Building a "Creative Cauldron"

photographs by Justin Fox Burks

On a recent Saturday night, a diverse mix of Memphians, many of them under the age of 15 and some of them well into senior citizenship, gathered around a wooden pallet in the parking lot of the vacant Sears Crosstown building on North Watkins in Midtown.

Film director Craig Brewer and former Memphis rapper Gangsta Boo were in attendance, staked out in a VIP area on the crumbling Crosstown building’s loading dock.

Future’s infectious rap song “At the Same Damn Time” was playing over the loudspeaker as a dancer, who calls himself G. Nerd and sports red-and-yellow, square-frame glasses, glided effortlessly across the pallet, moving his arms and legs in a fashion that puts Michael Jackson’s moonwalk to shame.

It was a Memphis jookin’ dance-off, and G. Nerd’s competitor, B. Frank, was standing on the edge of the makeshift dance floor, taunting his competition. Jookin’, a style of dance that originated in Memphis in the 1990s, is characterized by smooth footwork that makes the dancers appear as if they are floating. A few numbers were performed to classical music, as a Memphis Symphony Orchestra string quartet played from the loading dock.

The event, put on by the U-Dig Dance Academy, temporarily breathed new life into a parking lot that has typically been sitting empty seven days a week. It also foreshadowed what’s to come in the Crosstown neighborhood, as a group of ambitious community leaders work behind the scenes to bring the 1.4-million-square-foot former Sears, Roebuck headquarters back to its full glory.

In August, the Sears Crosstown Development Team, a mix of architects, designers, and urban planners, announced it had signed memorandums of understanding with nine founding partners from the healthcare, education, and arts fields willing to move some or all of their operations into the Sears building within the next several years.

The Church Health Center, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, ALSAC (St. Jude’s fundraising arm), West Clinic, Gestalt Community Schools, Memphis Teacher Residency, Rhodes College, and Crosstown Arts have committed to the space, and the announcement has spawned an undercurrent of excitement for the area’s residents and businesses.

Crosstown Arts, which has been working to find a new life for the Sears building for two years, has begun its efforts to re-brand the surrounding neighborhood as an arts district. And although redevelopment for the Sears building is still a few years away (a timeline is still being fleshed out), the Crosstown neighborhood is already developing a hip vibe similar to that gained by Cooper-Young, South Main, and the Broad Avenue Arts District in recent years.

Built in 1927, the Sears Crosstown building, an 11-story behemoth, once housed the Sears, Roebuck Catalog Order Plant and Retail Store. Sears became a warehouse hub serving some 750,000 people in a seven-state region. But over several decades, the company’s mail-order business began to decrease.

The retail store closed in 1983, and the catalog distribution center shut down in 1993. The massive building has been vacant ever since. Over time, other businesses in the area moved out, paving the way for an influx of title-loan shops, seasonal tax services, and a slew of auto parts stores.

A walk through the Sears building today reveals peeling paint, broken windows and tiles, and rusty fixtures. Vandals have tagged the interior with graffiti and smashed the sinks in several restrooms, and thieves have stolen all the copper in the building.

But a group of dedicated preservationists and artists have held out hope for the Sears building, a hulking fixture on the Midtown landscape.

Crosstown Arts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding new life for the building and bringing arts to the Crosstown neighborhood, moved into an office on North Watkins, in the shadow of the tower, in 2010.

Led by University of Memphis art history professor Todd Richardson and video artist Chris Miner, the group originally envisioned a local version of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, another urban renewal project that transformed a set of abandoned factories in North Adams into a state-of-the-art center for the visual and performing arts.


But, thanks to the backing and vision of local leaders, the mission for the new Sears Crosstown evolved into a plan to combine healthcare, education, arts, retail, and residential space — a plan dubbed the “vertical urban village.”

“Creative expression is what it means to be health,” Richardson says. “All the anchors of arts, education, health, and wellness don’t have to be seen in silos anymore.”

The Church Health Center (CHC), which provides healthcare to the working uninsured, has committed to move its entire operation, including its Wellness Center gym and nutrition program, into the building. Currently, it operates out of 11 buildings, most of which are located on Peabody near Bellevue in Midtown.

“It was the perfect storm in terms of timing, because the Church Health Center is literally busting at the seams, operating out of so many different buildings,” Richardson says.

CHC executive director Dr. Scott Morris was inspired after he and other founding partners visited the Midtown Exchange building in Minneapolis, an almost identical redevelopment of its twin, the Memphis Sears building. That former Sears headquarters is now a bustling “village” that combines arts, retail, and residential space. A similar Sears in Boston was also redeveloped with a mix of retail and healthcare, and renewal projects at Sears buildings in Dallas and Atlanta are currently under way.

