In some ways, Memphians’ shared history is hidden underneath the Mid-South Coliseum’s grand dome that once proudly proclaimed the home of the Grizzlies and the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. Though some of its grandeur has faded–mold and asbestos lurk in the building that’s been shuttered since 2006–if you ask any Memphian about it there’s a good chance they have fond memories of the coliseum.
“One of the things that really touched people about the Coliseum almost more than anything,” says Roy Barnes, President of the Coliseum Coalition, “even more than Monday night wrestling or Larry Finch leading the state Tigers to the national championship in 1973, which are of course very important, is that so many people graduated in that building. Whether it was Memphis State, Christian Brothers University, or high schools all over the region–it wasn’t even just Memphis high schools. It was a launching pad for people moving from their past to their future, literally.”
Barnes heads the Coliseum Coalition, a group of Memphians who came together in 2015 committed to that vision of the Mid-South Coliseum–a Coliseum that hosts precious memories for countless Memphians and a Coliseum that, in their vision, still had more to share, if only it had the chance.
[“The King” and “Superstar” facing off the Coliseum Crushers in the wrestling ring.]
For 43 years, the Coliseum has hosted wrestling matches, Grizzlies basketball games, musical luminaries like Elvis Presley and James Brown, and the graduations of hundreds of thousands of Memphians. But despite holding a special place in Memphians hearts, it’s been superseded by larger and more modern venues, leading to threats of demolition from its owner the City of Memphis. It’s against this backdrop that the Coliseum Coalition is bringing the community’s vision to life.
“Ironically, I’m not much of a nostalgist,” Barnes admits. “Ten years ago I almost didn’t care much for the coliseum. It just didn’t really register on my radar like it did for others.” But in the decade since it’s closed, he’s come to see the beauty that so many Memphians see in the building. “Maybe it was because I’m old enough where mid-century architecture was the air you breathed… But being out on the fairgrounds one day, riding my bike with my son, I looked over to my right to the Coliseum and it was the first time I looked at it and said ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful building,’ and seeing what others’ experience with it was.”
Crushing the crushers
When saving a historic building, the natural first step is to stop it from being demolished. But when you don’t own the building that can be a little challenging. So you have to get creative. And when you’re the Coliseum Coalition, that means you bring in some wrestlers.
“Early on we said, ‘we need to have a pre-vitalizing event,’” said Barnes. “The idea is that before straight up revitalization, you have an event in or around a building and get people excited about the future of the building. And we decided early after we formed that we were going to put on what you now know as the Roundhouse Revival. A day of entertainment and community, celebrating the great ‘brands’ of the coliseum, which we identified as music, wrestling, and basketball.”
Pre-vitalizing has a warm history in Memphis, and at ioby, having helped revive neighborhoods like Broad Street. The idea is to imagine an old, disused building as useful once again, filling it with the life and vitality it currently lacks but could one day host regularly. Seeing it full of people and activities once again, the community builds excitement and can get creative about investing in the building.
So on May 23, 2015, Jerry “The King” Lawler and Bill “Superstar” Dundee faced down the mighty “Coliseum Crushers,” bad guys who came from parts unknown attempting to demolish the Mid-South Coliseum and bulldoze the rest of Memphis into the Mississippi river. 4,500 people came out to the pre-vitalizing event to watch and “The King” didn’t disappoint–he sent those Coliseum Crushers packing, to the gleeful cheers of thousands. It was a dramatic confrontation, with a bit of hopeful foreshadowing. Most of all, it was a roaring success: not long after the event, polls showed that 85% of Memphians opposed demolition.
To host the revival, the Coalition turned to ioby to crowdfund. They reached out to our Memphis City Action Strategist at the time, Ellen, who helped them plot a fundraising strategy that was achievable and could support their goals. “The advice we got from ioby, from 2015 right up to the latest campaign we ran, was spot on. You know, you can’t just rely on posting on social media to get donations. It’s really about those one-on-one connections…Having people from ioby like Ellen and Chris support us really helped.”
Through their campaign they rallied their supporters and raised over $6,000 for their first revival, and then got to business. The City of Memphis could sleep well that night–the fantastic wrestling duo and the Coliseum Coalition got one step closer to defeating the real-life Coliseum Crushers.
