When Tamara Walker first began visiting Midtown's Cooper-Young neighborhood as a teenager 30 years ago, it was not the most inviting of areas.
"Back in the late '70s, the Bank of America building here was a used boat trailer lot fenced in with razor wire around the top and guard dogs that used to snarl at you," she recalls.
These days things are quite different. From her office on that same property, adjacent to the Bank Of America, Walker, the director of the Cooper-Young Business Association, has watched the area change dramatically. But never more so than on the late summer Saturday every year when she wakes up at 4 a.m. to mount the city's biggest free festival.
"Sponsors load in at 6 a.m., and the beer booths start going up and the vendors start coming at 7 a.m.; at least the smart ones do," Walker says of how she expects this Saturday's 23rd annual Cooper-Young Festival to begin. "We have total mayhem between 7 and 9 a.m. But at 9 o'clock, it kind of settles down, and you can look down the street and go: 'Here we are. It's Cooper-Young Festival day.' That's my favorite part of the day."
With the razor wire a distant memory, Cooper-Young has been for years one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in the inner city, an area celebrated for its historic homes, fine dining, boutique shops, and arts and music scenes. Even as most neighborhoods have struggled just to hold onto existing businesses in the current economic climate, new ones are lining up to get into Cooper-Young.
In recent weeks, national clothier Urban Outfitters, pizza chain Mellow Mushroom, and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream have all expressed interest in moving to the district, says Walker. And the neighborhood is poised for even more growth with the proposed redevelopment of the nearby Mid-South Fairgrounds.
"(Cooper-Young's) evolved to be a great place," says Walker, who has worked in the district off and on for decades. "I think we are the entertainment Mecca in Midtown Memphis right now and probably will be for the next 10 years. The fairgrounds coming in is just going to boost us up another notch."
Copper-Young's dramatic turnaround from blight to hot spot is celebrated every year at its namesake festival. The event, like the neighborhood itself, is a celebration of place.
Sixteen local bands are slated to perform on three stages. In a twist from past years, two of the stage are programmed and sponsored by Cooper-Young businesses and groups. At the east end of Young Avenue, the Young Avenue Deli and Goner Records have teamed to provide a lineup of artists mostly culled from the record store's affiliated label. And south on Cooper in the parking lot of the First Congregational Church, the Visible School, a music and worship college temporarily located in the LifeLink Church at the corner of Cooper and Walker, is presenting a lineup of its artists.
A festival committee made up of local music industry professionals programs the Main Stage near the intersection of Cooper and Young between the Young Avenue Deli and the Bank of America.
Filling the space in between the stages is a dizzying array of vendors. A record 399 will be selling food, arts and crafts, clothing and collectibles this year, pushing the event closer to its physical boundaries.
Last year's festival drew about 85,000 attendees, according to estimates given to organizers by the Memphis Police Department. With warm sunny weather predicted for Saturday, Walker expects to equal if not surpass that number.
While every Cooper-Young Festival is a testament to far how the neighborhood has come, this year visitors will also be able to explore where it came from. In conjunction with the regular festivities, this year the Cooper-Young Community Association is publishing "Cooper-Young: A Community that Works," a revised history of the neighborhood. The book, co-authored by Lisa Lumb and Jim Kovarik, chronicles the area's growth beginning in the late 19th century, when it first sprang up as a bedroom community along the trolley line that ran from Downtown Memphis to the fairgrounds.
"It started as a streetcar suburb really," says Lumb, an employee of the Memphis Public Library & Information Center who has lived in Cooper-Young since 1988. "In the '50s, like in every other part of Memphis and the United States, people started moving out of the inner cities and building little pink houses."
By the '70s, when Walker first remembers the area, neglect had crept into Cooper-Young with boarded-up homes and businesses dotting the landscape.
"Memphis has a really bad reputation for ripping out whole old neighborhoods and tearing down lovely old houses, but I think the fact that Cooper-Young was a working-class and fairly modest neighborhood saved it," says Lumb, who credits a diehard group of citizens with keeping the faith during the lean years. "Cooper-Young has a really wide variety of housing ... so there was really something for everybody there."
The Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association originally commissioned the history of Cooper-Young in the '70s. In an era when America's old inner-city neighborhoods were falling prey to flight and neglect, the project was seen as last-ditch effort to preserve on paper the character of these neighborhoods and hopefully ignite redevelopment. Written by Peggy Jemison and Virginia Dunaway, the first history was completed in 1977, said Lumb. That same year a group of about 500 Cooper-Young residents organized the forerunner of the modern festival.
The new book is one of a series of updated histories being made possible through a $1,500 repayable grant from Memphis Heritage.
"It's a little literary loan," says June West of Memphis Heritage, which has also funded a history of the Evergreen Historic District. "One of our goals is to help the neighborhoods update their histories."
Building on the work of Jemison and Dunaway, Lumb and Kovarik reorganized and revised the original material and expanded it to encompass the years 1977-2010.
The authors celebrated the release of "Cooper-Young: A Community that Works" on Tuesday with a book signing at Cooper-Young's Burke's Bookstore. The book, along with a poster-size map of the neighborhood detailing the construction dates for the structures in it, will be available for sale at the festival at Cooper-Young Community Association's booth. The book is available for $25 and the poster is $10, or get both for $30, with all proceeds going to the Cooper Young Community Association.
9 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday. Admission: Free. For more information, visit cooperyoungfestival.com.
Goner/Young Avenue Deli Stage (on Young near Meda)
12:30 p.m. John Paul Keith & the 145s
1:30 p.m. Overnight Lows
2:30 p.m. Jack O & the Tennessee Tearjerkers
3:30 p.m. Missing Monuments
4:30 p.m. The Limes
Visible School Stage (First Congregational Church parking lot)
12:15 p.m. Darien Clea
12:35 p.m. Battle Victorious
1:15 p.m. Donte' Everhart
2:15 p.m. Arma Secreta
3:15 p.m. Keia Johnson
4:15 p.m. Speakerboxx
Main Stage (Cooper and Young)
12:15 p.m. U of M Jazz band
1:15 p.m. The Sheriffs of Nottingham
2:15 p.m. D Monet
3:15 p.m. Tony Dickerson
4:15 p.m. The Reba Russell Band
5:15 p.m. Marcela & Orquesta Caliente