The History of the Cooper-Young Community Association

The Cooper-Young Community Association (CYCA) was formed in 1976 around the following mission: to make our neighborhood a safer and more desirable place to live, worship, work,and play. Encompassing an area of Memphis, Tennessee, where homebuilding flourished from 1881 through the early 1930′s, the association was born when residents became activists to stem the tide of decay that so many urban areas experienced with the rise of suburban-ism and the phenomenon known as “white flight”.

At that time, home owner occupancy within the community had dropped to less than 47%; industries which had supplied jobs to this working-class neighborhood had relocated, leaving deserted commercial properties throughout the area along with the abandoned railway tracks that once served them; banks were refusing mortgage loans; tax codes made it more profitable to level historic homes and build multi-family units; establishments serving the community, such as restaurants, grocery stores, and other retailers folded (A History of Cooper-Young, (c) 1977, Metropolitan Interfaith Association). In the absence of these stabilizing factors, crime and poverty moved in.

But the volunteers who established the CYCA saw the need to revitalize this unique, urban landscape and sought out solutions. Working with local law enforcement, they created neighbor support groups for crime prevention, eventually winning a number of citywide awards for their efforts. They surveyed the housing stock and other contributing structures within the neighborhood and gained placement on the National Register of Historic Places. Publication of the LampLighter Community Newspaper and volunteer distribution to every household and business in the neighborhood allowed the CYCA to reach diverse stakeholders. This monthly communication helped strengthen relationships, develop dialogue among many different points of view, and keep the community apprised of the challenges and opportunities available.

By 1989, businesses had begun to move back into the area, and a sister organization, the Cooper-Young Business Association, was born. In partnership, a small neighborhood children’s festival grew to become the annual Cooper-Young Fall Festival, which attracts over 45,000 visitors to the area on the second Saturday of each September for art, music, food, and entertainment. Proceeds from this event, the largest one-day festival in the Southeast, were used to establish the Cooper-Young Development Corporation (CYDC). The CYDC, through rehabilitation and new construction, has returned 34 single-housing units to the neighborhood to date.

By gaining not-for-profit 501(c)(3) status, the CYCA was able to enhance its role as a community facilitator. In 1991, it received a comprehensive, three-year community planning grant to help establish short-term and long-range goals (known as the Eagle Plan). Having gathered community consensus on priorities during the Eagle process, the Gateways 2000 program was initiated in 1997. This multi-year project focused on safety and beautification, culminating with projects completed in time for the turn of another century in this neighborhood. One of the most notable accomplishments is the Trestle Art Gateway over Cooper Street, which turned an abandoned, dilapidated, dangerous, lead paint and rust encrusted railway overpass into a permanent, lighted gateway welcoming residents and visitors alike to the neighborhood. It was the recipient of the 1999 Urban Art Vision Award for all of Memphis and Shelby County.

In lessons learned through the Gateway projects and the Eagle planning process, the Members Count campaign was born. This multi-year program, funded in part by the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, increased membership donations to the CYCA by 98% over the previous five-year average in its first year. Currently in its second year, the campaign is poised to exceed the goals set by the steering committee for 2003, increasing not only fiscal capacity but also grassroots strength of the organization to effect change.

Today, the Cooper-Young community includes over 1,600 households, with an owner occupancy rate of 61% (US Census data, 2000). There are more than two hundred flourishing businesses with thriving retail, restaurant, arts, and antiques districts as well as industries that employ local residents. Two schools and twelve worship communities are located within its boundaries. The CYCA maintains community office space within a redeveloping commercial area in the most challenging quadrant of our neighborhood (highest percentage of remaining abandoned properties and vacant lots, with the lowest average property value). Volunteers, including board members, neighborhood watch block captains, gardeners, artists, fundraisers, event organizers, and others give over 4,000 hours annually in projects which meet the mission of the association: making our neighborhood a more desirable place to live, worship, work, and play.

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