Cooper-Young, named for two of the streets that intersect toward its southern boundary, is a place of seeming contradictions: a small town in the middle of the city, an urban neighborhood with sidewalks and trees, a residential oasis and a bustling night spot. Kids on bicycles wheel through pleasant backstreets and alleys in the afternoons; young people spill out of restaurants onto the sidewalks in the evenings.
Cooper-Young’s inhabitants are a co-mingling of young professional newcomers and longtime residents, college students and grandparents, with common crosscurrents running through all — interest in sustainability, gardening, arts, community. The community stays close through platforms old-fashioned and contemporary: the Cooper Young Community Association’s monthly newspaper, delivered free to all 2,200-plus households, and social media platforms such as NextDoor, where conversations cover topics ranging from yard sales and cats stuck in trees to professional recommendations and crime and safety.
Midtown has become Memphians’ evening destination, with dining, theaters, and live music venues, and Cooper-Young is becoming as big a draw as Overton Square a mile north across Union. Residents and visitors can find an Irish pub, coffee shop, cat shelter, two bookstores, a drum shop and school, antiquing, a record store, French bistro, massage therapists, art galleries, a pizza place, and a brewery all in a few easily walked blocks.
Three of the four corners of the Cooper-Young intersection offer Chinese, Italian and Mexican food. Just last year, Phillip Ashley Chocolates was featured in Forbes magazine; Alchemy and the Beauty Shop in The New York Times; Celtic Crossing in USA Today’s Top 10 Pubs in America. The New Ballet Ensemble was covered by CNN.
But walk a block or two out of Cooper-Young, the commercial district, and you’ll find the homes that make up Cooper-Young — the community. “When people come to Cooper-Young they are looking for the kind of living that is still urban,” says Kristen Schebler, executive director of the Cooper Young Community Association (CYCA) since June 2014, “but [still a place that] feels like you can talk to your neighbors face to face, and trade tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden.”
Schebler came to Memphis from Indiana to pursue a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Memphis. “I had intended to work for a year or two, find the next adventure and move on,” she says. “I fell in love with Memphis, fell in love with Midtown.” Now she’s put her academic background to use in community development. Her work? “Constantly being a sponge . . . listening.” Finding out what the community is interested in, what they want.
That includes lending support to projects like Cooper Young’s new garden club and neighborhood watch group, producing the newspaper (The Lamplighter, which has been published for more than 30 years), spearheading projects like the grant-funded rehab of an alley near Peabody School, running parallel to Young. The project was in response to residents’ input. The end result is a passageway, hopefully the first of more, that’s accessible to walkers, dog walkers, and cars, resurfaced, with eight new lights, and plans to continue landscaping and to install public art.
“Cooper-Young thrives on diversity,” says Tamara Cook, executive director of the Cooper Young Business Association (CYBA). “Cooper Young is a great bohemian place that invites others to join in and bring their idea of what a great life is to the forefront, whether that is hanging with your crowd at a waterhole or buying a house and raising your family here or opening a shop.
“Or doing all those things,” she concludes.
An Artistic Bent
Memphis’ oldest independently owned bookstore, Burke’s moved shop from Poplar Avenue to Cooper-Young in 2007.
Cooper-Young is home to 180 business spaces (all but eight filled as of December 2015), including 21 restaurants, 34 retail businesses, and 27 businesses connected with arts, media or music.
The Cooper-Young Festival, held every September, has grown from its infancy 28 years ago (with a couple of thousand attendees) to an event that draws more than 130,000 people to the neighborhood, which shuts down its streets for the day and opens them to more than 430 vendors, including live music and yard sales and food trucks. “There is no other event [in Memphis] that captures the attention that the CY Fest does — everyone joins in,” says Cook.
Steve Crump is a Memphis native who several decades ago was one of the founders of the now-gone Cooper Young Development Corporation, the third of a trio of organizations working to promote and strengthen the neighborhood, along with the CYCA and the CYBA. He had grown up riding his bike with friends through Cooper-Young, and as an adult owned a woodworking and furniture-building studio at the Cooper-Young intersection where Cafe Olé is today.
The Cooper-Young of the 1970s — “artistic lifestyle, cheap rent, creative environment,” describes Crump himself, still a furniture maker who spends most of his time in his home in Somerville, Tennessee. The budding artists’ community he was part of created spontaneous events, parades, and “countercultural” fashion shows.
Cooper-Young has retained its artistic spirit while expanding as a community. Today, Crump describes it as almost a small town in its own right: “It’s not just a commercial strip or a pretty neighborhood. It’s kind of complete.”
Cooper-Young’s artistic community is evidenced in galleries and murals, all around, and in the folk-art-decorated front and back yards scattered throughout the area. Musicians and painters live here. Walk into the bookstore and see someone carrying a violin case. Step out into the evening air to the sounds of a jam session a block or two away. “If you play bass, and walk down the street, you’re going to find someone who plays lead guitar, someone who sings,” says Schebler.
“It doesn’t matter what someone’s [day] job is — they’re also a musician, they’re also an artist, they’re also something. They have these other passion projects they’re involved with. There are a lot of somethings.”