“I hope our 25 years have given us some credibility,” Morris says. “We’re willing to put our reputation, character, and integrity on the line around this issue, and that has made it easier for others to say, ‘Hey, we want to be part of that.’”

That was the case for Dr. Kurt Tauer, chief of staff at the West Clinic, which has committed to moving its Union Avenue office into the Sears building and opening a state-of-the-art cancer clinic there, in partnership with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.

“I think it’s just a wonderful idea,” Tauer says. “Our Midtown practice has grown tremendously, and we need reasonable space to facilitate what our patients need in a big way.”

Methodist CEO Gary Shorb signed on with West Clinic after realizing the benefits of having the CHC Wellness Center in the same building as the cancer clinic.

“Treating cancer is not just about treating cancer but rather treating the whole person to bring them back to total health,” Shorb says. “The Wellness Center could be a real value-add there.”

In addition to healthcare facilities, the Sears building will feature a large number of apartments, which attracted the leadership at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. They see potential for housing graduate students, post-doctoral trainees, faculty, and other staff. ALSAC plans to use Crosstown to fill additional space needs.

Before the healthcare component was part of the plan, Richardson had been in talks with David Montague, director of Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR), which trains new teachers, mostly from other parts of the country, in urban education and puts them to work in public schools in Binghampton, Orange Mound, Mitchell Heights, and Graham Heights.

Montague plans to move MTR’s entire operation, which includes office space, training facilities, and housing for its teachers, into the Sears building. Currently, the program is run out of Union Avenue Baptist Church, and residents are housed in apartments near the church. He sees endless potential in the overlap of ideas and function in the building, something Dr. Morris has coined a “creative cauldron for the arts.”

“The project and people who are coming to be a part of it will provide a lot of synergy in that space,” Montague says.

Gestalt Community Schools, which opened a charter school, Gordon Academy for the Arts and Sciences, in the neighborhood this fall, plans to open a charter high school for the arts in the Sears building. The school will serve nearly 500 kids in grades nine through 12.

“We don’t just want to build a school,” says Gestalt CEO Derwin Sisnett. “We want to redevelop a community.”

Part of what helped define Crosstown was identifying what developers didn’t want it to be: “Think of how many times you have seen a shopping center being put in place where it’s all retail and they wait for the people to show up,” says Kerry Hayes, public relations director for doug carpenter & associates, which represents the project. “Sometimes people do, sometimes they don’t. We are offering retail and commercial lenders a dense, vibrant hive of people of different backgrounds, needs, uses, and incomes.”

Speaking to the overall goal for the building, Richardson says, “It’s not a big arts project. It’s a village. And arts will play a significant role, like any vibrant place. For the Crosstown neighbors, it’s an extension of a neighborhood rather than creating some enormous office park.”

While the Sears redevelopment offers a promise of growth in the neighborhood, there’s still much work to be done along the rest of Cleveland Street.

Enter Mayor A C Wharton’s Innovation Delivery Team. Funded by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the team is focused on bolstering economic recovery in a handful of Memphis neighborhoods, one of which includes the Cleveland corridor.

In part of a multipronged effort to bring the area back to life, the team is planning to host its first Building Better Blocks event on Cleveland Street on November 10th.

An all-day neighborhood festival, dubbed MemFIX: Cleveland Street and modeled after the highly successful New Face for an Old Broad event that took place in the Broad Avenue Arts District in 2010, the Cleveland event will feature food trucks, pop-up retail, and a temporary “road diet” that will show drivers how bicycle lanes along Cleveland could work.

“The goal is to imagine a different street and what this neighborhood could be. It’s a living planning workshop that allows people to test what they’d like to see,” says Tommy Pacello of the mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team, which is funding the festival. The Memphis Regional Design Center and Crosstown Arts are helping with planning. The hope is that businesses will begin to take an interest in the area, as was the case with the Broad Avenue event.

“The day after New Face for an Old Broad, the street didn’t look much different, but eight months to a year later, Broad became a different place,” Pacello says. “Think about the purchasing power the project brings: a million square feet of office, residential, and commercial space. It changes the game.”

The idea with MemFIX and the Sears redevelopment is not to push out those who are already there, as tends to happen with some neighborhood improvement efforts.

“Crosstown already has a vibe that informed this massive development,” Richardson says. “It’s one of the most ethnically diverse districts in the city. For us, it was never a choice to make Sears Crosstown an office park or some other typical anchor development that would gentrify everything. The beauty of what we’re doing is that it’s inclusive. It’s for everyone.”

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