Public art with locks in Overton Square

Heart and Soul: Cooper-Young Staycation

Heart and Soul: Cooper-Young Staycation

Story and photos by Ken Billett

In late April, Vicki and I spent a wonderful weekend exploring Overton Square and the Cooper-Young section of Midtown, enjoying the sights and sounds of Porchfest 2022 (see my StoryBoard Memphis article, Cooper-Young Porchfest 2022: A Musical Mecca).

Booking our staycation at a lovely Airbnb near Union Avenue allowed us to rediscover Midtown, in particular, the Cooper-Young historic district (aka Cooper-Young) and reconnect with a part of Memphis that may be the unofficial soul of our great city.

From the get-go, I have to admit: I’m not hip, I’m not cool, and I am certainly not “with it.” I’m a middle-aged suburbanite who lives in Far East Memphis—at the western edge of Germantown (see The Heartbeat of a Neighborhood).

My part of town is pleasant, but dull. Nice houses. Pretty lawns. Some fairly tall trees. Quick access to a Kroger and to Trader Joe’s. Plus, there are a few horses around (see The Horses). Nothing, however, distinguishes one section from the rest. East Memphis. Germantown. Collierville. It’s all about the same…boring. Staid. Static.

Hanging out in this hip, eclectic neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon in the spring reinforced those differences between Cooper-Young and Far East Memphis.

Staycation, All I Ever Wanted

Also in April, Memphis Magazine published a piece on staycations, Memphis-style, featuring weekend getaway suggestions from local celebrities and other Mid-South movers and shakers. Oddly enough, I was not asked for my opinion.

If they had asked me, I would have suggested a long weekend stay at a rental in the old Ambassador Hotel on Vance Avenue in the South Main Arts District, with breakfast at Bedrock right on the corner at South Main and lunch next door at The Green Beetle. Or, maybe, a summertime jaunt to a spot in Harbor Town on Mud Island, within walking distance to Miss Cordelia’s and a short drive over the bridge to Cozy Corner on North Parkway near Uptown, one of the top barbecue joints in Memphis.

Or celebrate your wedding anniversary in downtown Memphis with dinner at The Majestic Grille, a nightcap at the nearby speakeasy Blind Bear followed by a short walk back to your room at the Hotel Napoleon.

See, I’m just like the I Love Memphis blog.

Maybe someone should ask my opinion next time?

Staycation, Had to Get Away

We started our Midtown staycation on Friday afternoon by exploring Overton Square, located not far from our rental. As an entertainment district, Overton is a great place to hang out—eat, drink, people watch—and, on occasion, listen to good music.

After a mid-afternoon snack on the patio at Babalu, we hotel-crashed the lobby of The Memphian, a boutique hotel on South Cooper. (Hotel crashing is a family tradition.) The Memphian’s lobby, a bit avant-garde for my taste, contained Memphis-themed photos and artwork. We couldn’t ride the elevator up to the rooftop bar, Tiger and Peacock, which opened later in the day. Not that we were dressed appropriately for the T&P.

We are, after all, boring suburbanites from Far East Memphis.

With time to kill before our dinner reservation at Lafayette’s Music Room, we wandered over to Chimes Square, on the backside of Overton Square, and sat on a porch swing situated under the trees and located right behind Memphis Pizza Café. We watched kids playing bean bag toss, folks wandering around, Overton Square customers come and go. The atmosphere was nice, relaxing…more our style.

I’m Walkin’, Yes Indeed

Saturday brought Porchfest 2022 and our Cooper-Young immersion. Well before the music began, we roamed Cooper-Young’s core, taking in their Farmers Market, munching on a breakfast kolache and a Texas-sized cinnamon roll from Bain Barbecue & Bakery, and catching-up on our Memphis music history at the Johnny Cash statue on Cooper.

Walking. Walking from place to place. What a concept.

Out here in the ’burbs, no one walks…except for exercise.

Once Porchfest started, we used our feet to get from point A to point B. Cooper-Young’s interior neighborhoods are both closed-in and closely knit. Smaller yards and streets meant shorter distances to travel. The neighborhoods—and the neighbors—all had that vibe. A sense of belonging. A sense of community. Welcoming. The perfect setting to hear an interesting mix of music performed from more than thirty porches and local store fronts.

And I’m Talkin’ About You and Me

Not only is a sense of community alive and well in Cooper-Young, but a fierce sense of independence, creativity, and discovery were all on full display that Saturday afternoon. Personal statements, from extensive tattoos and body piercings to hippie and goth clothing, along with sighting a few cosplay participants, reminded Vicki and I that we weren’t in Far East Memphis anymore.

And the beards. What was with the beards? Cooper-Young guys sported those beards you see in ads for The Beard Club. Just about every beard was large and full—but well-trimmed and tightly tapered.

Clearly, I missed the memo.

Nevertheless, we had a wonderful time at Porchfest and quickly felt at home in Cooper-Young. As I wrote in my Porchfest 2022 article…After a wonderful afternoon of music, hanging out in Midtown on a beautiful spring night feels just right.

Heart and Soul of Memphis?

Years ago, I remember those bumper stickers proclaiming Midtown is Memphis. We hadn’t lived in the Bluff City for very long, so I didn’t know the story behind the bumper sticker campaign. Now, many years later, and as a current suburbanite, I understand the pride and loyalty of Midtown residents.

As an extension of that Midtown pride and loyalty, Cooper-Young should be considered the heart and soul of our city. The Cooper-Young historic district certainly has the electricity to keep that heart pumping. Nowhere else in Memphis may be as cool as Cooper-Young. Even our newly-evolving or revitalized neighborhoods, like South Main, or The Edge District, have a way to go in building their cachet with Memphians.

Even within the many neighborhoods of Midtown, Cooper-Young is the place. Yet, Cooper-Young residents are friendly, open, and unassuming—just as they are independent and creative. Like folks should be all across Memphis and Shelby County.

Whether it’s next year’s Porchfest, a night on Overton Square, or just hanging out along South Cooper, we’ll be back to immerse ourselves in this part of Midtown—the unofficial soul of Memphis.

As Fats Domino once sang—

I’m walkin’ yes indeed

And I’m talkin’ about you and me

I’m hopin’ that you’ll come back to me

Note: Heart and Soul: Cooper-Young Staycation is a special staycation edition of my Get Out of Town column and part of the Spring Travel Memories series.

Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.

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