Building a "Creative Cauldron"

photographs by Justin Fox Burks

(page 1 of 2)

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.

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