Spurred by the success of Broad Avenue and the Shelby Farms Greenline, good things are happening in the Memphis neighborhood Binghampton.
At Carpenter Art Garden, an after-school program in Binghampton
photography by Justin Fox Burks
It’s 4 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in the fall, and about 40 elementary-age kids are working on art projects — some are painting pumpkins, others are adding mosaic tiles to a horse sculpture — in a once-blighted lot on Carpenter Street in Binghampton.
The lot that was once overgrown with weeds is now lined with colorful murals and dotted with planters made from discarded car tires painted all the shades of the rainbow. There’s a small stage for performers and picnic tables, where the kids are sitting.
Welcome to the Carpenter Art Garden, a volunteer-run, after-school program that provides children of Binghampton with a creative outlet. They meet here weekly in the lot next door to a boarded-up purple house that’s spray-painted with the words “Property of the Memphis Police Organized Crime Unit.” It’s the perfect juxtaposition of what Binghampton was and what it’s becoming.
For years, Binghampton, bordered by Poplar, East Parkway, Summer, and Holmes, has suffered from blight, crime, poverty, and a perception problem. But thanks in part to the success of the neighborhood’s Broad Avenue Arts District, plans for the Hampline (a two-way bicycle lane through the neighborhood connecting with the Shelby Farms Greenline’s entrance on Tillman), and the work of the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team and Community L.I.F.T. (a neighborhood revitalization program that connects projects with funding sources), the area has been getting more positive attention from outsiders.
Meanwhile, groups within the neighborhood — the Binghampton Development Corporation (BDC), the Lester Community Center, Caritas Village, the Refugee Empowerment Program, etc. — have been working hard for years to clean up the blight, provide positive outlets for the residents, and take back the neighborhood without gentrifying or sacrificing its character.
Crime has gone down slightly, with 581 part-one crimes (assaults, burglaries, robberies, rapes, and the like) last year, versus 746 in 2002. And the blight is a little harder to find these days; the BDC has renovated 78 housing units in the past 10 years.
But if you ask Walter Casey, who has directed the Lester Community Center on Tillman for 33 years and grew up in the neighborhood, the biggest change isn’t something that can be measured in statistics.
“The biggest change I’ve seen is the attitude of the people. They come into the center now, and they’re really positive. They want more educational classes and family-oriented classes,” Casey says. “And I’ve seen the change when strangers are in the neighborhood, riding their bikes or walking or running. At one time, there was fear in their hearts. Now there’s no fear.”
Broad’s New Face
On a Saturday afternoon in early November, small groups lounge and sip from pint glasses of craft beer on the patio of Wiseacre Brewing Co., a new brewery and taproom in a restored warehouse just west of the railroad tracks that cross Broad Avenue. (For more on Wiseacre, see The Office, page 60.)
A few blocks away, guitar aficionados sip wine at the grand opening of Guitar Spa, the latest installment of the Innovation Delivery Team’s MEMShop program. There, craftsman Kevin Ferner will build, sell, and restore custom guitars.
Throughout 2013, Mayor A C Wharton’s team has helped entrepreneurs open five pop-up retail shops and art galleries in once-vacant Broad properties. One more pop-up shop, a photography studio, will open before the year’s end.
“We give them free or reduced rent for the first six months to help them offset their startup costs, and they receive business technical support from alt.Consulting,” says Abby Miller, project officer for the MEMShop program.
Three of the five pop-up shops — Five-in-One Social Club (an art-class and retail space), My Heavenly Creations (purveyor of homemade bath and beauty products), and NJ Woods Gallery and Design (an art gallery) —have already signed long-term leases with intentions to operate on the street permanently. Another, Indie Style Market (seller of locally made crafts), is still working on its six-month MEMShop lease.
“We really love this space, and we’d wanted a storefront for a long time,” says Alice Laskey-Castle, co-owner of Five-in-One. She and partner Michael Andrews previously operated an art studio and social club in Crosstown. “I love that we have so many artists and craftspeople on the block. There’s a real energy to make Broad the place to go.”
The revitalization of Broad Avenue, once a ghost town of vacant storefronts, has been under way since about 2007, as artists and gallery owners began to relocate to the area with an eye on transforming the street into a thriving arts district.
David Wayne Brown, president of the Historic Broad Business Association and owner of advertising agency Splash Creative, moved his office into the area in 2007. He admits things were rough at first, but he’s seen a shift in crime along Broad.
“When I first moved in, we had two incidents where rocks were thrown into our front windows, and people broke in. But we haven’t had anything happen since. From talking to the Tillman police station, I know it’s absolutely true that crime has gone down,” Brown says.
