By Stephanie Gonzalez
Whether you’re new to Cooper-Young or have been in the neighborhood for decades, you probably know Aaron James. He’s a fixed face at every community function, you might have even bought some salvaged home fixtures from his “compound” on Felix. And for just over the past year, he’s been the tireless face of the Cooper-Young Neighborhood Watch. He’s this month’s Volunteer Spotlight.
I know your family has a long history in Cooper-Young. Can you give me some background?
My mom’s dad’s oldest brother built 1835 Walker in 1912, when Lamar was still a dirt road and travel from the family farm in north DeSoto County was an eight-hour buggy ride. We’ve maintained a family presence in Cooper-Young ever since.
How long have you lived in Cooper-Young, and how’d you end up here?
Even though both my mom and dad grew up in CY, they were living on Graham just north of Kingsbury when I was born. (We shan’t say when that was!). Then, after a short stint in Arkansas in the early ’70s, we moved across the street from my dad’s mom on Felix in 1975. Cooper-Young was a vastly different, infinitely less inviting place back then – and I couldn’t get the heck out of Dodge fast enough.
Any stops along the way?
You could say that: 25 years, 25 jobs, 25 addresses. As an architect (the very first project I designed on my own was the conversion of what had been an abandoned gas station into what is now an abandoned bank on the northwest corner of Cooper and Young in 1990), I hired myself out to firms all across the eastern half of the country. My specialty was taking napkin sketches (conceptual building ideas produced by whoever’s name was on the door) and making them buildable. I was living in Manhattan in 2008 and had just been assigned lead on a 39-story residential tower overlooking the East River, when simultaneously the global economy collapsed and my parents were in an auto accident. I literally packed up and came home overnight.
When and how did you get involved in volunteering for the neighborhood?
I have always understood that “neighborhood” takes work. As a kid, all our neighbors knew one another and did for one another. The now empty slab at the southwest corner of Nelson and Barksdale was a true neighborhood market, the living, breathing heart of our half of CY. I started working there sometime around my 16th birthday, delivered groceries all up and down Barksdale, held my very first “yard” sale on the sidewalk out front and knew most of the regulars on a first name basis. That was neighborhood, and there’s little reason why we can’t have that again.
What are some of the activities you’ve been involved in over the years?
My personal level of “give-a-damn” has varied over the years. Thirty years ago, riding a crest of GAD, I helped start a fund called Firewise that provided free smoke detectors for the poor. The fire fatality rate in Memphis (particularly for children) was at an all-time high. The project was so successful that not only is it still in place but they will provide smoke detectors for anyone who calls and Memphis Fire Department personnel will come to your home to install them! I also did some food baskets projects, fishing rodeo fundraisers, and stuff like that. Twenty years ago, (before legally dropping my dad’s name, Hollingsworth), I was president of the Annesdale-Snowden Neighborhood Association. Although one of the oldest and hardest working associations in Memphis, at the time they were having serious problems with drugs and prostitution, even had their very own crack house. It took a few months, but once we cleaned up that mess, the property values spiked. (The house I had bought for $55,000 in 1994 peaked at $205,000 a decade later.) Then my GAD took a hiatus.
What was your main motivation for starting the Cooper-Young Neighborhood Watch?
Truthfully, in a perfect world, neighborhood watch would be an unnecessary undertaking. But since the world is far from perfect, one of the ways to help correct that is to create ways neighbors can be more neighborly. For Cooper-Young proper, that means looking out for one another as well as sharing support and resources. Outside our borders, it means working with other neighborhoods to help do the same. It means understanding that things are not simply “the way things are,” but that the Memphis we know is the Memphis that those who came before have made. After not only gaining the perspective of other locales but also discovering my own appreciation for my family’s history here (we’ve been in Shelby County since 1827), I decided that Memphis – more particularly Cooper-Young – is where I will make my stand. In terms of crime, Memphis has sunk a little too close to the bottom of the barrel. Together we have some hard truths to face and more than a few historical wrongs to right. Even so, I am convinced that if we can address these challenges head on, that 20 years from now every square inch of the city can be just as vibrant and wonderful a place to live as our beloved little fragment of it.
How and when did you get it started?
Cooper-Young Neighborhood Watch started December 7th, 2015, when 40 neighbors got together and decided it was time to stop the rising crime rate. With an anemic city government and woefully understaffed Memphis Police Department facing what was to become the most violent year in Memphis history, we knew we had to step up and do our part.
What’s been the biggest challenge over the past year?
Honestly? The most difficult part for me personally has been overcoming the negative response from some of our own neighbors. People who harbor a preconceived notion of neighborhood watch as a bunch of Nazi-wannabes and, instead of making some effort to find out what it’s really all about, lashing out with irrational blathering, with apparently no greater desire than to publicly air their own fears.
What are you proudest about with regard to the neighborhood watch?
The fact that in the course of one short year, CYNW has become the prototype organization that many other neighborhoods are now working to emulate. Two thousand seventeen is already promising to be the year that we can not only make that happen but raise the bar even higher in the process.
What is your favorite thing about Cooper-Young?
If I were to close my eyes and try to imagine the quintessential community, it would be Cooper-Young. Sure, it would be great if Southern Avenue were a beach, but other than that we’re a pretty damned fine place to call home.
What makes you so driven to give back/get involved?
The understanding that community is a communal effort. The mantra of, “Just as a home is more than a mere collection of studs and sheetrock, so too is a neighborhood more than a mere collection of domiciles.”
What advice would you give people who might want to get involved in the neighborhood but don’t know where to start?
Last night, I read a post on Nextdoor of some folks starting a neighborhood game board group. My initial reaction was, “Hell, if you have that much free time …,” but before I could even complete the thought I realized that what they are doing is every bit as important as what the neighborhood watch is doing. It’s all about finding common ground, about reaching out – in any relevant and healthy manner – to engage, about realizing that none of us are in this alone. However you can manage that is the manner in which you will be doing your part.
Anything you want to add?
Yes, there is. I would like to take a moment and speak directly to our newest neighbors, particularly those who have purchased a home in Cooper-Young over the last five years. You need to know that your investment involves more than just money. Hundreds of people have invested untold thousands of volunteer hours over the last 30 years to transform Cooper-Young from what was the staunch, lower-middle class, gloriously blue collar neighborhood of my and my parents’ youth into one of the Top 10 neighborhoods in the country. Welcome and enjoy. But if you want to stay, if you want to raise your family or – like me and my Nancy – to spend the rest of your lives here, it’s also going to take personal involvement. Get involved. It doesn’t matter how.
Do you know someone who should be featured as the Lamplighter’s Volunteer Spotlight? Email your nomination to firstname.lastname@example.org.