“I love that Cooper-Young has a great mix of people,” says Emily Bishop, an American Airlines flight attendant for 30 years who’s lived here since 1988. “Artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs live down the street from laborers and civil servants. I love that we have a bike co-op, a bookstore, and a brew pub. I love that we invite the whole city to run through our streets to kick off our festival every year.”
Revolutions Bike Co-Op
Revolutions Bike Cooperative, housed in First Congregational Church, builds, rehabs, and recycles bikes for the greater community.
There’s a strong emphasis on the sustainable and the environmental here, from the every-Saturday Cooper-Young Farmer’s Market to food justice partnerships at First Congo to the solar-powered train trestle entrance to the neighborhood. The CYBA plans in 2016 to install solar-powered lighted crosswalks at the intersection of Cooper and Young and solar-powered pedestrian crossing signs.
“Cooper Young has long embraced gardening and sustainability,”says Kim Halyak, a retired special education teacher and Pittsburgh native who moved to Cooper Young in 2006. She restarted the garden club last winter. Cooper-Young residents keep bees, raise rabbits, and even have a composting group.
In this tight-knit neighborhood, residents befriend and gather together with neighbors for cookouts, cocktails, and conversation.
Michigan, California, Cooper-Young
When Steve Lockwood moved to Cooper Young in the mid-1970s, the neighborhood “was not cool, it was not trendy. It was fraying around the edges.”
From Michigan originally, he’d lived in California for five years: “It was charming and beautiful and it never felt like home.” A self-described “housing guy” who had quit college to be an activist, Lockwood started driving east, stopping to visit his father in Illinois and an ex-girlfriend doing graduate work at Purdue. He landed in Cooper-Young and stayed with his friend Mark Allen, a musician (who today is married to the Reverend Cheryl Cornish, pastor of First Congregational).
The ex-girlfriend was Mary, and after she finished her master’s in developmental psychology she came to Memphis too. She has worked in social services since — and is famous in Cooper-Young for her “Mary’s Memphis Crunch” at the holidays — and Steve is the longtime executive director of the Frayser Community Development Association. Over the years, they’ve owned 13 houses in the neighborhood, buying them, renovating and rebuilding and selling them.
“We bought a house at some point — I told her buying a home doesn’t mean we’re going to stay here forever.” More than three decades later, they still live in Cooper-Young, and their children (Anna, a bookkeeper/office administrator, and Jacob, a firefighter) own a house together within walking distance of their house. “They come over here for dinner every 10 days or so,” he says.
Steve and Mary’s house was built around 1913; the majority of Cooper-Young’s residences were built between 1910 and 1940. Theirs was a duplex when they bought it in the 1970s. “This side was lived in by a magician,” he says”. There were playing cards stuck to the ceiling. I still have his bow tie upstairs.” Lockwood knocked out walls, built in bedrooms upstairs, and hung art done by friends and neighbors.
“It’s a neighborhood to live in,” says Mary. “What else could any neighborhood offer me that I don’t have here?” She loves the restaurants, being close to downtown, and she loves the neighbors. “The younger people move in [today] and seem to enjoy the neighborhood the same way.”
Country in the City
Neighborhood residents of all ages enjoy running, biking, and walking Cooper-Young’s scenic sidewalks and streets.
On this particular afternoon, friend and former neighbor Jim Kovarik stops by to pick up a pair of shoes, and Mary makes him a cup of tea. (Kovarik wrote the book on Cooper-Young, literally, coauthoring Cooper Young: A Community That Works.) Originally from Chicago, Jim Kovarik and his wife Paula came to Memphis after their 3-year-old son Damien was diagnosed with leukemia and became a patient at St. Jude. The family decided to move to Memphis for the anticipated two-and-a-half years of treatments, and as he says “Memphis was good to us.” And St. Jude was especially good to their son, whose complete recovery was the subject of a Memphis magazine cover story (“Damien’s Triumph”) in January 1988.
Today, Damien, now 37, lives in the house his parents once owned, with his family. His children go to Peabody School, the same school where Damien and his brother Miles went to school, and all of them walked.
In Cooper-Young, says Jim, “we felt like we were in the country — lots of trees.”
But the place had a sense of neighborhood, too. “When the people originally built this, they had a good sense of city, community, urban life, that mix of commerce and residence.” It’s even evident, Kovarik points out, in the width of the streets, the network of alleys, the distance from houses to foot traffic: “You can sit here on your porch and talk with people on the sidewalk.
“The real success of Cooper-Young,” he continues, “were the 16 to 20 families and individuals who were smart, resourceful, talented, had tools, had common sense, and invested in the neighborhood.”
When Jim and Paula bought their family house in 198x, “it was condemned — it was going to be bulldozed.” They bought it in October, just in time for Halloween, and threw a candlelit party that Steve Lockwood remembers as “freakin’ epic.” There was no power. They nailed boards over the holes in the floor and took advantage of the “built-in cobwebs,” as Jim puts it.
The Kovariks, like the Lockwoods, renovated the entire interior of their house. “We’re a city of old houses,” Jim says. “Let’s work with what we’ve got because it’s priceless.”
Memphis is blessed that so many Memphians, old and new, took that same can-do attitude, and have helped turn Cooper-Young into the treasure it is today.