PERSPECTIVE: The transformation of Soulsville USA

The effort to revitalize: an update.

Tarrin McGhee, Special to The New Tri-State Defender | 8/4/2016, 12:14 p.m.
The effort to revitalize: an update.

The home of the blues. The birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. The founding father of soul. These are some of the descriptors that might come to mind when you think about Memphis. And one neighborhood in particular – Soulsville USA– could very well be the reason why these monikers rang true for our city in decades past and even still today.

Soulsville USA – located in the southern part of Memphis – has a long-standing history for nurturing and cultivating talent and producing some of the biggest blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll music stars the world has ever seen. During the ’60s and ’70s, legendary artists such as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers dropped anchors at Stax Records (located in the heart of Soulsville USA) as the world of music tilted toward Memphis.

Soulsville USA also has a strong cultural and educational history. It was the starting point for Universal Life Insurance Company founder J.E. Walker and many of Memphis’ other building-block business leaders. And it is home to The LeMoyne-Owen College, the city’s only historically black college and the educational launching pad for trailblazing community leaders such as Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks and Dr. Willie W. Herenton.

In the 1990s when the community surrounding Stax Records began to face extreme economic and social challenges, a group of leaders, philanthropists and Stax employees organized the Soulsville Foundation (parent organization for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School) to drive neighborhood revitalization.

Today, a new group of residents aided by various partners, community agencies and stakeholders is working to breathe new life into Soulsville USA with a comprehensive revitalization plan crafted to strengthen civic pride and stimulate the flow of resources needed to support and sustain the growth of the beloved neighborhood.

Their efforts are backed and powered by President Obama and his Building Neighborhood Capacity Program (BNCP). The purpose of the federally funded BNCP (launched in 2012) is to catalyze community-driven change in neighborhoods that have historically faced barriers to revitalization and to provide resources and targeted technical assistance to cities selected for program inclusion. Memphis was one of only four cities selected for participation nationwide.

Soulsville USA is one of the eight neighborhoods chosen to prepare and execute a revitalization plan that will outline strategies to address blight, crime prevention and public safety, housing and economic development and community engagement. The planning process is driven by the Soulsville Neighborhood Association and led by Rebecca Hutchinson, BNCP site director.

For the past 18 months, project leaders and supporters have been meeting regularly – divided into small working groups – to develop various components of the Souslville USA neighborhood revitalization plan. Hutchinson, a native Memphian and proud 14-year resident of Souslville USA, says the first draft of the plan will be complete later this month. The full plan will be presented to the broader community at a “State of the Neighborhood” Town Hall meeting scheduled for this fall.