The strip took off after the groundbreaking “New Face For an Old Broad” event in 2010, a two-day arts festival for which business owners created their own DIY bike lane.
Today, there are only a few vacant spaces left on Broad. The Cove, Jack Magoo’s Sports Bar & Grill, Three Angels Diner, and Broadway Pizza provide the nightlife and dining scene, while galleries and art studios such as T Clifton Gallery and Found host art openings and events. Tattoo artist Babak Tabatabai is preparing to open his shop, Ronin Design and Manufacturing, soon, and Muddy’s Bake Shop uses a Broad storefront for extra kitchen space to bake cupcakes.
Last November, Marcellus Harper opened Collage Dance Collective, a dance school aimed at teaching ballet to children of every income level, in a vacant warehouse space on Broad. Harper’s students come from all over the city, but a few come from the residential area of Binghampton located a few blocks away.
“We have students who walk here from the neighborhood, and we want to increase those numbers,” Harper says.
Construction is planned to begin late next summer on the Hampline, the city’s first two-way bicycle track, which will connect Overton Park to the Shelby Farms Greenline on Tillman. Once complete, the bike lane will be buffered from traffic with medians.
“We’re excited that it will break down the perceptions of Binghampton,” says Pat Brown, co-owner of T Clifton Gallery and vice president of the Historic Broad Business Association. “There are families living on Tillman, and we’re excited that people from outside the neighborhood will better get to know that part of Binghampton.”
In its 10 years, the BDC, led by Robert Montague, has invested $10 million in property improvements and programs like the Hamp field. They’ve renovated 78 housing units, sold 31 properties, with seven additional lease-purchase deals, and constructed 14 new homes with the help of Binghampton residents, who learn construction skills.
“When I give a tour of the neighborhood now, it’s harder to find the abject blight. It’s still here, but it used to be pervasive,” Montague says.
Caritas Village is a nonprofit coffee shop and cultural center that aims to “break down walls of hostility and build bridges of love and trust between the rich and those made poor,” according to founder Onie Johns.
Each day, Caritas Village offers programs ranging from art and dance classes and poetry readings to Bible study and yoga. There’s a free medical clinic for Binghampton residents on Tuesdays. Many of the programs are aimed at the area’s large Hispanic population. Caritas also serves coffee and breakfast in the morning and burgers and sandwiches at lunch every day, attracting diners from across the city.
Although community activists such as Johns and Montague have been working in Binghampton for years, outsiders’ perceptions of the area as dangerous have only recently begun to shift.
While numerous factors come into play, the fact that cyclists and joggers now must cross Tillman to access the Greenline entrance has likely played a big part in breaking down barriers. Art events on Broad that attract people from all over the city have also played a role in the larger Memphis community embracing Binghampton.
“So many people came to New Face For an Old Broad [in 2010] because they knew what a terrible reputation Broad had, and they were curious as to what the hell we were doing,” says Tom Clifton of T Clifton Gallery.
“Now they feel like they’re a part of it and are partially responsible, and that bleeds over into Binghampton as a whole. They want the whole area to succeed because of what they’ve seen happen on Broad.”
Pat Brown of T Clifton admits there’s work to be done in bridging the gap between Broad and the residential neighborhood south of Sam Cooper Boulevard. She says they’re trying to get more Binghampton residents to utilize the services and visit art events along the street.
“A large percentage of Binghampton residents are pedestrians, and Sam Cooper is a barrier to some. But we realize to be successful, we have to engage the community,” she says.
Over the past several months, the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team has held monthly Night Market events, where artists and craftspeople peddle their wares in a parking lot on Broad.
The Historic Broad Business Association has held focus groups before the markets, making sure to include the residents, inviting them to be vendors.
Onie Johns, who offers art programs at Caritas, knows firsthand that it can be difficult to get residents interested in art.
“For the people in the neighborhood who are struggling to get by, art is just not their thing,” Johns says. “When we first started doing art workshops here with the kids, it was really difficult to get them to come.”
But Montague says that attitude is slowly changing. “The early art walks were more homogenous and not of the neighborhood, but the last art walk was extremely diverse,” Montague says. “I hope more and more Binghampton folks physically connect on Broad — eat there, shop there, go to the stage on the loading dock. I think the amphitheater [on the warehouse loading dock] will draw more people there.
“There were tumbleweeds going down Broad when we got here 10 years ago, and there was prostitution and gambling,” Montague continues. “Broad has had an indirect, very positive effect on the people of Binghampton.”
A version of this story first appeared in MBQ’s sister publication, the Memphis Flyer.