Crosstown: A Big Ass Jail? 

To celebrate the Flyer’s 25th year, we’ll be using this space each week to look back on stories from past issues.

click to enlarge BIANCA PHILLIPS
  • Bianca Phillips

With funding secured and construction companies readying their crews, work to convert the long-abandoned, 1.4-million-square-foot Sears Crosstown building into a "vertical urban village" with health-care, arts, education, retail, and residential space should begin this spring.

But for our April 29, 1999, issue, when the building was nothing more than a hulking, big empty, we held a contest asking our readers what they'd like to see fill the space. Those with the 10 best answers were awarded a Flyer T-shirt.

Answers were all over the place, but reader Joel Edlin had perhaps the most far-fetched idea: "Turn it into a BIG ASS JAIL. Bet we could fill it up, just like Sears did on August 8, 1927, with 47,000 customers."

Adrienne Faires thought the building would make a nice American Red Cross distribution and training center, while Oscar F. Williams envisioned the Crosstown building as a hotel that would help Memphis attract more conventions.

Les Poppenheimer had visions of suburbia in the inner city with dreams of a Crosstown outlet mall with one retailer per floor. Fabian Baron saw the place as a future subsidized senior living center, where seniors paid rent based on their incomes.

Jay C. Schechtman thought we could use the Crosstown building for a little worldwide philanthropy by converting the building into the Southern Trading Center, where we would "display the products and services of South America, Africa, South Asia, and Australia. We could create jobs in Memphis, and assist underdeveloped countries [in] securing a foothold in American trade."

When the renovated Crosstown building opens in 2016, there will be an educational component with the Memphis Teacher Residency and Rhodes College setting up office space inside. Long-time (and now deceased) Flyer reader and letter-writer Arthur Prince may have glanced into the future with his idea of turning the building into an institute of higher education, or a "tower of learning," as Prince wrote.

Frank Crumby wasn't terribly far off from today's plans of including residential and retail space, but in his plan, the entire building would have been devoted to luxury living.

"Her new name would be The Evergreens. She would be a mix of upscale spacious condos on the top floors and the tower, apartments on the middle floors, and retail [which] would feature services to appeal to the large number of residents, such as dry cleaners, hair salons, convenience stores, etc. The building also offers plenty of space for a spa, indoor pool, and racquetball. The Evergreens could be the ultimate address," Crumby wrote.

If we had been gamblers back in 1999, we should have bet on the suggestions of Harold F. Keuper and Brantley Ellzey. While the current plans for Crosstown include the medical industry — namely the Church Health Center and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital offices — it's being fused with an arts component. Inside the building, there will be artist working spaces and studios, an art gallery, and performance space.

Keuper envisioned an "arts tower" with "rehearsal halls and performance spaces for dance groups, bands, choruses, theatre groups, plus artists' studios and recording facilities."

These days, Ellzey actually has an art studio in the hip row of Crosstown Shoppes across from the Sears building, but back in 1999, he clearly possessed psychic powers. Though he was a tad off in his suggestion that the Crosstown building could become a new campus for Memphis College of Art, he was spot-on when he said the arts component in the building could spur neighborhood development.

"I can imagine the entire surrounding commercial neighborhood becoming an 'art' district with all the groovy shops, restaurants, galleries, etc. that description implies," Ellzey wrote.

And that's exactly what has happened in the Crosstown neighborhood over the past two years since the nonprofit Crosstown Arts set up in the area. Ellzey's studio, which was there before Crosstown's reemergence, is now located next door to two art galleries, a hula-hooping studio, the Hi-Tone music venue, and the Visible School's affordable music classroom.

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