About five years ago, Robin Salant, a photographer friend won a commission to do a light installation in the top tower at the Sears Crosstown building in Memphis. At the same time, talks were in the works about what to do with the old, 1.5 million square foot building. In the meantime, Robin's light installation was like a beacon for the weary. The dinosaur was breathing again. We can all assuage our concerns about having an art deco mammoth shuttered across the street. Maybe it really won't become more derelict.
But wait, what is a city who can't afford to pay benefits to its police force going to do with a building this size in an urban, grass roots arts community? Possibly tear it down? No, it's beautiful and only 87 years old. Refurbish it like Bob and Gail Cassilly did to the International Shoe Company in St. Louis - now the City Museum? No, #1., We don't have an artist with a lot of money and #2., Crosstown is 850,000 square feet bigger (say that again with an echo effect).
Hmmm. What to do (tap, tap, tap, tap...)? The building sits across the street from small galleries, gathering places and story booths supporting the arts community; a Jehovah's Witness theatre-style church, a coin laundromat, a weekend flea market, a Memphis dive music hot spot plus a smattering of cheap, good eats and other odd thriving amenities. What can possibly go in there????
While you're thinking, here's a bit of Crosstown history. The building was opened in 1927. It was one of 8 regional Sears hubs large enough to house a mini-hospital for employees. For about 50 years, it was a retail giant. If I'd lived here then, I'm sure I would have bought my Sears hip-huggers and back-pocket comb there. Unfortunately, from 1983 through 1993 as large department store and catalog retail sales came to a halt, the Crosstown building slowly said goodbye to its humans and shuttered its windows.
Fast forward to now and the question is, what isn't going in there? It's an exciting time for Crosstown. True to its neighborhood charms, there are few chain outlets taking up space there. Mostly service and community-driven businesses are moving in - the Church Health Center (health care for the working poor), a coffee shop, a Y that looks like a gym in a NY high rise, a Juice Bar, artist lofts and apartments, a place for media artists to work, a high school, St. Jude offices, and... well much more (Check out the video for Mama Gaia, the first retail to open there.).
Back to the beginning: Remember those colored lights Robin set up in the tower windows at Crosstown? It was then we remembered Rapunzel was there waiting to be let down. It's kinda like a real-life fairy tale only it's urban and there's no rich Prince Charming. But there is a striving, character-rich community. It's a true Memphis story.