“Memphians don’t always do well with rules,” explains lawyer and city planner Tommy Pacello. Memphis-raised, he left for college and was drawn back to join the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team, an effort funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies to generate neighborhood economic vitality and reduce gun violence among youth. “The city’s got this grit and soul and texture to it that comes from being a river town, I think. It’s part of our DNA as Memphians.”
But that grit and that soul, in a city that faces its share of systemic challenges, haven’t always found creative outlets. “For many years,” says Pacello, “we had lived in an environment where people felt somewhat stifled. Felt they had to wait on other people to do things for us, to find the silver bullet.” For a community to see itself as dependent on slow-moving government, or on anyone, for positive change, safety, and cohesiveness, is deeply demoralizing. Something had to give.
And it did. “Something began to happen around 2010,” says Pacello, “where people began to really demand better, of themselves, of each other, and of the city. And they began to understand that there’s this ability to affect change at a grassroots level, and you don’t have to always wait for the multi-million dollar project to affect your neighborhood. Small interventions can be done, and yeah, it may be a cute little project, but collectively it can really begin to transform a place.”
Maybe the Mayoral change around that time opened up space for Memphians to get creative and dive into their city’s infrastructure. Maybe they were just fed up with abandoned lots, divided neighborhoods, food deserts. Hard to say, but something was brewing. “There just began to be this period,” says Pacello, “where all these things started happening below the power structure.”
Tactical urbanism, the Memphis way
What does Pacello mean by “below the power structure?” Citizen action. Neighbors teaming up for community builds and community gardens, public art projects, public retail incubation, neighbor-created night markets, free outdoor dance classes, art walks, food truck rodeos, even the impossible revitalization of the historic Tennessee Brewery, whose owners had been determined to tear it down. “Rather than holding hands and surrounding the space saying ‘save this building!’” explains Pacello, “let’s actually demonstrate that there’s a productive reuse for the space.”
He means the end of waiting for someone else to fix what needs fixing. He means tactical urbanism: building temporary fixes to show communities, neighbors, developers, and investors the enormous potential that our streets and communities have. “It’s all these different things, any one of which you could look at and say ‘well, that’s a cool little project,’ but not really ascribe too much value to it,” says Pacello. “But collectively, they had this effect of creating this upward trajectory. And none of them were terribly expensive to pull off.”
Waking up a tired commercial corridor
One of our very favorite examples of this Memphian-style tactical urbanism is what’s taken place on Broad Avenue, in the community of Binghamton. Until the 1950s and 1960s, Binghamton was a thriving neighborhood, and Broad Ave a vital commercial street, but all that changed when Interstate 40 came slicing straight through. It’s that terrible American story that so many of our great cities know too well. As Pacello puts it, “Broad Avenue corridor was pretty much wiped out.” Residents were cut off from businesses, and vice versa. Storefronts went dark, one by one.
So it was a somewhat unconventional move when Pat Brown, manager of the T. Clifton Art Gallery, decided in 2009 to move her business to a new space right on the still empty Broad Avenue. It wasn’t at all clear that she and her business partner, Tom Clifton, would be able to rouse up the kind of traffic they’d need in order to survive. Though by 2009 Broad Ave wasn’t statistically unsafe, it still had that reputation, and it sure didn’t look pretty.
But what could they do? The first time Brown saw the gallery space, she fell in love. “When I found that space, we knew it was it,” she says. “It had this warmth about it. It spoke to me.” Brown loved the diverse surrounding neighborhood and the group of artists who had already created rudimentary plans for a business association in the area. She and Clifton thought that maybe they could find ways to grow their businesses and grow the street, in tandem – aligning their interests with those of the community. They were up to the challenge.
But they had no idea they were about to help spark the revitalization of an entire forgotten commercial corridor. That they’d wind up teaming up with Livable Memphis (now BLDG Memphis) to create New Face For an Old Broad, an event that for two days would transform the corridor into the vibrant place they knew it could be, bringing in pop-up shops, restaurants, artwork, free dance classes, a pop-up protected bike lane, and a whopping fifteen thousand very curious Memphian attendees. They had no idea how quickly the event would lead to new business proposals, new neighbors on Broad Ave, new clientele, and new enthusiasm for the corridor.
“Everyone was just blown away by the 2015 holiday season,” says Brown, who’d seen 10-20% growth in her business each year, topped by a 50% jump in 2015. “And it was foot traffic! And probably half of our customers had never been on Broad Ave before, but they say ‘we keep hearing we need to come here.’”
Good community leaders are also self-interested
Speaking of profits, Brown wants to be very clear: they matter. Looking out for number one is A-Ok in her book, so long as you lift your neighbors up with you. “I try to be very honest with people when they say ‘oh this is great what’s happened on Broad,’” Brown explains. “I want people to always understand: I was always very focused on what’s in it for us. We understood that the way to grow our business was to grow the street. You have to have a win-win. If you have a community interest, and also an entrepreneurial interest, tied to an area where the goals and needs are aligned, you can get a double-return on your effort. At the end of the day, we are all driven by ‘what’s in it for me,’ and we will all define ‘what’s in it for me’ differently. The old cliché is true: a rising tide raises all boats.”
What else does it take to be a tactical urbanism trailblazer?
Brown is a neighborhood warrior who keeps it real. Whatever she’s doing, she’s doing it 200%. If you’ve got an issue with a neighbor or project partner, she says, either go talk to them about it, “or let’s move on.”
Her advice to aspiring change-makers? Don’t spend time trying to wish reality away. “People who put energy into saying ‘oh, it should be this or that,’” Brown says, “I think, ‘oh, don’t waste your energy there. Figure out where you are and where you need to go, but you can’t sit around and debate what it should be.’”
Oh, and don’t take no for an answer. “If you easily take no for an answer,” she insists, “and you’re in a change role, you’re gonna be pretty frustrated. It may be that you have to rethink how you ask the question, or you have to go around or over or under the barrier, but you cannot be deterred by ‘no.’”
Laurels, but no rest yet
When she talks about the renewal of Broad Ave, Brown is proud, but not sentimental. She knows there’s an enormous challenge just up ahead: making sure that the new vitality sprouting up there and elsewhere in Memphis is curated and protected so that it remains accessible and welcoming to everyone, not just to the middle and upper class whites who grew up with access to parks and galleries and could drive there in the family SUV.
“The beautiful thing about Broad Avenue and the community of Binghamton, is that it so reflects Memphis,” says Brown. “Memphis is so richly diverse. I just hope we continue to find ways to grow so that all citizens can benefit, and leverage our cultural roots. When I look at magazines of Memphis, I don’t see Memphis reflected in those. To be very brutally honest, it’s usually a photo of middle and upper class white people. That saddens me. People are missing out on the richness of this city.”
Growing Memphis in exciting and equitable ways will be a challenge, Brown knows. “For a lot of folks,” she says, “picking up the phone and calling up the mayor to ask about something is exceptionally intimidating. Whether that’s a fear of big brother, or a fear of rejection, or just you’ve never done it. I do think that a lot of people can get paralyzed thinking about the details or worrying about the risk. Sometimes you just have to leap in an know that you can manage that risk.”