[A site plan of the Mid-South Coliseum in the fairgrounds.]
A beacon of possibility
The Coliseum itself is historic for more than playing host to the launching of generations of Memphians into the world. In 2000, The National Park Service listed it on the National Register of Historic Places. The Parks Service notes its critical place in American cultural history, hosting a “cultural forum where Memphis youth, both black and white, participated in, and were influenced by, a rapid transformation in American popular music… where the audience was as much part of the performance as the performers themselves.” It was the center of a growing musical tradition bubbling to the mainstream, but, particularly notable in the south, it was also fully integrated–one of the first public buildings in Memphis to do so.
Facing the staunchly pro-segregation headwinds of the 1960’s South, the Coliseum’s integrated facilities were no small feat, an example of “quiet desegregation” where architects and builders didn’t flaunt the fact that the building was integrated, perhaps sneaking it by opponents until it was too late. In designing and building the Coliseum to be an integrated facility in 1960, there was no guarantee that desegregation would be successful. While other Southern arenas built in the same era were under construction and set to be segregated facilities, the Coliseum hedged its bet on justice and flaunted it. It stood out as a quiet beacon of possibility, where the color line vanished, amid ongoing turmoil nationally and in the city of Memphis.
“What this building meant to Memphis became much more apparent to me,” Barnes recalls of learning this history. “Memphis had many problems, but this Coliseum was one of the first [buildings] where, from the very beginning, this was going to be the new world.”
Re-imagining your site
The second part of saving a building comes in trying to open its doors once again. The Roundhouse Revival also serves as a key part of that reopening, bringing Memphians together to enjoy the building once again and to reimagine together a new future for the Coliseum. Having been supplanted by larger arenas, who now host the Memphis Grizzlies’ games and other major events, the Coalition looked to the community to envision other uses for the building were it to open, permanently, once again.
“Instead of going to a conference room and moving dots around a board, we wanted to go to the place itself and show the possibilities,” Barnes said. “Being on the site and around the building is absolutely critical. Showing off its special character, its profile; you cannot duplicate that in a conference room.”
So they hosted the Roundhouse Revival, where wrestlers wrestled, musicians grooved, and the community came together to get creative about what activities the Coliseum could house. And then did it again the next year, and the next.
In doing so, they discovered more and more of the building’s special characters. “In the coliseum, the front porch was always just a way to get into the building. Now, it’s a special thing in itself, something that when the building reopens we need to reuse. Having the Roundhouse Revival, we discovered that we really need to have indoor-outdoor events, instead of just indoor events.”
With excitement growing, the Coalition took the ideas the community had, expanded on them, and turned them into a slate of documents for investors and other interested parties who might have the resources the Coalition lacked to open the Coliseum once again.
Not long after the first event, the City of Memphis took a cue from the Coalition and invited the Urban Land Institute, a research and education institute dedicated to responsible land use, to advise the City on how best to move forward with the Coliseum. Responding to community support for the Coliseum, their report recommended it be repurposed rather than demolished. Subsequent polling has shown strong support in the community, and growing political support. “At this point, we feel pretty confident that we’ve stopped demolition,” Barnes said.
As of today, the Coliseum is still closed but saved from destruction. The Coalition started out small, but has since built a groundswell of support from right around the Coliseum in Orange Mound, to the steps of City Hall, and they’ve invigorated the community to rethink how the space can continue to serve the community. The $6,000 the Coalition raised certainly isn’t enough to renovate a 10,000 seat arena. But in the hands of a dedicated community, with the help of a few wrestlers, and a bit of cheering on from ioby, it just might be enough to give Memphis the chance it needs to re-envision a historic community asset.
ioby was founded in 2008 to help make it easier for local leaders to get the funding, knowledge, and resources needed to make a positive change on a local level. For the past ten years, we’ve worked alongside over 1,600 passionate, committed community leaders, and we’ve watched small projects blossom into larger initiatives, and seen collaborations grow into movements.
We want to take a look back at the past ten years and tell some of our favorite stories of positive neighborhood change. We want to know: what kind of things can start with a conversation? A neighborhood meeting? A few dollars raised?
For the next ten months, we’ll be checking in with leaders nationwide, past and present, and sharing these stories with you. Thanks for reading!