History book shines light on the work of Cooper-Young and raises funds

By Barb Elder
Those of us who are relatively new to Cooper-Young may not understand the amazing comeback story that is our neighborhood’s history. We take for granted the safe, tight knit community that we are a part of. We don’t think twice about having active community organizations like the CYCA to advocate for our wellbeing. We enjoy restaurants and businesses that we can walk to and our newfound friendships down the street, thinking that life in Cooper-Young has always been this way. But we are a part of a much larger story whether we realize it or not. It is a story full of unsung heroes, successes and failures, and it is our story as well. It is this story, this history, that has been recorded by authors Lisa Lumb and Jim Kovarik in the newly published book, Cooper-Young: A Community that Works.
Below you will find a reprint of the books preface to pique your interest. I know it’s hard to wait for something this good, but it won’t be much longer. On Tuesday, September 14, from 5:30-6:30pm you can walk on down to Burkes’ Books, at 936 S. Cooper St., and procure your autographed copy. The book will sell for $25, and the accompanying neighborhood map, created by Paula Kovarik, is $10. You can purchase both the book and map together for a discounted $30. All proceeds go to support our CY Community Association. Enjoy!
Preface from Cooper-Young: A Community that Works
In 1977, Peggy Jemison and Virginia Dunaway took on the task of writing the history of this neighborhood. Armed with tape recorders and searching for stories, they ventured into Clark’s Barber Shop, a well-known local hangout, near the corner of Cooper and Young. Jemison recalls, “The barber ( J. W. Clark) took one look at us and said, ‘Ladies, you’re too late. The neighborhood is gone.’”
Fast forward three decades: it’s a sunny spring Thursday in the early evening. The barber shop has been transformed into a bustling Mexican restaurant. Couples belly up to the bar for margaritas, and a salsa band sets up out on the outdoor patio. The intersection brims with restaurants serving seafood, sushi, and French country cooking. It’s CY Night Out—party night in Cooper-Young powered by a business association and grateful vendors up and down the street. Merchants pull out racks with their wares: lingerie, stained glass, chocolate, $100 blue jeans and $2 used books. Eateries move their tables to the sidewalk. Another band sets up by the gazebo to offer free music, which mixes with the noise of the night.
Down Oliver Avenue, past an Irish pub where the Waterboys blast their music and Guinness fans nurse their pints, sits Edna. Holding court from her front porch rocking chair, this spry lady of 90 spreads wisdom and gossip as she has done for over half a century. Monte and Jon, walking their new springer spaniel puppy, saunter over and sit a spell. Edna’s neighbor brings her a plate for supper, and the older lady gives her the third degree about the whereabouts of her three boys, whom she has watched grow up. Samantha and Jeremy next door bring over their new baby girl, Gabriella, for inspection. A cluster of kids hoot and holler on the Peabody School playground next to her house. A multiracial mix of teenagers jostles round a basketball hoop at the end of the block for a rowdy game of street ball.
Parking spots along the street fill quickly as folks pour in for the night’s festivities; locals follow on foot. Young artists transplanted from New York parade by with their toddlers in a psychedelically painted Radio Flyer wagon. A teenager in black with mohawk, nose-ring, and tribal tattoos crawling up both arms gives the group on the porch a furtive nod as he slinks by. Two young women cruising tandem on a bike stream past, their vintage petticoats billowing behind them like parachutes on their rusty retro Schwinn. It’s a walking, wonderful mix of a night in CY. Everyone and their mama is in motion. The block is rocking, as is most of the neighborhood these days.
For more than a century, the fortunes and fables of the area have ebbed and flowed with growth and contraction. From an area in freefall during the 70s, the Cooper-Young neighborhood has come back. Empty lots and houses are now filled and rebuilt. Property values have skyrocketed. Businesses vie for space along Cooper Street and Young Avenue. A neighborhood of aging residents has in stages become a Bohemian enclave, a flipper’s paradise, and lately a trendy haven for young professionals ripe with children. Through it all, it retains its status as a good place to live in the city of Memphis.
Its edges have changed over the years, but the Cooper-Young neighborhood (CY) is roughly bound by Central Avenue on the north, East Parkway on the east, Southern Avenue on the south, and McLean on the west. In the summer of 2010, there are about 1700 households and 5000 residents. It’s a tiny slice of a larger metropolitan Memphis of about one million people.
Here in 2010, life is good for those who live in CY. Peabody Elementary School has survived since 1910 and blossomed 100 years later. The area’s largest church—First Congregational—is alive with inspiration and opportunity. Specialty retail and restaurants dot the commercial corridor. The neighborhood remains a madhouse of renovation, and it’s rare to come across a non-renovated house in the neighborhood. CY retains a reputation for tolerance and diversity, welcoming all types and shapes and sorts of people.
A generous helping of public and private resources has led to the rebound of business and housing here. Public dollars have fueled big changes; private sweat has built great value. All of this has been elevated by the work of the three neighborhood groups: The Cooper-Young Community Association (CYCA), the CY Business Association (CYBA), and the CY Development Corporation (CYDC). Once again, as it was deemed to be in the first few decades of the last century, CY is seen as a good place to live, to play, to open a business, or to raise a family.
This book is a history of CY in two parts. The first part was commissioned by the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) in the 1970s and written by Peggy Jemison and Virginia Dunaway. A copy published in 1980 is reprinted in its entirety here with three additions: headings to assist readers, photos to illuminate text, and essays—by decade— for historical context.
This original (MIFA) history covers the founding of the neighborhood up to the early 70s as the area teetered on the edge of ruin. As the largest social service organization in the entire region, MIFA was attempting to document and revive neighborhood development in Memphis. The original history laid out many of the reasons for CY’s initial boom, its subsequent decline, and tiny new signs of life.
The second part of this book is the next chapter in the history of CY written by Lisa Lumb and Jim Kovarik. It starts where the MIFA history stops in the 1970s and continues to 2010. This story starts with a neighborhood in decline and ends with a neighborhood on the rise and in full blossom with business booming and housing more valuable than ever in 2010.
This updated history was originally commissioned by Memphis Heritage and eventually published by the CYCA in 2010. Paula Kovarik at Shades of Gray, Inc. designed and produced the document (and the neighborhood map that accompanies this book). The entire project has been guided by the steadfast and shepherding hand of Emily Bishop, one of the stellar examples of an individual investor, talented volunteer, and dedicated resident whose stories are told in this book.
The story itself is the compilation of thousands of residents, owners, stakeholders, and strangers that have had their small role in the history of Cooper-Young. It is through the lives and stories of these folks that the history of Cooper-Young came to life and continues today.
Happily, the man in the barbershop who warned the original historians turned out to be wrong.

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