Soulsville USA is uniquely positioned to host a pioneering arts-based approach to neighborhood redevelopment because of the neighborhood’s world-renowned music heritage, and it’s mix of rich assets, community activism, strong local institutions, organizational capacity, geographic location (with close proximity to downtown and thriving midtown neighborhoods), affordable properties, and available land.
Brief Selected History
The Soulsville USA neighborhood has a rich heritage and was once a cultural center with worldwide influence as the birthplace of American soul music. The name “Soulsville” derives from the marquee of the Stax recording studio, which displayed “SOULSVILLE USA” in response to Motown’s “Hitsville, USA” sign. During its heyday in the 1960s, Stax produced artists like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T & the MGs. But Stax was more than just a studio – it was a place where diverse people with diverse sounds converged to create something new in American soul music.
The sound was not the only unique element of the Stax story:
Black and white working together in Memphis, Tennessee in 1962, you were making more than just music history. During the most explosive period of the civil rights movement… the heartbeat of Stax came from its half black, half white house band, its multiracial songwriting staff, and the songs themselves, which mixed down-home blues and R&B with more than a little country music… But the catalyst that turned R&B into soul music was gospel.
- Jim Stewart, Stax Co-Founder
The staff was about fifty-fifty (black and white), the creative people were fifty-fifty, and the key rhythm section was Booker T. & the MGs. And by that combination, the feel of the white side and the black side of music, by combining those two, I think we crossed over and touched a lot of people. I think we were instrumental in changing a lot of the attitudes about the black-white situation.
- William Bell, Stax singer/songwriter
Many of the artists involved in the success of Stax lived in the neighborhood surrounding the studio or knew one another from church or school in the community. The Satellite record shop adjacent to the studio served as a neighborhood hangout and provided an instant focus group for the music being recorded next door. The circumstances made it easy, almost inevitable, for a diversity of artists to bump into one another – and end up in the studio combining sounds. The setting facilitated what economists today would call “knowledge spillovers” – part of the fuel of a creative economy. It is this sort of convergence that the Memphis Music Magnet model hopes to foster and support through geographic proximity.
Soulsville USA’s cultural heritage and influence extend beyond music, and precede Stax Records. The neighborhood was home to the city’s first park (Elmwood Cemetery), first female educational institution (St. Agnes Academy), first African-American educational institution (LeMoyne School), and first African American College (LeMoyne College). Ida B. Wells, an early suffragette and civil rights activist, sold her Free Speech and Headlight newspaper in the neighborhood to protest racial injustice.
Soulsville USA has seen a great deal of transition during its history. By the mid-70s, Stax was forced into involuntary bankruptcy. The building changed hands multiple times before being torn down in 1989 – a sign of the broader decline facing the neighborhood. In fact, when Stax opened in 1959, South Memphis had already begun to transition from a racially integrated and middle class community to a poor and predominantly African American area.
Many factors, including important public policy decisions, contributed to these changes. In 1940, two public housing complexes were built in the neighborhood (Lamar Terrace and LeMoyne Garden). Following World War II, the streetcar lines along McLemore and Mississippi, which contributed to early residential growth and the emergence of the McLemore Avenue business district, were removed. The interstate highway system reached Memphis in 1958, opening new suburban development opportunities further east, which drew middle class residents away from inner city neighborhoods. School desegregation and the events surrounding the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King exacerbated outward middle class flight in Memphis. When the I-240 loop was completed, it bisected the Soulsville USA neighborhood. The McLemore Avenue business corridor was also impacted when it was upgraded to a major arterial in the city’s transportation plan in the 1960s, which led to the removal of on street parking in favor of extra travel lanes.
Today, the Soulsville USA neighborhood is among the poorest in the city, suffering with high unemployment, low levels of education, and a lack of private market interest. But the area has seen significant renewal in recent years, anchored by key developments and the efforts of neighborhood institutions.
 Much of this history is drawn from: Johnson, J., & Marcinko, C. (2007). Rich Man, Preacher Man, Soul Man: A History of South Memphis. Memphis: Memphis Landmarks Commission.
Selected Assets, Institutions, and Action
- In 2003, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music was built on the site of the Stax recording studio as an exact replica of the original structure. The development also includes the adjacent Stax Music Academy, which serves at-risk youth through music and mentoring, and the Soulsville Charter School.
- The Memphis Black Arts Alliance operates the FireHouse Community Arts Center, in a renovated historic 1910 fire station located at a key neighborhood gateway. Both the Memphis Black Arts Alliance and the Stax Music Academy have tremendous potential as place-based resources for home-growing talent, and solidify the rationale for an arts-based neighborhood revitalization program in Soulsville USA.
- Soulsville USA is anchored by LeMoyne-Owen College and the LeMoyne-Owen College CDC supports the neighborhood through housing and economic development programs. The CDC recently developed the new Towne Center at Soulsville, across the street from the Stax Museum.
- Elmwood Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the final resting place of Civil War veterans, victims of the yellow fever epidemics of the 1870s, and many Memphis pioneers, both black and white.
- The South Memphis Alliance is planning the development of a community facility that would be anchored by a laundromat while doubling as a social services center, focusing on the needs of single mothers.
- The neighborhood’s public housing complex has been replaced with a mixed-income HOPE VI community (College Park) and another (University Place) has been developed adjacent to the neighborhood.
Some of the recent developments described above represent significant public and philanthropic investment in and around the Soulsville USA neighborhood. Soulsville USA is located directly between the South Memphis Revitalization Action Planning area and the Vance Avenue Choice Neighborhood community, both of which have emerged as high priority neighborhoods for local policymakers and have been the focus of collaborative revitalization efforts organized by City and Regional Planning students and faculty at the University of Memphis. Revitalization in Soulsville USA can serve as a linchpin and a catalyst for broader change, connecting these adjacent efforts in a productive way. Souslville USA is also located within a Community LIFT priority area, which can help to leverage necessary resources.
Music Heritage Properties
Soulsville USA retains an underlying historical music fabric that can serve as a significant asset to the development of the Memphis Music Magnet program. The neighborhood is home to several properties that are tied to important figures inMemphismusic, including the former homes of Aretha Franklin; influential blues musician, Memphis Slim; Booker T. Jones; James Alexander of the Bar-Kays; and legendary gospel composer Herbert Brewster’s East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church.
Formally recognizing and/or reclaiming music heritage properties, many of which now lie vacant, by reprogramming them with active uses that support creativity and are accessible to neighborhood residents can help promote neighborhood revitalization through physical and cultural renovation.