate the space and then lease it to artists, which means that as soon as the neighborhood turns around, the artists are the first to be forced out because of higher values.

Artistic Support

In support of its program, Paducah pays a bonus so artists can pay for architectural fees for renovation, it exempts construction materials for properties in the program from sales tax and it pays for the websites of the artists.

These days, Paducah is a popular destination for city officials interested in ways to attract artists, because in the end, Paducah did much more than revitalize a neighborhood. More to the point, it has created a vein of creativity that enlivens the entire city and enriches its quality of life in ways that were unimaginable only a few years ago.


Zippy the giver said...

That is a great idea, but, artists and musicians are not known for fighting ability, they are known for art and music. I have been a part of successful turnarounds in other cities. We had 4 recording studios within 4 blocks working on national projects and about 100 musicians and uncounted sculptors, painters, and actors. I had to move 4 drug houses out in 2 days. Neighbors stuck up for neighbors and many of us went to drive them out in one day. They left. WE took the neighborhood from slum to artist haven with support from the police and courts.
I planned on doing it here.
No go.
No support.
Neighbors are scared of each other here. Scared to correct errant neighbors or remove them.
More support for drug dealers and other criminals than law abiding citizens.
Endless roadblocks from Barbara Ware and Joe Brown, it was like the had a vested interest in keeping the neighborhood controlled by thugs, impoverished, enslaved in ignorance plagued by crime. Roadblocks. Mayors.

If Memphis could support this kind of "Renaissance in Soulsville" by increasing police patrols and arrests for violent crimes for about a year before it starts, and if the judges could put the already approved and federally mandated sentences of no less than 7 years on molesters and violent offenders in the area for about four square miles, 2 miles bare minimum, you would have fertile ground to start any endeavor.
Artists don't like getting mugged, don't like their kids molested by criminals or by a public school system that is a travesty of inefficiency and re-enforces ignorant and petty behavior.

If you get artists to move here, they have to overcome the parochial attitude of the native artists. They resent outsiders and act on that resentment. The whole "Memphis First" type of attitude is not a team spirit mantra, it has devolved into a battle-cry against outsiders moving here taking heir work when outsiders typically bring money from outside into the local community and have no effect on other artists other than to get them national exposure by proximity effect.

Then there's the economy here, artists don't like to get involved in what's going on here in that arena. With all these problems, an artist from outside Memphis could not be in a neighborhood like that and field the daily neighborhood emergency distractions, deal with personal needs, and the constant barrage of shallowly reported BAD NEWS on all local broadcasting stations and create art. They would probably begin creating forced art, stuff you wouldn't want. The constant distractions would give them amnesia and they would get nothing done, sell their art supplies for food, and move when they could, as far away from Memphis as they could get.

Long story short, you gotta lotta background work to accomplish first.

jeffrey said...

It appears to me that whenever this community (Memphis) decides to do something that attracts positive attention there are those that say "...we cannot or exhibits the (NIMBY) Not In My Backyard - syndrome…"

The idea of creating an artistic community in SoulsvilleUSA is a great idea, not only for what it brings to this City but what it tries to capture ...the essence of the music industry TODAY. Which is a vital part of the history of Memphis, and it is not just EP or BB, it is the creative class of minds young and old that says yes we can, have a vibrant and lively music scene and residential community as well that celebrates music and the economics associated with it.

And why not SOULSVILLEUSA, over $150 million in revitalization activity, the City's only HBCU, Elmwood Cemetery, Soulsville Foundation, East Trigg Missionary Baptist Church, Memphis Slims House, Aretha Franklin Childhood Home, J E Walker House, Historic Fountain Court, Rohulac Mansion Bed and Breakfast, Firehouse Black Arts Alliance, Boys and Girls Club, Four Way Grill, College Park, Towne Center at SoulsvilleUSA and The people who make this neighborhood vibrant and contribute to the mosaic of diversity and a sense of being...a sense of place.

When we talk about crime and SOULSVILLEUSA proper, we are speaking about some of the lowest crime statistics in the county. While, I know that image and perception counts for a lot, but the reality is quite often much different than the perception and for SOULVILLEUSA we are changing perceptions daily. It takes a sense of ownership to instill pride. Now I am not naive enough to think that crime does not exist here, but it exist in Midtown, Germantown and Downtown and these are communities of choice. Residents in SOULSVILLEUSA are not opposed to reporting crime and the elements that drive it. Quite frankly, we have four neighborhood associations that are very active and contribute to the success of this neighborhood daily by reporting - vacant lots, vacant unboarded homes, spotting the criminal element and making the calls to the authorities as good neighbors should. All this to ensure that change in its self image is one positive step to being a better neighbor and neighborhood. One cannot stand on the outside and get involved in this notion of perception, but one must immerse themselves in the fabric of the neighborhood to see the good and the changes that have occurred.

SOUSLVILLEUSA and it residents are working to become a place that welcomes everyone, everyone that is trying to make this neighborhood a better place to live, work and play.

I can assure you that the people of this neighborhood are hard working and honest people that want the same things that others may want for their own neighborhoods - positive economics, green spaces and a environment that is lively and inviting to all.

I suggest what better place to have Musicians live, work and play than SOULSVILLEUSA, a neighborhood with it rich musical history, creative young musicians attending the Academy now, and the future of Memphis Music all rolled into one thriving neighborhood (SOUSLVILLEUSA) and community Memphis.

Bring on the Musicians

Jeffrey Higgs

Smart City Consulting said...


Well-put, and we're hard-pressed to see a neighborhood that is more deserving or has more potential.

Ignore Zippy. He often goes off the beam.

Anonymous said...

>>>it was like the had a vested interest in keeping the neighborhood controlled by thugs, impoverished, enslaved in ignorance plagued by crime.

The beginning of wisdom.

Zippy the giver said...

Tell me about it anon,

Hey smart City and Jeffrey, ever heard of "SAND-BAGGING"?
That's when your stats don't match reality, because when you're called, you don't show up 100%, poo-poo the residents (because they are all bad anyway), and don't make reports, soooo, your stats aren't accurately reflecting what action is going on.
I'm for this, but, not if you're just going to live in denial with another feel-good project and put people in harms way by witholding the truth.
Now, about that "diversity" in the area, quantify that with some stats.

Anonymous said...

Zippy, what city did you help create a neighborhood that exemplified the type of change we're looking for in Soulsville?

Zippy the giver said...

Little Rock, Stifft Station.

Zippy the giver said...

Got pictures too.

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